During the most recent summer Olympics, the entire world watched as gymnast Simone Biles suddenly couldn’t compete.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Biles had trouble attempting even the most basic of her routines.
The same person who had won a multitude of Olympic and World Championship medals was reduced to watching her team from the side.
After a period of time, arguably the greatest gymnast in history returned to win a bronze medal in the balance beam.
Speaking to the media during the Olympics, Biles shared that she was in a battle with mental health issues.
She elaborated that she withdrew from the events due to “the twisties.”
In a nutshell, this phenomenon is experienced by gymnasts who suddenly lose air awareness while performing twisting elements.
The same phenomenon that plagued Biles has affected countless athletes including golfers and baseball players.
A simple act of throwing a baseball from the mound to a catcher can suddenly become burdensome.
Rick Ankiel knows this first hand.
Rick Ankiel pic.twitter.com/lUsJLIMHsd
— RandomMLBPlayers (@RandomMLBPeeps) August 31, 2018
After experiencing success as a major league pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, Ankiel suddenly lost the ability to throw in the strike zone.
His efforts to correct the problem only worsened.
Eventually, Ankiel did something very few have done before him.
He completely switched positions and returned to the majors as an outfielder.
This is the incredible story of Rick Ankiel.
Early Life and Career
Richard Alexander Ankiel was born on July 19, 1979 in Fort Pierce, Florida.
He began playing baseball at a young age and soon gravitated toward the mound.
Ankiel’s thirst for competition led him to continually hone his pitching delivery as well as the types of pitches he threw.
Before he knew it, Ankiel was the top pitcher for Port St. Lucie High School in Florida.
In 1997, he blew opponents away with an 11-1 record and mind-numbing 0.47 ERA.
Furthermore, Ankiel fanned 162 batters in just 74 innings.
By the end of the 1997 high school baseball season, Ankiel was named the High School Player of the Year by USA Today.
He was also the number one high school pitching prospect in America.
The stats and accolades proved to be a no-brainer for the St. Louis Cardinals.
During the second round of the 1997 Major League Baseball Draft, the Cards selected Ankiel and awarded him with a $2.5 million signing bonus.
Before he embarked on one of the improbable careers in the history of baseball, Rick Ankiel was a high school kid waiting by the phone during the @MLBDraft.
When it rang, the @Cardinals were on the line, and his life would never be the same.
— The Players' Tribune (@PlayersTribune) June 4, 2019
By 1998, Ankiel was working quickly through the St. Louis farm system.
He pitched so effectively for the Carolina and Midwest Leagues that he was voted as the best pitching prospect in both leagues.
Ankiel was also named the Carolina League’s All-Star starting pitcher, Baseball America’s first-team Minor League All-Star starting pitcher, and the Cardinals’ Minor League Player of the Year.
During the ‘98 season, Ankiel led all minor league pitchers with 222 strikeouts.
In 1999, Ankiel continued to dominate opposing batters.
Baseball America and USA Today both named him Minor League Player of the Year.
Ankiel was an All-Star pitcher for the Texas League in ‘99 as well as a Double-A All-Star starting pitcher and Cardinals Minor League Player of the Year.
Call Up to the Parent Club
It’s a fact of life in professional baseball that the vast majority of athletes in the minor leagues will never achieve their dream of playing in the majors.
That was not the case with Ankiel.
As the number one Minor League prospect, he was called up to the Cards in late 1999 and pitched against the Montreal Expos in his first MLB start.
His stats for the games he pitched in ‘99 were 33 innings pitched, a 3.27 ERA, 39 strikeouts and walked 14 batters.
Ankiel also gave up 26 hits, 12 earned runs and two home runs.
Only two years removed from playing high school ball, Ankiel was feeling good.
“I felt invincible,” said Ankiel. “And, you know, as a young man, you know, realizing when you get put into the – you start judging yourself by the other people around you.”
Ankiel stayed with St. Louis in 2000 and put on a pitching display for the ages.
