VIERA, Fla. — Rick Ankiel’s new title feels like something you’d read on a college brochure. “Each dorm equipped with a life skills coordinator,” some parent would read, then be reassured despite the ambiguity. A life skills coordinator doesn’t seem like a can’t-miss component of a major league organization’s player development staff. Pitching and catching and defense need coordinators. Life skills? Well, those seem too nebulous in comparison, too personal, and far too inclusive to be subject to coordination.
But overseeing the progress and maturation of Nationals players is exactly what the organization hired Rick Ankiel to do, and he arrived at the Nationals complex in Viera on Tuesday to start doing it.
“I’m a resource and a confidant for these guys,” Ankiel said. “Anything they need help with. If they want to talk about stuff on the field or if they need help with something off the field, whatever it may be I’m just here for them to lean on and pass along all the things I’ve learned along my way.”
Ankiel’s unique story is well-known: He broke into the majors with St. Louis as a pitcher. In 2000, he made 30 starts, went 11-7, and struck out 198 batters in 175 innings. Then he lost the strike zone, battling through six inconsistent starts at the beginning of the 2001 season, walking 25 batters in 24 innings. He was sent to Class AAA, and struggle with wild pitches there. He was dropped again to the Appalachian League, battled injuries, had Tommy John surgery in 2003 — then decided to reinvent himself as an outfielder.
The move rejuvenated his career, and he spent 2007 to 2013 as a major league outfielder for the Cardinals, Royals, Braves, Nationals Astros and Mets. He played for the Nationals for two seasons, 2011 and 2012, and finished his big league career with a .240 average in 653 games.
“If anybody has an issue in baseball, he’s pretty much experienced it,” said Nationals Manager Matt Williams, who said the way Ankiel resurrected his career required “great intestinal fortitude.”
“It’s a fantastic thing to have him in camp,” Williams said.
Ankiel said he chose the Nationals because of “the way the organization is going.”
“There’s no question about it that they’re trying to win,” said Ankiel, whose job is unprecedented in the organization, if not in baseball, at least nominally.
He isn’t even sure what his duties will come to entail, though the Florida resident says he anticipates being around camp for a few weeks, then taking frequent trips to each minor league team throughout the season. The major league players will likely take less of his focus than the younger ones, if they require any of his focus at all, though he is there to offer advice on baseball and personal issues for which players normally wouldn’t have an understanding elder to lean on.
“I think it’s becoming more accepted (to focus on honing mental health and coping skills) and more teams are moving in that direction,” Ankiel said. “I felt like when I was a player it was kind of taboo in a sense almost like people were like, ‘I must have a problem if I’m going to talk to somebody.’ And it’s not that way at all, I think everybody’s just trying to sharpen their senses out there and sharpen their blades and get better at what they’re doing.”
Many of those minor leaguers Ankiel will work with are signed out of high school, and so perhaps that college dorm analogy isn’t too far off base. If a pitcher gets those dreaded and inexplicable “yips,” Ankiel’s had them. If a teenage hurler has to go through the pain and doubt of Tommy John surgery, Ankiel can relate to that, too. If an outfielder is lost at the plate, Ankiel can speak from experience. He’s taken all the classes and passed them well enough to play at least parts of 13 seasons in the big leagues.
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MATT WILLIAMS QUOTE OF THE DAY
“To be prepared is half the victory.”
DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY