With many of baseball’s current stars mired in steroid scandals, the story of Rick Ankiel reminds fans of what they love about the game. At the beginning of this decade, he experienced early success as a rookie pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, posting 11 wins, an ERA of 3.50 and 194 strikeouts. But during the playoffs, Ankiel got a case of the yips as he couldn’t find the strike zone. In one inning, he walked four batters and threw five wild pitches — an event not witnessed since 1890 — before manager Tony La Russa mercifully removed him. In total, he’d thrown nine wild pitches over four horrific innings.
Ankiel went on to spend five forlorn years in the minor leagues trying to regain his control. Injuries and operations followed, leading him to give up pitching for good. But Ankiel wouldn’t be deterred; turning his back on the mound, he rebuilt his career as an outfielder — leading to a comeback game that will never be forgotten. The date was Aug. 9, 2007. Ankiel batted second and played right field. In his first at bat, Ankiel received a standing ovation from his St. Louis crowd. During the seventh inning, he hit a three-run home run as the Cardinals beat the San Diego Padres 5-0. La Russa hailed his return as the Cardinals’ greatest joy in baseball “short of winning the World Series.” He was the first player since Clint Hartung in 1947 to hit his first major league home run as a pitcher and then as a position player. Two days later, Ankiel drew three standing ovations and went 3 for 4, with two home runs and three RBIs. Before the month was out, he’d hit a grand slam. Three and a half years on, Ankiel remains the only active major leaguer to have played as a full-time major league pitcher and position player.