August 9, 2007: Rick Ankiel homers in his return to the majors – as an outfielder

When Rick Ankiel arrived at Busch Stadium III on August 9, 2007, it had been almost seven years since he’d thrown five wild pitches in Game 1 of the National League Division Series and tied a 110-year-old record.

It had been almost three years since he’d been in the majors, and 2 ½ years since he had driven to the St. Louis Cardinals’ spring training complex, told manager Tony La Russa that he was retiring, and returned home to his couch, where three hours later he received a phone call from his agent, Scott Boras.

“Ank, you ready to go play?” Boras asked.

“Go play what?” Ankiel asked. He was beginning to wonder if Boras had been listening when he told him that he was exhausted from years battling the yips, the monster, Steve Blass disease, whatever you call it when a professional baseball player can no longer throw a baseball with any certainty where it’s going. “I’m done.”

“Outfield,” Boras responded. “For the Cardinals. I talked to Walt.”[1]

Walt was Walt Jocketty, the Cardinals’ general manager, and when Boras referred to the Cardinals, he actually meant the Swing of the Quad Cities in the Class A Midwest League. But that made little difference to Ankiel. After years as a professional pitcher who, for reasons no one could precisely pinpoint, was unable to pitch any more, the offer represented a life raft of opportunity.

In 51 games at Quad Cities, Ankiel hit 11 homers and slugged .514 before earning a promotion to Class AA Springfield. There, Ankiel continued to impress, hitting 10 more home runs and slugging .515 in just 34 games.

In 2007, Ankiel earned a promotion to Class AAA Memphis, where he had totaled 32 home runs and posted a .568 slugging percentage by August 8, when the team’s manager, Chris Maloney, tapped Ankiel’s shoulder in the Tacoma airport and told him that when their plane touched down in Memphis, Ankiel would have 270 more miles to go. He was expected in St. Louis the next evening, where he would take Scott Speizio’s place on the roster.[2] Spiezio was headed to drug and alcohol rehabilitation and would be placed on Major League Baseball’s restricted list.

When he arrived at Busch Stadium, Ankiel found that the number 24 jersey he had requested was waiting for him in his locker, the jersey number freely given away by bench coach Joe Pettini.[3] La Russa called the warm welcome Ankiel received from his teammates “enthusiastic” and “moving.”[4]

“I walked into the clubhouse, and the men there stood and applauded,” Ankiel wrote in his 2017 autobiography. “Most of them I knew. Some of them I didn’t. They clapped me on the back. I laughed and shook their hands and asked where they kept the bats.”[5]

Ankiel didn’t have to wait long to get a warm greeting from the Cardinals faithful. Shortstop David Eckstein led off the bottom of the first with a four-pitch walk. As Ankiel stepped to the plate, Cardinals fans greeted him with a standing ovation. After taking the first pitch from San Diego right-hander Chris Young for a ball, Ankiel popped up to the shortstop.

It wasn’t the result he’d hoped for, but it was a start.

For six and a half innings, the game would be a pitching duel between Young and St. Louis starting pitcher Joel Piñeiro. With two outs in the fourth inning, St. Louis struck first. Scott Rolen singled and Chris Duncan walked before Yadier Molina lined the first pitch he saw into right field to score Rolen.

Ankiel and the Cardinals broke the game open in the bottom of the seventh. Duncan drew a walk to lead off the inning and Molina singled again, this time to left field. With runners on first and third, La Russa called upon So Taguchi to pinch hit for Piñeiro, ending the 28-year-old right-hander’s evening after 89 pitches. Over seven innings, Piñeiro had scattered just four hits with no walks and four strikeouts.

On a 3-and-2 count, Young threw Taguchi a slider that bounced into the dirt and away from Padres catcher Josh Bard, allowing Duncan to cross the plate and make the score 2-0. It would be the final pitch of Young’s evening, as Padres manager Bud Black brought in Doug Brocail as part of a double switch.