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 25, 2017
As one of the youngest players in MLB that year (20 years old), Ankiel posted an 11-7 record in 30 starts.
He had a 3.50 ERA with 194 strikeouts and walked 90 batters in 175 innings pitched.
He also gave up 137 hits, 68 earned runs and 21 homers.
At the end of the regular season, Ankiel finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
However, he did receive The Sporting News Rookie Pitcher of the Year award.
The Cards and Ankiel did well in 2000 and made the postseason.
They eliminated the Braves in the NLDS 3-0 before eventually succumbing to the Mets in the NLCS 4-1.
Short on starting pitchers to begin the postseason, Ankiel started Game 1 of the NLDS.
After two dominating innings, he fell apart and allowed four runs on two hits, four walks and threw five wild pitches before being pulled.
Even though St. Louis pulled a victory from the debacle, Ankiel’s performance surprised many in the organization.
In 2017, Ankiel talked about that fateful moment.
“…I threw that pitch, and something in the back of my mind – I just felt like, man, I just threw a wild pitch on national TV. And it really wasn’t that bad of a pitch. …And then, you know, all of a sudden, a few pitches later, I spiked the curveball. Then I started throwing balls off the screen and spiking stuff, and it just spiraled out of control,” Ankiel told NPR.
His next start came in Game 2 of the NLDS.
After only 20 pitches, Ankiel was yanked when five of his pitches sailed past the Cards catcher.
Remember when Rick Ankiel lost his mind to the yips? pic.twitter.com/H0OQ62g3b9
— Baseball Fam (@ShtBallPlayrsDo) December 19, 2017
Then, St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa put Ankiel in during the seventh inning of Game 5 against the Mets.
The result was two walks and two more wild pitches.
Ankiel did not pitch again for the remainder of the Mets series.
By the time the Cards season ended against New York, St. Louis management was already concerned about Ankiel.
What they and the rest of the team saw from their star pitcher completely perplexed them.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Ankiel had gone from dominating ace to middling amateur in the span of only a few weeks.
For his part, LaRussa would later write that his decision to start Ankiel in Game 1 of the NLDS was “a decision that perhaps haunts me more than any I have ever made.”
The “yips” are defined as an experienced player’s sudden and unexplained loss of ability to execute certain skills.
Psychological issues or the loss of fine motor skills are some of the symptoms of the syndrome.
These issues impact the decision making and muscle memory of the athlete, rendering them unable to perform even the most basic skills.
The yips can affect athletes in all sports.
However, the condition is most common in baseball and golf.
MLB has experienced severe examples of the yips.
Notably, pitcher Steve Blass dominated opponents for the Pittsburgh Pirates for eight seasons before suddenly losing his command.
He would retire shortly after being unable to fix the issue.
Infielders have experienced this phenomenon as well.
Former Dodgers second baseman Steve Sax, as well as Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, are just a few of the examples.
Both men unexpectedly found themselves unable to throw to first base accurately.
Ankiel attempted to fix his issues before the 2001 season began, even going so far as to drink vodka before each start to try to overcome his mental block.
— theScore (@theScore) February 20, 2017
He returned to the lineup to begin the year, then promptly walked 25 batters in 24 innings.
The Cardinals sent Ankiel down to Triple-A in the hopes he could remedy his problems.
Instead, they became worse.
Ankiel walked 17 batters and threw 12 wild pitches in just under five innings of work.
“You’re standing out there on the mound. You know exactly what you want to do and how you want to do it and your body and brain will not let you do it,” said Ankiel in 2017.
St. Louis continued to demote him all the way down to rookie ball with the Johnson City, Tennessee Cardinals.
Finally, Ankiel’s free fall appeared to stop.
In a dual role as starting pitcher and part-time designated hitter, Ankiel found his groove.
His confidence returned and he eventually received a number of All-Star awards for the Rookie Level and Appalachian League as well as the league’s Pitcher of the Year.
