Rick Ankiel talks the yips, anxiety and what it feels like to start over
The following is a transcript of a segment from this week's episode of the Cut4Cast podcast. To hear more of the Cut4 staff's weekly banterings about which position player is the best at pitching or how baseball would work in outer space, subscribe to the Cut4Cast by clicking here.
Rick Ankiel was supposed to be a generational arm. But when he was just 21 years old, something happened. He started Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS for the Cardinals, facing off against the Braves and Greg Maddux. Two innings went by just fine, but in the third, he suddenly lost control, throwing five wild pitches. As you may know, the control never came back. He quit pitching, but in 2007, he triumphantly made it back to the big leagues as an outfielder.
This week, Ankiel joined Gemma Kaneko to talk about the yips, anxiety and his new book, "The Phenomenon."
Kaneko: You say in the book, "nobody talked about fear, or at least nobody that [you] respected." Nobody talked about this anxiety, this feeling that is more common that maybe we realize. What helped you find your own ability to talk about it? This happened to many players we remember, but I feel like your account of it is so clear and straightforward in a way I've never encountered before. How did you get to that place?
Ankiel: It seems like nobody wants to talk about it. And I understand. It's dark, ugly and embarrassing. There are all these emotions that come with it. The fact that I made it to the other side of it, that I came back and pitched in '04, that I came back and played as an outfielder -- I realized that I can help people. I was that guy, looking for help and reaching out and trying to figure out how to beat this and get through it. It's tough. That's the thing.
You always hear guys talk about physical injuries. Whether they hurt their elbow, or tear their knee, and they can go talk to 10 other guys who have had that same injury. Most of them will say, "Don't worry, hang in there, and you'll come back stronger."
Then imagine this mental injury where nobody wants to talk about it. You don't know if you're ever going to get back or if you're ever going to be the guy you were, let alone be back in the big leagues. And that's a scary thing. Understanding that and understanding that it's not just baseball. There are NFL kickers and dart-throwers and writers and announcers. I've gotten letters from people in all walks of life, saying "I've been through this," or "This is me," "Thank you so much for sharing your story." Understand that, and understand that you can help other people feel like they're not alone, or that they're not the only ones going through this. That was when I understood this book is going to have purpose and needs to be written.
Kaneko: There's a part in the book when you decide you're retiring from baseball. You're a young man and you're retiring. You describe this sense of relief, just collapsing into the couch, thinking "I can do whatever I want now. I can do anything." Spoiler alert: immediately after you decided to come back as an outfielder. But what advice do you have for other people who are in that situation? That place where they've had something guide their life for so long and now it's not there. What do they do?
Ankiel: For me, and maybe this is the same for them, I identified myself with baseball. I felt like baseball was what made me who I am. Instead of, "I'm Rick Ankiel and baseball is what I do." And that was so hard, because when I lost the control in pitching, I felt like I was losing my life. And I wasn't. But it felt like that.
That's the hardest thing to overcome as a young player. You identify with whatever you do, you think this is what makes you who you are. My advice is to understand who you are. [Baseball is] not who you are. It's what you do. I remember that day I retired from pitching. I felt like by giving back the only life I'd ever had, baseball, I was getting my life back. It was one of those moments where, as soon as it happened, as soon as I walked into Tony La Russa's office and we had that conversation… I said, "hey, this isn't healthy, I can't do it anymore. I won't do it anymore."
On the drive home, immediately, I felt a tremendous relief. I immediately knew I made the right decision.
Kaneko: To me, reading your book was a lot about making decisions for you, suddenly. For what you wanted to do. How did you know what you wanted to do was to come back as a position player?
Ankiel: I didn't, at first. The hardest thing for me was to go in and say I wasn't going to be a pitcher anymore. That took everything I had to do that. In some ways, I felt like I was letting the organization down and letting my team down. Not being able to live out my dreams. At the same time, I understood the road I was on. It wasn't healthy. Trying to look forward at the time to, "what is this going to look like five years down the road, eight years down the road?" I just understood I needed to go in a different direction. Here I am, at home, and my agent called, Scott Boras, and I'm just talking to a few people here and there. He says "Hey, are you ready to go play again?"
I remember thinking "what are you talking about? Is nobody listening? I just retired. I'm done with baseball." He said, "No, as an outfielder." I said, "What are you talking about?" He said: "Would you want to be an outfielder?" I hang up and think I have to think about this. A couple of hours go by and I try to soak it in, try to envision what this is going to be, visualized what this is going to look like.
As soon as I decided to stop pitching, that weight felt like it got lifted off my chest -- I could breathe again -- and off my shoulders. I got excited. I thought: "This is going to be fun. I've got nothing to lose." Back then, organizations typically didn't give people that chance. It was kind of a crazy notion at that. The fact I could show up and start to have fun again, joke around and be this happy, go-lucky guy I normally was … off I went, and here we are.
To find out what Ankiel's favorite books are, and whether it's harder to cover first base on a deep grounder or to make a play on a liner straight into center field, listen to the rest of the interview here.