Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

news

MLB News

Ankiel might have been his generation's Ohtani

Ex-Cardinal only player besides Babe with seasons of 30 GS, 25 HR
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

ST. LOUIS -- Arguably as fascinating as what Shohei Ohtani is attempting in Anaheim is the fact that the Angels are allowing him to attempt it at all. Ohtani is far from the first precocious two-way talent to reach the big leagues in the century since Babe Ruth switched to hitting, but he is the first who didn't have to face the decision that Ruth -- and so many who came after made -- had forced upon him.

If there is a problem with the historical narrative connecting Ohtani and Ruth, it's that it's incomplete. It excludes players who could have possibly preceded Ohtani as the game's first modern two-way player -- or those who at least possessed the skills to do so. It excludes players like Rick Ankiel.

ST. LOUIS -- Arguably as fascinating as what Shohei Ohtani is attempting in Anaheim is the fact that the Angels are allowing him to attempt it at all. Ohtani is far from the first precocious two-way talent to reach the big leagues in the century since Babe Ruth switched to hitting, but he is the first who didn't have to face the decision that Ruth -- and so many who came after made -- had forced upon him.

If there is a problem with the historical narrative connecting Ohtani and Ruth, it's that it's incomplete. It excludes players who could have possibly preceded Ohtani as the game's first modern two-way player -- or those who at least possessed the skills to do so. It excludes players like Rick Ankiel.

"I'm thankful, because it's about time teams gave someone a chance to do this," Ankiel said. "I think it's the greatest thing ever for the game."

Now 38, Ankiel is five years removed from one of the most unusual careers in big league history. By the time it earned him an induction in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, on Thursday, Ankiel's story was well chronicled. A phenom when he helped the Cardinals to a National League Central title in 2000, Ankiel fought anxiety issues for years after famously losing his ability to throw strikes that postseason. The most extreme case of "the yips" in recent decades forced Ankiel to leave the mound four years later. In '07, however, Ankiel returned to the big leagues as an outfielder, playing seven more seasons.

Ankiel described his battle with anxiety -- what he calls "the monster" -- in a tell-all memoir published with Yahoo! Sports baseball writer Tim Brown last year, and he is currently interviewing production companies interested in turning his book into a movie.

Video: Rick Ankiel talks about his career on Hot Stove

"I don't think it's just for baseball fans. I think it's a life story. I think it's a story of going through your ups and downs," Ankiel said. "All the places it took me, and how I overcame it, and how I got to now. It's a story of perseverance."

Ankiel uses the word "courage" when recalling his decision to return to the big leagues in what was, at the time, an unprecedented way. He and Ruth are the only players in Major League history to make 30 starts in one season and hit 25 home runs in another. But doing both at the same time was never an option.

Ankiel was a two-way star when the Cards drafted him in the second round in 1997 out of Port St. Lucie (Fla.) High School. Like countless top picks, Ankiel chose pitching, because it presented his quickest path to the big leagues.

"There were some coaches at the lower levels who wouldn't even work with me in the cage. They said, 'If you get hurt, I'm in trouble.'" Ankiel said. "We laugh about it now. Back then, that was a new thing. Teams didn't let guys do this."

Which is why perhaps no person alive today better understands the scope of the Angels' grand experiment better than Ankiel. Whether it works or not will likely determine how many two-way players will come after Ohtani, and whether teams like the Rays and Reds will be willing to weigh the risks vs. the benefits with two-way-talent prospects Brendan McKay and Hunter Greene. Ohtani has been a revelation over a quarter-season, hitting .308 with six home runs and going 4-1 with a 3.35 ERA across seven starts.

Ankiel was probably most akin to Greene -- a precocious, natural high-school talent who could do everything on a baseball field. He just arrived a generation earlier, when teams viewed maximizing all of those skills as a liability.

"It's a changing of the guard, and it's about time," Ankiel said. "[Ohtani] is proving it can be done. There is no question about that. But it's not like there are 10 out of every 12 guys who have that skill set. When you do find those guys, they are definitely the guinea pigs."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Shohei Ohtani