In 2002, Ankiel sat out the season due to a left elbow injury and did not resume throwing until December of that year.
He would return to the minors in 2003, pitch nearly 55 innings over 10 starts and post a 6.29 ERA.
Ankiel would also walk 49 batters and throw 10 wild pitches before shutting down due to Tommy John surgery in July of ‘03.
Ankiel Switches Positions
Ankiel looked to be fully recovered from his injuries and the yips in 2004.
After walking only two batters in nearly 24 innings of work in the minors, he was called up to St. Louis.
Ankiel would see action in five relief appearances and post a 5.40 ERA the rest of the year.
The following season, Ankiel continued to hone his pitching in the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League.
Unfortunately, his appearances in spring training were not positive.
Ankiel would throw 20 pitches and only get three into the strike zone.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Ankiel made a decision that would ultimately save his career.
After a talk with his agent and Cardinals management, on March 9, 2005, Ankiel announced that he would move to the outfield.
10 years ago today, Rick Ankiel reinvented himself, debuting as a position player with the Cardinals. pic.twitter.com/W9YQSF95xP
— High Heat Stats (@HighHeatStats) March 10, 2015
St. Louis sent him to the minors where he would begin his long road back to the majors.
However, after the decision, Ankiel felt an enormous weight lift off his shoulders.
“I had inner peace – is what I felt. And, you know, the next morning, now that I’m an outfielder, on the drive back – on the drive to the field, I was excited,” Ankiel said. …”baseball became fun again. And that challenge of making it back became, you know, just this excited to be there, and it was awesome.”
Ankiel looked like a natural at the plate.
At the Single-A level, he would slug .514 and .515 in Double-A.
He reported to spring training in 2006 as an outfielder and hoped to play well enough to stick with the parent club.
However, Ankiel’s positive early returns would be undone by a knee injury sustained before the season began.
He would have season ending surgery in May.
Ankiel returned from his injury in 2007 and was invited to the Cardinals spring training camp.
At the end of camp, he was sent to Double-A Memphis.
During a game in late May, Ankiel smoked two home runs, stroked an RBI double, and made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch in center field that helped win the game.
By August of ‘07, Ankiel had played in the Triple-A All-Star Game and was hitting .267 with 32 homers and 89 RBIs.
Impressed with his performance, the Cards promoted Ankiel on August 9.
When he approached the plate for his first at-bat, the St. Louis faithful gave Ankiel a standing ovation.
The feel good evening was complete in the seventh inning when Ankiel crushed a three-run home run to help defeat the Padres 5-0.
Ankiel’s homer was his first since he was a pitcher with the Cards in 2000.
He joined Clint Hartung (1947) in hitting his first major league home run as a pitcher and then hit a home run as a position player.
Two days later, the home crowd gave Ankiel no less than three standing ovations as he hit two home runs, three RBIs, and made a huge catch in right field.
— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) August 9, 2015
His play during those two games led sports columnist Charles Krauthammer to declare, “His (Ankiel’s) return after seven years—if only three days long—is the stuff of legend.”
During a game against the Reds at the end of August, Ankiel hit his first grand slam.
For the remainder of the 2007 season, Ankiel proved he belonged, putting up good numbers and playing outstanding baseball.
His final stats for the year included a .285 batting average, 11 homers, 39 RBIs, and a .535 slugging percentage in just 47 games.
After the season, Ankiel shocked fans when he admitted to using human growth hormone, though he clarified that he was using HGH under a doctor’s direction.
MLB investigated but ultimately cleared Ankiel after not finding sufficient evidence that he used HGH.
2008 & 2009
For the next two seasons, Ankiel continued to play with the Cards and posted a .264 batting average, 25 homers and 75 RBIs in 2008.
In 2009, he cruised through spring training before an injury caused him to miss most of May.
After returning later that month, Ankiel would split time with Colby Rasmus for the remainder of the year.
