Friday night baseball in Johnson City, Tenn. The 96 lights suspended from eight wooden poles try desperately to shine down on the ball game below. The hometown rookie league Cardinals are losing to the Bluefield Orioles, but the thousand or so fans on hand don't seem to mind. Locals giggle as two tots race around the bases between innings. The laughs get louder when a pair of teens fall on their faces during dizzy bat races.
But in the bottom of the eighth, things get quiet. Two on, two out, home team down by two. Tonight's designated hitter, Rick Ankiel, steps to the plate. A half-hour before the game, Ankiel had been in the concession stand, smiling like a schoolboy and asking if he could make himself a hot dog. Yes, of course, said the sweet lady behind the counter. Ankiel slopped on some chili and chowed down. In the seventh inning, the lefty strutted to the plate with a wide grin and clobbered a pitch over the fence in right. By the time the eighth rolled around, folks at Howard Johnson Field were calling ballpark franks "Rick Dogs."
This time up, though, No. 24 is somber. Ankiel works the count to 2-2, and the 96 lights seem to burn a little brighter. It is a Roy Hobbs moment. Ankiel swings at the next pitch -- a high slider -- and even stragglers in the parking lot hear the THWACK! Ankiel gallops giddily to first, knowing it's long gone. Johnson City's biggest hero fights off a smile as he crosses home plate into the mob of rookies waiting for him. The Cards win, 5-4, with Ankiel, the DH, driving in four runs. In the clubhouse, 18-year-old pitcher John Killalea carries the former major leaguer to his wooden one-shelf locker.
Here in serene Johnson City, the St. Louis Cardinals have found a fantasyland for their fallen star. They've discovered a place where Rick Ankiel can erase the memory of five wild pitches in one playoff inning last fall in St. Louis, and 17 walks in 4+ innings this spring in Memphis. It's a place where teammates and coaches offer only praise, where media skeptics are neither seen nor heard. It's a place where wild pitches and walks are not as important as feeling good. They have even given their pitcher a bat.
"We wanted to get him as far away as possible," says St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty. The Cards wrapped their flailing phenom in a bubble and held their collective breath that this dream would morph into reality. Yes, Ankiel looks ready to return to the big club -- as soon as September -- and throw major league strikes again. But for now, the story of how Rick got his groove back is the story of how a lost soul took a bus to J.C. and became a believer.
Rock bottom was Memphis in May. Ankiel, last year's NL Rookie of the Year runner-up, threw 12 wild pitches in three short Triple-A starts and had a 20.77 ERA. Jocketty worried. Had Ankiel been rushed to the majors in '99, and ruined? He called a meeting, inviting Cards manager Tony La Russa, pitching coach Dave Duncan, VP of player personnel Jerry Walker -- and Ankiel.
The topic: What next? Ankiel said, "I'd like to go to Johnson City." Jocketty said, "That's what we were thinking."
On June 16, Ankiel arrived in Johnson City. J.C. general manager Vance Spinks didn't even know he was coming. Spinks quickly arranged for a hotel room on a private floor and two clubhouse lockers by the bathroom. "The rehabilitation of Rick Ankiel," Spinks says. "We can't play for him, but we can do just about everything else."
That first day, J.C. Cardinals pitching coach Sid Monge took his new class of hurlers out to deep centerfield and told them what he expected: "Be on time, pay attention and work hard. I'm here to help you." Then the 50-year-old former big leaguer pointed to the then-21-year-old former big leaguer. "You're gonna be named in the same breath as Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan," Monge said. "I'm here to help you, too."
Ankiel smiled, and then blushed. "These guys, you pat on the back," says roving pitching coach Mark Riggins, who has already dropped in four times to see Ankiel. "If they make mistakes, you can live with 'em. Don't scream. They're trying their best."
Everyone in the organization used that approach with Ankiel. "I wanted to reinforce how talented he is," says Monge. Ankiel was shown tapes of himself pitching in 1999 to remind the lefty how unhittable he was in the minors (25-9 with 416 K's in 298 innings). They nodded when Ankiel saw something to tinker with. "I may not think what he sees is a big deal," says Riggins. "But if it is to him, it matters."
Manager Chris Maloney made sure the team's best catcher, 19-year-old Yadier Molina, caught all of Ankiel's starts. The concession folks gave him Rick Dogs. Teammates asked for advice, withheld their wonder about what had happened the previous year, swallowed complaints about losing at-bats to a pitcher and offered the back row of the bus. "He hasn't been challenged here," says one teammate. "At all."
The refueling of Ankiel's confidence was steady -- and measurable. On July 26 against Burlington, he walked the first three batters he faced; he has walked only one in 17 innings since. Ankiel has also hit nine home runs, while allowing none. He's usually the first one into the clubhouse, the last one out of the weight room. And he's gotten more comfortable with his teammates and coaches.
"At first, he didn't come out with what he was feeling," says Monge. "Now he's loosey-goosey." He has paraded around the clubhouse in a Rastafarian wig and a Speedo, paid for postgame dinners, told younger pitchers that pressure is all in their heads. "He always has a positive outlook," says reliever Tyler Johnson.
Does this sound like the Rick Ankiel who cleaned out his Busch Stadium locker just four months ago?
But what happens when the lights get brighter? Ankiel has gladly fielded queries from local scribes about this strikeout or that, but he bristles whenever St. Louis or national media come calling. "The only reason you're here," Ankiel angrily told a visiting reporter, "is because of my past."
But the columnists and their carping await in St. Louis, along with hitters who have seen Ankiel's sick curveball before. "At this level, he looks tremendous," says St. Louis director of baseball operations John Mozeliak. "How does that translate to the major leagues? I don't know."
Sunday night baseball in Johnson City, Tenn. Tonight's starting pitcher, and Friday night's batting hero, lies on the trainer's table, trying to get his focus. But standing by the concession stand, diving into a Rick Dog, is a white-haired man in a golf shirt and jeans. Jocketty has flown in to see Ankiel pitch.
"There's no reason to move him out of here before the end of the [Appalachian League] season," the GM says. "Maybe we'll give him a game in St. Louis, but we want him to go home with a positive frame of mind."
Ankiel pitches a gem, giving up three weak hits and a run. Late in the game, with the Cards beating the Danville Braves, 6-1, No. 24 decides to try something. He winds and then drops down to submarine a curve for a stunning strike three. Jocketty's eyes widen with glee.
Ankiel gets the last batter to ground into a double play to end the game, then pumps a fist -- his only display of emotion all night. It's his first complete game as a pro. Jocketty leaps to his feet, clapping, beaming. "He's ready in terms of the competition," Jocketty says later. "It just depends on what he's comfortable with. But to see where he was then and where he is now ..."
Waiting for the GM in the clubhouse is Maloney, Monge, hitting coach Tommy Kidwell and two pepperoni pizzas. Jocketty is still smiling: "He had great setup, location, placement -- everything," Jocketty says.
Kidwell pipes up: "How about that sidearm curve?"
Jocketty: "Yeah! I've never seen that before! Where'd it come from?"
That's when Monge chimes in. "Hmmm," he says, grinning. "Must be a Johnson City thing."
This article appears in the September 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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