Word got out quickly on Wednesday after Rick Ankiel announced he was retiring during the St. Louis Cardinals’ broadcast of their game between the Miami Marlins. With the proclamation, the former 1997 second round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals closed the book on an up-and-down, unique playing career.
Ankiel opened his professional career at Single-A Peoria of the Midwest League in 1998. He advanced through two levels in 1999. He was then rated the #1 top prospect in the minor leagues before the 2000 season, and after a dazzling performance on the mound, Ankiel found himself on the St. Louis roster for the first time in his career. The hard-throwing left-hander became an 11-game winner over 30 starts. He concluded the year with a 3.50 ERA in 175 innings. It would be his only good season as a pitcher, as most know the story of the wheels falling off for Ankiel. The inability to throw strikes forced him to turn his attention to the outfield, where he would adequately survive over seven more seasons with five different big league clubs.
The now-34-year old veteran saw parts of four seasons in Memphis (’99, ’01, ’04, ‘07). As a pitcher with the Redbirds, the southpaw ended with a combined 8-5 record and a 3.76 ERA, even being named the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year in 1999. Even during his best season as a pitcher at Triple-A, the potential as a full-time hitter always seemed to be with Ankiel, when he went 6-for-21 with two doubles and four RBIs in ’99. Records say he would not log an at-bat with Memphis again until 2007, when he hit .267 with 32 home runs and 89 RBIs. Those stats warranted a call-up from St. Louis, finishing the year by playing 47 games with the Cardinals and driving in 39 more runners.
That 2007 season with Memphis was one for the books though. He led the team in total bases, (221), home runs and RBIs. He holds three single-game Redbird records, two of which he earned in one game during the ’07 season. He is tied with three other players after hitting three home runs on June 16th against Iowa. Ankiel ended up with 13 total bases that game after adding a single to his 4-for-5, three-RBI game, which still stands as the record in that category. The outfielder paired a .314 on-base percentage with a .568 slugging percentage, a career-high between both the majors and minors. He had the highest HR/AB ratio in the Pacific Coast League that year, a mark that stood at 1/12.16. There were 13 different games when Ankiel recorded three or more RBIs. He hit home runs in back-to-back games seven different times, even going yard in four consecutive contests from July 3rd to the 7th. The strong arm he used to pitch with came into play during his time split between right and center fields. While he committed seven errors in 238 chances, Ankiel posted eight outfield assists and started three double plays. Adding to all of that, the then-27-year old swiped four bases in seven chances. He was named a starting outfielder at the Triple-A All-Star Game and awarded a Post-Season All-Star selection from the Pacific Coast League. His promotion to St. Louis on August 9th was well warranted. Ankiel would go on to play two more seasons with the Cardinals in ’08 and ’09 before moving elsewhere.
For me, Ankiel was someone I thought had it all together. I knew he could throw hard and that he was considered to be good. When he tried to make the conversion from pitcher to outfielder, I gave up on him for a little while. That 2007 season in Memphis would go on to springboard him into a respected all-around outfielder. I will always have two memories regarding him. The first was when I had gotten two of the same rookie cards of him in one baseball pack. I remember being the hot trader on the block with that extra card. The other is actually baseball related and it came when I was glued to the television as the Cardinals were in the midst of a six-game road swing during the 2008 season. It was a beautiful May night in Colorado and Ankiel was manning center field for St. Louis. In what I still consider to be two of the greatest throws from the outfield, Ankiel recorded two assists by gunning the ball with pinpoint accuracy to third base. When he nailed the runner at third for his second assist in eight innings, I was cheering so loud my mom had to tell me to settle down. (Enjoy)
Rick Ankiel was a talented man. Having success after switching from a top pitcher to outfielder will rarely, if ever, happen in the way that Ankiel made it happen. As he continues his life past a playing career, I wish him all the best and give thanks for the memories he provided me with growing up.