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Ankiel says he's ready
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
"Probably my first home run," Rick Ankiel snapped back. "I probably shouldn't say that."
And he started laughing.
JUPITER, Fla.-- He remembered how last spring it was all so fresh, so natural. "I'd just go around camp here, throw, hit do whatever and I had no sense of anyone watching me," Rick Ankiel said Friday, long after his teammates had left the Cardinals first workout. "This day got old fast. Every time I changed my shoe or picked up my bat there were 15 cameramen in my face. It gets annoying. I feel bad for McGwire.
"But I understand why they follow Mac. Me? I'm not sure I get it. If I had thrown shutouts in my last two starts, would anyone be here?"
Tony La Russa had answered that question hours before. No.
A young man's loss of control has been the opening story of spring training two consecutive springs. Last February it was John Rocker, then 25. Now it's Ankiel, just 21. In Rocker's case, it was temper. In Ankiel's case, it was what he previously thought was the natural part of life -- throwing a baseball to a catcher.
La Russa told Ankiel in January that there would be an inevitable meeting of the press, and that the best way to handle it was to hold a press conference the first day and get it all out of the way. "We're handling this the same way we handled Mark McGwire's first day of spring training," general manager Walt Jocketty said. The difference, of course, was that McGwire had become an international figure after hitting 70 home runs. Ankiel had become a national curiousity as his boyish vulnerability sailed to the screen with nine wild pitches and 11 walks in four postseason innings, after a 1.65 ERA in September had earned him the start against the Braves in the opening game of the Cardinals' postseason.
When camp opened Friday, La Russa and Jocketty sat at Ankiel's side in front of the assembled media. "This is one of the most special kids I've ever known," said Jocketty. "He's a special person, not just a special talent. We want him to know he has our support." After Ankiel read a hand-written statement ("I didn't want to miss anything I needed to touch on.") and answered a few questions, the session was over. Afterwards, Ankiel found out just how sincere his bosses were in lining up beside him. Jocketty had learned six hours earlier that his father had died. "I can't believe he'd do that for me," Ankiel said.
Ankiel was convinced by his agent Scott Boras to spend the winter in California, where he could hang with fellow Cardinals pitcher Chad Hutchinson and work with psychologist Harvey Dorfman, whom Boras employs to help all his clients. "To be honest, I never watched videotape of the bad games," says Ankiel. "I watched tapes of good games, and mainly to see how I pitched certain hitters. I'll admit that this is the first time I've ever thought about how I throw a ball, but that's been good. Coming to grips with my mechanics is important. Do I really know what happened? I'm not sure. You can put it on ten thousand different things. My arm wasn't there. My leg wasn't there. My mechanics were off. I was nervous, or whatever you want to say."
"You could be nervous?" he was asked.
"Yes," Ankiel replied. "Sure."
He talked a lot with Hutchinson, the former Stanford quarterback with whom he's lived the last two springs. Hutchinson went through a similar bout of wildness in the minors. "We talked about his keys and what helped him and what his thoughts are now," says Ankiel. "He explained to me his thoughts then and now. It's been good."
Ankiel was asked if other pitchers had talked about this, if it is something they all fear, deep inside.
"Darryl Kile told me he went through something similar," Ankiel replied. "He explained to me how tough it was and how he came back and how he felt when he went through it. I felt very comfortable listening to him."
Ankiel admits that in the past that he was reluctant to spend time with Dorfman. "I wish I had worked with him earlier," Ankiel said. "I think every player could probably use some counseling. I understand that now. He is so good at finding some keys, on focus and what to think about."
Roger Clemens often talks about "seeing the crowd, not just the catcher" when he loses focus. "I understand that," said Ankiel. "I know that when you're focused, you don't seem to see the person next to you. They can tell you something and you don't hear what they're saying. When you're struggling, you hear every little thingh in the crowd, a guy yelling 'Coke' or the beer man. That's one of the things that I get asked: 'Do you remember what you saw? Do you remember seeing the target?' Honestly, I don't. Maybe that was part of the problem. I'd never thought of what I was seeing."
In his rookie season, Ankiel created an air of cockiness and aloofness to the national media. "He just didn't want anyone in," says one Cardinals official. "He's not that way at all. He's a great kid, but he was holding a lot in."
What Ankiel internalized now has become a matter of public examination. In the last month, two national magazine articles have detailed the troubled environment in which he was raised on the East Coast of Florida, in the land of Carl Hiaasen novels and pickups doing 75 on the back roads towards Okeechobee with "When the Bullet Hits the Bone" blaring out the windows. Ankiel's father is serving a six-year prison sentence on drug charges. Friends and family have had their problems.