Brocail got Adam Kennedy to ground out to first baseman Adrián Gonzalez, who threw to third for the force out. The next batter, Eckstein, hit another grounder to Gonzalez and this time the Padres’ first baseman briefly bobbled the potential double-play ball, bringing Ankiel to the plate with two outs and runners on second and third.

With Pujols on deck, Brocail had little choice but to pitch to Ankiel. On a 2-and-1 pitch, Brocail threw a slider out over the plate and Ankiel turned on it, pulling the ball over the right-field wall to make it 5-0.

“We call that kind of swing ‘walking the dog,’ a low, easy yank of the wrists,” Ankiel later wrote. “Just leaned over it, hit it hard, felt the contact, heard the contact, lost my top hand a little, pulled it to right field, and what I thought was I got your ass. Nothing personal, but Holy shit, I got your ass.”[6]

As the Busch Stadium crowd erupted, even the normally stoic La Russa began to cheer, shouting and clapping his hands in appreciation. After the game, La Russa, who witnessed Ankiel’s pitching implosion seven years earlier, said that only winning the World Series topped Ankiel’s return among his baseball joys. “I’m fighting my butt off to keep it together,” he admitted after the game.[7]

Ankiel returned briefly to the dugout, where he was showered with his teammates’ congratulations before climbing the steps onto the field once more to tip his cap to the fans, who were still standing and applauding, even as Brocail made his first pitches to Pujols. The cheers were so loud, in fact, that a Dodgers player in town for the start of a series against the Cardinals the following day said he could hear the crowd’s roar and wondered what had happened.[8]

With the home run, Ankiel became the first player in 60 years to hit his first major-league home run as a pitcher and hit another home run as a position player. In fact, Clint Hartung and Ankiel were the only players who had achieved the feat since Babe Ruth.[9]

From there, the Cardinals’ bullpen closed out the game. Troy Percival retired the side in order in the eighth and Tyler Johnson worked around a one-out walk to complete the shutout.

“I set a goal for myself to get back here, so I feel good that I reached it,” Ankiel said. “I’m looking forward to reaching my next goal, which is staying here.”[10]

Two days later, Ankiel hit two home runs and made an over-the-shoulder catch in the outfield to help the Cardinals defeat the Dodgers 9-1.

“I don’t think he gets enough credit,” said Dodgers starting pitcher Derek Lowe. “It wouldn’t have mattered if he started off 0 for 16. To have started as a pitcher and all of a sudden say, ‘I’m a hitter’ and make it to the major leagues … you can’t just call this kid up as a feel-good story. I am amazed at what he has been able to do. It’s a phenomenal story.”[11]

Ankiel would only add to that story in the days and years to come, hitting 11 home runs in 172 at-bats in 2007 and another 25 homers in 2008. By the time he retired in 2013, he had totaled 76 homers and 251 RBIs for his career.

“Everybody’s happy for him,” Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds said a few days after Ankiel made his debut as a major-league outfielder. “I think a lot of people have heard about some of what he’s gone through, but I don’t think there are many guys here now who really know the whole story as well as some of us.”[12]


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[1] Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown, The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life (New York: Public Affairs Books, 2017), 216.

[2] Ankiel and Brown, 235-236.

[3] Ankiel and Brown, 239.

[4] Derrick Goold, “The lefty starts in right and homers,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 10, 2007: D1.

[5] Ankiel and Brown, 235.

[6] Ankiel and Brown, 240.

[7] Charles Krauthammer, “The Natural Returns to St. Louis,” TownHall.com, August 17, 2017, https://townhall.com/Columnists/charleskrauthammer/2007/08/17/the-natural-returns-to-st-louis-n804530.

[8] Ankiel and Brown, 240-241.

[9] “Cardinals Notebook,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 11, 2007: B4.

[10] “A Comeback Story,” Fort Myers News-Press, August 10, 2007: C1.

[11] Joe Strauss, “Encore! Encore!” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 12, 2007: D9.

[12] Strauss.

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