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Mother of reinventions

From wreckage of a promising pitching career, Ankiel has reemerged as a slugging outfielder, earning respect of teammates and foes alike

August 12, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS -- A couple of days after announcing he was giving up pitching to make a quixotic attempt at rebuilding his baseball career as an outfielder, Rick Ankiel stepped into the Cardinals' spring training clubhouse and found his locker had been moved from the west side, where the pitchers dress, to the opposite wall.

"You're one of us now," one veteran position player told him. "You should be with us."

If Ankiel wondered how his decision would be accepted by his teammates, the doubt was erased on that morning. And if he questioned how he would be accepted by the rest of that league, those doubts vanished two days ago when he hit a home run in his first big league game as an outfielder and even the pitcher who gave up the homer offered congratulations.

"It's good," the Padres' Doug Brocail said, "to see the kid back."

Especially when you consider the long and rocky road Ankiel, who homered twice against the Dodgers on Saturday, had to travel to get here.

A second-round draft pick and can't-miss prospect, Ankiel shot through the minors as a flame-throwing lefty, making his major league debut in 2000 at age 20, winning 11 games and striking out 194 batters in 175 innings to earn the start in the first game of the NL Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. That game, however, proved to be the beginning of the end of his pitching career, with Ankiel throwing a record nine wild pitches in four postseason innings.

He pitched just 34 innings in the majors after that, walking 26, hitting five batters and throwing six wild pitches before missing all of 2002 and most of the next two seasons with arm problems. He tried one final comeback in the spring of 2005 but, still troubled by pain and wildness, he eventually confessed to Cardinals General Manager Walt Jocketty that he couldn't handle the disappointment any longer.

Jocketty, however, had other ideas.

"I knew what a competitor he is. And I knew he was becoming very frustrated with trying to live up to the talent that he had as a pitcher," Jocketty said. "I knew how much he loved baseball and I just thought he should give the outfield a try."

That, of course, would mean a trip back to the low minors. And while Ankiel's struggles may have won him some sympathy around baseball, it was his decision to start his career over again that won him respect.

"He didn't have too big of an ego to do that," said Cardinals second baseman Adam Kennedy. "He loved playing the game. And [he] had a lot of confidence in himself to be able to do that.

"Everything that he's gone through hasn't been hidden. [He] just really picked things up and kept moving. That says a lot about somebody."

So does the reception he's received. After Ankiel homered in his outfield debut Friday, Manager Tony La Russa said the only time he's been happier in uniform was during last year's World Series.

"This game is full of tests. And adversity," La Russa said. "When one guy has had overwhelming amounts and has never complained, never pointed fingers and always taken responsibility . . . he's earned a ton of respect and admiration."

Added Dodgers pitcher Derek Lowe, who on Saturday surrendered a first-inning home run and third-inning single to Ankiel: "I don't think he's getting enough credit for what he's doing. It wouldn't matter if he started out 0 for 16. To be a pitcher and say, OK, I'm going to become a hitter and make it to the major leagues? I'm amazed at what he can do. It's a phenomenal story."

Sitting head down in front of his locker Saturday, Ankiel, 28, questioned all the fuss.

"I think I understand what's going on," said Ankiel, who hit 32 home runs this year at triple-A Memphis, where he also hit .267 with 89 runs batted in. "But at the same time I'm just trying to focus on what I'm doing."

What he's doing, of course, is making history.

Only two other players in the last 45 years -- Bobby Darwin, now a Dodgers scout, and Willie Smith -- have made their big league debuts as pitchers, then gone on to get significant time as position players. And Ankiel is the 12th player in history to have hit his first home run as a pitcher, then later homered as a position player.

The last to do so was Clint Hartung in 1947. Before him, it was a fellow named Babe Ruth, who went on to have quite a career in the outfield.

"That would be the worst thing to tell Rick," La Russa said. "I just want him to hit as close to .300 as he can. I don't think it's smart to put the home run hitter thought in his head."

Sorry, skipper. Too late.

"He's got 700 and something to go," Jim Edmonds called loudly from his corner in the Cardinals clubhouse.

Then, more quietly, the man who gave Ankiel his first outfielder's glove added some perspective.

"What he went through wasn't easy," Edmonds said. "And to keep at it, I would say, would be even a tougher task. Some people have the athletic ability to do a lot of things and he's one of them. [So] I'm not surprised."

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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