Ankiel was told about Dennis Eckersley detailing his personal alchohol problems in Sports Illustrated; Eckersley's brother was up on murder charges, and a family's bout with alchoholism had become a defense issue. Ankiel was told several other personal stories of players and the problems around them and how he is hardly alone, except that at age 20 he had not only protected his relatives who were in trouble, but had to put them aside when he pitched. He was told about a scout who worked for the Mets when Ankiel was in high school used to talk to his dad every morning when Rick Sr. was drywalling the motel where Mets scouts stayed before and during the draft, and how much the scout liked his father.
There are some close to him that believe that now that this has all come out, that as angry and hurt as Ankiel was when it all happened, he is now freed from being the guardian of the people about whom he cared. "This doesn't make anyone like or respect him less," says Jocketty. "Maybe now we respect him even more."
"Everything's out there now," said Ankiel. "I can't say anything to add to it. No use diggin' around, because there are no more surprises. I couldn't believe people were interested in this stuff. It's really hurt my mother, and she's sick and tired of answering calls about it. That bothers me."
"But maybe," he added, "I'm glad it's out there. I'm definitely glad it's out there."
He chose not to talk any more about it.
"This is the right place to be if you have some problems," says Matt Morris. "People care about you. No one turns his back on you, especially the players. Veterans treat young players very well here, and the veterans on this club care about Rick because he's such a phenomenal person."
People understand how vulnerable we all are. We can all lose control. Ankiel's best friend, Hutchinson, may have read Satre, but he doesn't need to read him to know everyone fears a block put on the brain. "I think everyone in all walks of life deals with it subconsciously," says La Russa. "But athletes all deal with it, although they seldom want to admit it. It's a great story when Mark Wohlers comes back. Everyone should be rooting for Chuck Knoblauch. And when Rick Ankiel comes back this season, and three years from now he's about the best left-handed pitcher in the game, his will be an even better story."
La Russa believes "if Ankiel and Morris come back this season, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, then we could have a nasty staff. We could be real good."
The Cardinals have Kile, Dustin Hermanson and Andy Benes. "Ankiel and Morris are No. 1 starters," says La Russa, and the project for the spring is to hold Morris back. Garrett Stephenson is on a slow rehab program, but could be ready in the first month. Then there's Alan Benes, who says, "I feel completely different this spring than last. I think I'm finally almost there." And he was once a one in the making as well.
Besides Dave Veres, who led the majors in "tough saves," the Cardinals have Mike Timlin and Mike James, Steve Kline and, by mid-April, Jason Christiansen in the bullpen. They have a host of good young pitchers like lefty Bud Smith and righties Jason Karnuth, Clint Weibl and Hutchinson.
Now that McGwire is in camp and taking it slowly in rehabbing his knee, some of the attention will be taken away from Ankiel. "What I hope I've done," said Ankiel, "is learn to focus on what's in front of me, not behind or aside me. On the mound. And off it."
News and notes
One thing pitching coaches stress is first-pitch strikes. All you have to know is that the 2000 major league average was .209 behind in the count, .338 when ahead.
With that in mind, a look at the leaders and trailers from last season. Among the leaders, there are few surprises. From David Wells to Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez to Javier Vasquez to Mark Gardner, there's a reason things happen the way they do.
As in Boston pitching coach Joe Kerrigan it trying to convimce Hideo Nomo that if he can improve his 54 percent first-pitch strike ratio he can win big with his splitter; so, too, many of the pitchers on the trailers' list could change their careers by getting ahead. In Kerry Wood's case, it will probably come when he regains post-operative command. But if Dan Reichert gets ahead, his Frisbee slider would be unhittable. The turn in the careers of Brad Penny, Matt Clement and Jamey Wright could also come. Brian Bohanon is another case; he gets hitters into hitters counts, then gets them out with their own aggression.
First-pitch strike percentage Pitcher GS Pct. David Wells 35 66.4 Greg Maddux 35 65.2 Rick Reed 30 64.6 Brad Radke 34 64.1 Jon Lieber 35 63.7 Curt Schilling 29 63.6 Javier Vazquez 33 63.0 Glendon Rusch 30 62.7 Pedro Martinez 29 62.7 Mark Gardner 20 62.1
(courtesy Elias Sports Bureau)
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