“And I don’t blame him.”
Connections from Ankiel’s unprecedented career, which has included turns as a teenaged pitching phenom, a cautionary tale and a respected, veteran slugger, helped bring him this winter to the Washington Nationals. When Ankiel stopped pitching, Riggleman was the Cardinals’ minor league field coordinator. When he neared the major leagues for the first time as a position player, his Class AAA hitting coach was the man who now fills that role for the Nationals, Rick Eckstein.
The story of Ankiel’s downfall and rebirth as a baseball player has been told and retold. One chapter, though, added another connection for Ankiel and Riggleman.
On Oct. 3, 2000, Ankiel started Game 1 of the National League Division Series. He was 21. In the third inning, he walked four batters and threw five wild pitches, some of which hit the backstop. No one knew why. Before that night, he was the most promising pitcher in baseball. Afterward, even after he went back to the minor leagues, he was never the same.
No one could have known what Ankiel felt that night or those following months and years, as he was unable to recapture something so basic and so essential to him. But Riggleman knew more than most.
“It’s a horrible feeling,” said Riggleman, once a minor league third baseman. “I’ve been through it myself. It happened to me, throwing. I wasn’t a pitcher, but to not be able to command the ball, I don’t really like to talk about it. It’s embarrassing. And you don’t want it to get into other people’s heads. It’s a fragile thing.”
By 2005, Ankiel decided he would stop fighting with it. When Ankiel walked away from pitching, then-general manager Walt Jocketty asked him if he wanted to try the outfield.
Ankiel had often been one of the best hitters on his minor league teams; he was just too good of a pitcher for the Cardinals to think much about it. He threw 97-mph fastballs, heavy sinkers and curveballs with a devastating late break. “You can’t hit that,” Riggleman said. “You can take it and hope it’s a ball.”
When Ankiel began his transition in March 2005, Riggleman, in his role as the field coordinator, watched Ankiel take batting practice for two or three days. Ankiel looked nothing like any of the other hitters in the Cardinals’ farm system. Riggleman saw enough to form a conclusion, and he walked into Tony La Russa’s manager’s office.
“Our best power prospect in the organization,” Riggleman told La Russa, “is Ankiel.”
Ankiel hit 21 home runs during the 2005 minor league season, his first as a full-time hitter, which he split between Class A and Class AA. Even after he missed all of 2006 with a knee injury, Ankiel continued his progression and, in 2007, reached Class AAA Memphis, where Eckstein was the hitting coach.
“It was still fairly new to him, but he’s a tremendous athlete,” Eckstein said. “More of it was just getting him to understand what he does natural — a lot of what he does natural is tremendous. He’s a special one.”
Ankiel already had flashed enough power and ability to prove he could make the majors, but Eckstein “certainly helped me,” Ankiel said. Late in 2007, Ankiel made the majors again, as a hitter, and memorably blasted a home run his first game. Before the end of the season, he smashed 11 homers in 47 games.
Ankiel never lost track of Eckstein. He continued working with Eckstein during offseasons at Seminole High in Sanford, Fla., Eckstein’s former high school. “One of the best things about him is, he looks at everybody as the individual,” Ankiel said. “I don’t think he has one philosophy that, ‘Everybody has to hit this way.’ He looks at what you need and tries to get you in position to where you’re going to have the best swings.”
This spring, Eckstein said, Ankiel and Eckstein have been “trying to get back to the basics we were at” in 2007 and 2008. Ankiel spent the past two seasons battling injuries, most seriously a nagging thigh injury last year that robbed him of some of his power. He hit six home runs with a .389 slugging percentage, down from .506 in 2008.
Eckstein believes Ankiel still has the same ability. He can remember in 2007 when he met Ankiel, years removed from the major leagues as a pitcher, so close to returning as a hitter. He could see what that meant to Ankiel. “It was everything to him,” he said.