Former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel reflects on pressures of MLB play | St. Louis Public Radio

Former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel reflects on pressures of MLB play

Apr 20, 2017

If you’ve watched Cardinals baseball in the past 20 years, you know the story of Rick Ankiel, a former pitcher-turned-outfielder who joined the Cardinals organization in the late ‘90s as a pitcher expected to become the next Bob Gibson. He was doing well until 2001, when his pitching became suddenly and conspicuously erratic. No one, not even Ankiel, could identify the reason why.

He was sent to the minor leagues and eventually gave up as a pitcher, but returned to the big league club several years later as an outfielder in the mid-2000s. He would go on to play for the Royals, Braves, Nationals, Astros and Mets.

For the first time, Ankiel has opened up about the pressures and pain he experienced during those years when he couldn’t get his pitching back on track. On Tuesday, he released a new book titled “The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips and the Pitch that Changed My Life.” On Thursday, he joined St. Louis on the Air to talk about it. 

“The Yips,” for those who don’t know, is a condition that impacts pro athletes: extreme nervousness that results in the loss of fine motor skills in mature athletes.

Ankiel said during his time still wearing the uniform, he was offered many book and movie deals for an exposé of what happened to him in 2001. At that time, he knew he couldn’t be open and honest, so he’s decided to share the story now, after his retirement. He found, through the process of researching the book that many other athletes went through what he did.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to figure out a why,” Ankiel said. “There’s not even a scientific name for what happens — there are four or five of them. It consumes you. Here I am at 21 years old, I’m living the life I always wanted, and I pitched well enough to start game one against Greg Maddux and next thing you know I can’t play catch with the guy 60 feet ahead of me. That just consumes you. It is your livelihood and everything you ever worked for, which is so hard.”

That same pressure doesn’t exist today. In fact, Ankiel threw out the first pitch at the Cardinals game on Tuesday night.

Ankiel’s book highlights the loyalty of the Cardinals organization, showing support from the team for him as he finally gave up his dream of pitching and, instead, put his talents to use in the outfield and as a reliable hitter.

The book also delves into the abuse Ankiel endured from his father and his relationship with the media, which followed his every move when his pitching started to go south. 

In his life after professional baseball, Ankiel turned his talent to coaching players with the Washington Nationals through the pressures of Major League Baseball, which he says are exacerbated by the prevalence of social media and pressure to perform publicly. He’s also become a commentator for Fox Sports Midwest as the only living former MLB player with major pitching and hitting experience.

He’s also spent time raising his two boys, Declan and Ryker, ages four and six, who have started taking up sports, just like their dad.

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“If anything, I hope that this book and my story for them is a learning lesson that sometimes life doesn’t go as expected, we get thrown curve balls,” Ankiel said. “It is about waking up, moving forward, and you’ve got to follow your dreams.”  

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.