What I’m Reading: “The Phenomenon” by Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown

Rick Ankiel’s story may be one of the most fascinating in baseball history.

In The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life, Ankiel writes a very personal autobiography alongside sportswriter Tim Brown. Like everyone else who competed at the highest level and suddenly found themselves stricken by Steve Blass disease, or the yips, or the monster, or whatever you choose to call it, Ankiel doesn’t really have any answers as to why he lost the ability to throw strikes, or why he forced poor Carlos Hernandez to chase baseballs all over Busch Stadium during Game 1 of the 2000 National League Division Series. But that doesn’t mean that Ankiel doesn’t dive deep into his childhood, the game itself, and his long, desperate bid to regain his previous comfort on a mound.

The Phenomenon is something of a spiritual successor to Darrell Porter’s 1984 autobiography Snap Me Perfect!, in which Porter describes his prolonged descent into drug and alcohol abuse. Just like Porter, Ankiel goes into great detail regarding his childhood, focusing particularly upon his father, whose anger and violence dominated Ankiel’s youth. Ankiel’s father comes in and out of Ankiel’s life but can never be relied upon, and in fact when Ankiel is melting down during his playoff debut, Ankiel’s father is in prison on drug charges.

Ankiel comes across as a pretty regular guy who imagined one life for himself and suddenly, inexplicably found that taken away. He makes for a very relatable narrator and it’s easy to see why his teammates like him so much.

After spending more than 200 pages inside Ankiel’s head as he battled to become the next Sandy Koufax, as had been predicted throughout his minor-league career, it was cathartic to see him embrace the opportunity to play the outfield and eventually make the major leagues.

For some Cardinals fans, The Phenomenon will bring back memories of Ankiel’s cringe-inducing difficulties in the 2000 playoffs. Others will recall his first game back in 2007, when he hit a three-run home run to break open a 5-0 Cardinals victory over the Padres, or the game in 2008 when he threw out two Rockies baserunners from right field.

Hopefully, many Cardinals fans will remember both, and can appreciate Ankiel’s incredible physical gifts and his long journey back to the major leagues.

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