He would hit 11 home runs, 38 RBIs and bat .231.
3 Teams in 2 Years
After over a decade spent in the St. Louis system, Ankiel was traded to Kansas City in January of 2010.
He began the season as the Royals starting center fielder, then missed time due to injuries.
On July 31, Ankiel was traded to Atlanta.
The Braves finished the year 91-71 and played the Giants in the NLDS.
During Game 2 of the series, Ankiel hammered a shot into San Francisco’s McCovey Cove, leading to a 5-4 Braves victory.
2010 NLDS game 2 Rick Ankiel Bomb gives the Braves the lead … this is one of my favorite Braves memories … the 2010 Braves team was one of my Favorite … i had so much fun watching those games pic.twitter.com/wGUp4qrQE4
— Chargers (8-5) SZN (@sgmbraves2) March 15, 2020
It was his first postseason home run and Ankiel joined Barry Bonds as the only two players to hit a ball into the Cove during the postseason.
After the game, Ankiel called his home run, “the pinnacle of anything I’ve ever done.”
His overall stats for the year were a .232 batting average, 6 home runs, and 24 RBIs.
Once the season concluded, the Braves declined Ankiel’s option.
He then signed a one-year free agent deal with Washington.
Ankiel had a solid year with the Nationals in 2011.
He ended the season with a .239 average, nine homers, 37 RBIs and a .996 fielding percentage as a role player.
In 2012, Ankiel was re-signed by Washington and played as a backup outfielder.
He would bat .228 with five home runs, 15 RBIs and a .983 fielding percentage in 68 games.
After Ankiel was designated for assignment in July 2012, Washington would release him at the end of the month.
The Houston Astros signed Ankiel in January of 2013.
He would hit a home run during Houston’s regular season opener, but was eventually released by the Astros in May.
Just a week later, the Mets signed Ankiel and inserted him into their starting lineup.
Newest Met Rick Ankiel at hitters meeting.Will start and play CF tonight. pic.twitter.com/n6hB1YpVxw
— Jay Horwitz (@Jay_HorwitzPR) May 13, 2013
Against the team that drafted him, Ankiel had two hits, including a two-run homer, against the Cardinals on May 15.
As the summer months arrived, Ankiel’s performance bottomed out.
He was designated for assignment in early June of 2013 and was officially a free agent only weeks later.
In what would prove to be his final season, Ankiel batted a paltry .188 with seven home runs, 18 RBIs and a .422 slugging percentage.
In 11 complete seasons, Ankiel had a .240 batting average, .422 slugging percentage, 76 home runs and 462 hits as a batter.
As a pitcher, his overall ERA is 3.90 with 198 hits, 119 runs, 130 walks and 32 home runs given up and 269 strikeouts.
Life in Retirement
Ankiel’s unconventional career puts him in the company of some of the game’s best.
Because of his time as a pitcher and outfielder, Ankiel became just the third player (Babe Ruth and Shohei Ohtani) to win 10 games as a pitcher and hit at least 70 home runs.
Two players in baseball history have hit 75 homers and struck out 200 batters: Babe Ruth and Rick Ankiel.
Let’s talk about Rick Ankiel.
— Céspedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) December 30, 2018
He is also in Ruth’s company as the only players to start a postseason game as a pitcher and hit a home run in the postseason as a position player.
In early 2015, Ankiel was hired by the Cardinals as a Life Skills Coordinator to mentor players in the St. Louis farm system and parent club.
Two years later, he published a memoir titled, The Phenomenon: Pressure, The Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life.
Ankiel then announced in 2018 a possible comeback that would see him return to baseball in 2019.
However, facing 40 years of age and long comeback odds, he decided against returning to the game.
Since then, Ankiel has kept busy by working in radio as a commentator and studio analyst for Bally Sports Midwest.
He also does some television work for Cardinals games.
Ankiel currently lives with his wife, Lory, and two sons in Jupiter, Florida.