NEW YORK -- Rick Ankiel is still only 33. Or he's already 33. It's hard to know which way to look at it.
Ankiel is on his fifth team and roughly his third career since breaking into the Major Leagues at age 20, so if it seems like he's been around forever, he kind of has. But to anyone who saw him blaze like a comet across the National League in 2000, with searing heat, a knee-buckling curveball and more than a little cockiness, the beginning of Ankiel's career seems like yesterday.
As Ankiel sat in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium this week, taking stock of a baseball life with no real parallels, it was obvious that the swashbuckling kid with the high socks is long gone. He's an elder statesman on a young team, brought to Houston in part to serve as a mentor. If the change seems jarring to an outsider, well, it is for Ankiel as well.
"It's strange in a way, just because it happened so fast," he said. "All of a sudden you blink, and you're like, 'Wow, I'm the older guy here.'
"I'm not that old either," he added with a laugh.
Almost 15 years ago, Ankiel was baseball's top prospect. He was the game's top rookie pitcher with St. Louis in 2000. But in the playoffs that year, everything went awry. He walked 11 and issued nine wild pitches in four innings. He was never the same.
In 2005, he stopped pitching and became an outfielder. He starred for the Cardinals in 2007 and '08 before fading in '09 and leaving as a free agent. Since then, he's played for the Royals, Braves, Nationals and Astros, been released once and traded once. He made this year's Astros after signing as a Minor League free agent.
He was once cocky and brash. The game knocked him down, repeatedly, and now he's softer around the edges.
"When I [talk about his] success, I'm talking about him overcoming the failures as well," said manager Bo Porter. "Because to me, that is success. It is tremendous, because a lot of these guys have played baseball at a high level, been very successful, and then they get to the big leagues and this may be the first time they've faced failure."
It wasn't that long ago that Ankiel wouldn't even entertain questions about some of those failures, about his time as a pitcher. It's still not a topic for long conversations, but it's clear he's more at ease now. He's more at ease about a lot of things. There are plenty of reasons for that, but few bigger than becoming a father twice over in the past two years.
"You take a little more pressure off," he said. "Maybe over just the last two years, just trying to keep perspective that it's just a game. You still have to have a life outside the game. I think for a long time, I just put too much pressure on myself trying to perform, and made everything about the game instead of maybe taking a step back and making it be more about life itself."
Getting out of St. Louis almost certainly helped -- not that Ankiel really had any choice. His diminished production in 2009, combined with the emergence of Colby Rasmus, made it clear there was no real future for him there.
It was initially strange, but there's little doubt it was for the best. Ankiel could never be just a player in St. Louis, not after what he went through in his early years. There was always something unspoken, whether with media, coaches or teammates.
"The people were great," Ankiel said. "But sometimes you don't want people's sympathy. It was almost like sometimes I felt like a charity case. Maybe that was just my own personal feeling, but I felt like it was going to be nice to have a fresh start. A new start."
Since leaving the Gateway City, he's become just a ballplayer, in the best possible sense. He comes to the park, does his work, and goes home.
He's even begun thinking about what comes after his playing career. And while he once thought he might just disappear into a life of fishing and family, Ankiel now thinks he might like to stick around as a coach.
His time away from the game last summer showed him that he's not ready to be a man of leisure just yet. Ankiel was released by Washington shortly before the birth of his second child, so he elected to stay at home to tend to the baby and his wife, Lory. He loves being a husband and dad, but also quickly realized he's not ready to do just that and nothing more.
"At that point, I was like, 'Let's take the time to see what this is going to be like,'" he said. "I was fishing quite a bit. And that was about a month, and I was like, I'm ready to play. So I think I'll miss it too much. I'll miss the guys. Since that, I feel like I might stick around."
If nothing else, it's a bit startling to hear Ankiel admit that he's begun to think about what's next. He has never been known as one for introspection; it's another indication of the new, mellower Ankiel.
He even acknowledges that he might be open to a book or movie treatment of his remarkable life in baseball. It's an idea he dismissed out of hand in past years, but these days it holds a little appeal. And what a story it would be. The game has nearly chased him off twice, and he's stuck around. He's beaten long odds several times over.
"I'll play as long as I can," he said. "Until they take the cleats off. I'm just enjoying it."