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Ankiel fought good fight

Special to

March 10

Rick Ankiel is now free to enjoy baseball playing the outfield. What he did coming back last September – walking out there in front of 40,000 people and striking out four batters in two innings – should not be underestimated. Nor should the fact he finished the season with one walk in 10 innings be forgotten because he came back and beat it.

And he was beating it again this past winter in Puerto Rico, when he walked seven and struck out 31 in 27-2/3 innings. Then he hurt his elbow and tried to alter his delivery. One week later he found himself down on a minor-league field in Jupiter, Fla., taking fielding practice by himself, and he became an outfielder.

Ankiel was just 20 years old when he fanned 194 hitters in 175 IP.
Ankiel wasn't just a guy, he was a great talent, a potential Hall of Famer, with a mid-90s fastball, a Koufax-esque curveball and a delivery one could not teach. It's unfortunate this happened to Ankiel, a young, good person whose life became a whirlpool.

There is always some trauma that triggers this, and Ankiel has never shared it publicly. It might have been starting the opener of the 2000 Division Series ahead of Darryl Kile and Matt Morris, or it might have been something personal.

And it is far worse than a shoulder, knee or an elbow, because it is a torn mind. If Ankiel had hurt his shoulder, his public acknowledgement would have been sympathy. When he began uncorking pitches to the backstop, he was subject to ridicule by many who did not care to understand his affliction.

This comes, and in some form is always there in that player's mind, which is how it reappeared for the 25-year-old Ankiel when it seemed he'd won his long battle with the disease. Hopefully, like Dale Murphy, who had it as a catcher, Ankiel can make the transition – after all, he hit 10 homers in 105 at-bats as a DH in rookie ball. Or be like Steve Sax, who won his battle. Or Steve Garvey and Frank Thomas, who masked their throwing problems as first basemen; oh yes, there are some first basemen who get mental blocks about throwing the ball to the pitcher.

But it is very difficult. In spring training 1979, the Red Sox had a young pitcher named Bobby Sprowl, who was thrown into a crucial game against the Yankees the previous September. He was wild that spring when he threw batting practice and was verbally abused by some of the "25 Guys, 25 Cabs" players. Four weeks later, Sprowl was so far gone that he nearly threw a pitch into the press box in Daytona Beach.

The spring before, a young pitcher named Steve Schneck, coming off a monster Double-A season, hit a couple of veterans in BP. The day the major-league team broke camp, Schneck pitched against Harvard and walked the first five batters and hit a guy in the on-deck circle.

I saw Steve Blass throw a pitch that went a third of the way up the third-base line in spring training. I covered Ken Tatum, who was the best reliever in the American League in 1970. Tatum broke Paul Blair's jaw with a pitch and never could throw another pitch on the inner half of the plate for fear he would hurt someone else.

Mark Wohlers

Chuck Knoblauch

Mark Wohlers fought back, losing control when he was faced with an avalanche of personal issues that superceded opposing batters and triggered his nightmare. Chuck Knoblauch endured, fighting through his father's illness.

In the 1980s, Dave Engle, the Twins' talented young catcher, threw a ball back to coach Wayne Terwilliger that hit the crossbar of the screen and broke a bone in Terwilliger's face. Engle began lofting throws back to the pitchers and was blamed by the owner for tiring those pitchers with his throws. He never could throw back to the mound, although he could throw to second base without a problem.

In that same time frame, there was an A's reliever who was told to get warm quickly. His first pitch sailed onto the field and required time to be called. He rushed his next pitch. Time again. The third-base umpire walked down the line and shouted, "Keep the [expletive] ball in the bullpen." After that, Oakland catcher Terry Steinbach recalls, the pitcher couldn't throw fastballs in the bullpen and could warm up throwing only changeups.

This is an existential sentence for an inexplicable reason. It drove one very smart, personable and talented pitcher to the National Football League and has sent perhaps the best prospect in this year's draft from shortstop to the outfield.

None of us can ever relate to how Rick Ankiel or Bobby Sprowl, Dave Engle or Chuck Knoblauch feels. Unable to do the one thing they could always do so well, and being unable to do so with what they think is the whole world watching.

All I can relate is that Ankiel is one very good person, and now he is free to hit, play the outfield, enjoy baseball and go back to being Rick Ankiel, which is a pretty good thing to begin with.

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