The Rise (and Fall, and Re-Rise, and Then Possible Fall Again) of Rick Ankiel

Josh CoxCorrespondent IJune 11, 2008

It all started in the year 2000, when a 20-year-old kid from Fort Pierce, Florida, began his first full Major League season.

He was no ordinary kid. He had a fastball that touched the high-nineties and the nastiest curveball you've ever seen. He was a left-handed fireballer with the Golden Arm.

His name was Richard Alexander Ankiel.

That season, Ankiel posted an ERA under four, and he had 194 strikeouts—both in the top 10 in the Majors.

The rather strange number 66, the knee-high socks, the fastball you couldn't even imagine trying to hit, this kid was the real deal.

Then came the 2000 NLDS against the Atlanta Braves. Ankiel was one of the only healthy starters remaining, so he was tabbed to start Game One. He was facing sure-fire Hall Of Famer Greg Maddux, but this kid was intimidated by no one.

Everyone anticipated Ankiel to continue his dominance. He did—until the third inning. Ankiel suddenly forgot how to throw strikes, and threw an unprecedented five wild pitches in that inning alone. The Cardinals primary catcher, Mike Matheny, could save Ankiel from further disaster, right?

No. Because Matheny injured himself not long before the playoffs, so Ankiel was alone. He was out there on the mound, as if his girlfriend had just dumped him, and he had nowhere to turn.

Ankiel went on to pitch one more time that postseason, in the NLCS against the Mets. He threw just twenty pitches before manager Tony LaRussa had to yank him, as there was nothing else he could do.

Ankiel wanted to pitch again, and he made the attempts to do so. Reporters followed him everywhere in the following Spring Training, but the Cardinals did their best to hide him from any media exposure. Ankiel would never return to his former self on the mound again.

In 2005, Ankiel decided to give up his pitching dreams and switch to the outfield. It was then when one of the single greatest sports stories began. Ankiel flew his way through the minor leagues, absolutely crushing opposing pitching at every level of the minors.

In August 2007, the unthinkable happened. Rick Ankiel, now 27, was being called back up to the Major Leagues. Not as a pitcher, not wearing the number 66, and not with the knee-high socks. He was playing the outfield, donning number 24, and he had ditched the socks. He wanted a fresh start, and in his first game, he did not disappoint.

On that night in early August, against the San Diego Padres, Ankiel's every at-bat was watched by everyone. His first three at-bats failed to produce a successful result.

But in the seventh inning, he stepped up against Padres reliever Doug Brocail. There were two men on base, and Ankiel hit one deep to right field. Everyone was watching, waiting to see if the impossible had just happened. It did. In his first major league game as an outfielder, Rick Ankiel hit a three-run home run. He went on to hit home runs at a torrid pace, and was noticed by everyone in baseball.

Charles Krauthammer of The Washington Post wrote of Ankiel: "His return after seven years—if only three days long—is the stuff of legend. Made even more perfect by the timing: Just two days after Barry Bonds sets a synthetic home run record in San Francisco, the Natural returns to St. Louis."

In the same way that everyone around the country seemed to despise Bonds and his scientifically-altered body, everyone was falling in love with The Natural, as Ankiel was appropriately called.

It was then, not long after this amazing story seemed as if it could not get any better. Actually, it exploded. The New York Times reported that in Ankiel's comeback attempts, in 2005, he had used Human Growth Hormone. It seemed as if Ankiel, unlike Bonds, was all that was right in the baseball world, until this story broke.

HGH was not illegal in baseball at that time, but it still felt as if we as baseball fans had been cheated. Ankiel then came out publicly, after many struggles on the field possibly as a result of the report, and stated that he had been issued the prescription by a doctor, for an injury.

Major League Baseball went through extensive investigations, and ultimately decided Ankiel did absolutely nothing wrong.

What a relief. That's what was going through the minds of baseball fans, those of the Cardinals in particular, when Baseball came out with this conclusion.

All we have to do now is sit back and watch this once-promising young pitcher's career unfold—now, of course, as an every day position player.

This is no doubt one of the greatest stories in the history of professional sports—one that if you wrote it in a book, no one would believe it.

In an era where sports are plagued with cheating, drugs, gambling, and money-crazed players, this is a story that makes us realize what sports, and life, is all about.