Book Review: The Phenomenon

I’ve read a few athlete biographies in my day.  While interesting, they usually are just a progression through their careers.  Perhaps they shed some light on a few important moments, maybe they talk a little about their teammates.  Again, they are good books, but they often stay in a fairly predictable lane.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, but Rick Ankiel obliterated that mold.

I’ve been an Ankiel fan since he was in the minor leagues and one of my baseball regrets was not getting down to Little Rock when he came through as part of the Arkansas Travelers, the AA farm team of the Cardinals back in ’99.  I remember watching that big old 66 make his debut in the big leagues and thrilling to the fact that the Cardinals had a super pitching prospect for once.  Ankiel was going to be one of the great ones, it appeared.  I swear I had the Ankiel Starting Lineup, but I can’t find it where I think it should be right now and that really frustrates me.  (You can see what it looked like on this eBay auction.)  I’m such a pitching guy that it was great to see a phenom come to life.

I still remember watching the first couple of innings of that playoff game against the Braves.  I remember the wild pitches, but I thought they were just a fluke, a bad day.  Like most people, I had no idea how bad it was going to be.

When you read this book, you can see that Rick knew a lot earlier than most of us.  The Thing had him and it wasn’t going to let him go.

Living through that time, I don’t think any of us really knew how mental the whole thing was.  From the outside looking in, we don’t want to start throwing those kind of accusations or innuendo around.  It’s like the recent talk about how Carlos Martinez was unfocused or unmotivated.  We can’t make those claims with any sort of authority.  Martinez is just going through a rough patch.  We thought Ankiel was the same way.

Rick does walk through his career, but he knows that folks aren’t all that interested in his time as a Nationals outfielder or how his career ended with the Mets.  People pick up this book to find out the answer to one question: what happened?

Spoiler alert: Ankiel has about as much of an answer as you do.

You’d think maybe it came from the relationship with his father or the lack thereof.  The fact that his father was abusive not only toward his mother, but toward Rick and his half-brother.  Maybe some of the wiring frayed there, but many folks that have had these issues–Ankiel’s far from the only one, as he found out on this journey–haven’t had that to fall back on.  Maybe it was the first real failure caused a cascade effect, but others that have gone through the ups and downs in a career, like Steve Blass (whom Rick talks to in this book as well), only had the yips at the tail end of their time in the bigs, after they’d had plenty of failures.

Trying to define this, trying to solve this problem, led to a lot of different paths.  By now you’ve heard the story of him pitching drunk against the Diamondbacks in 2001.  (I actually have that game on VHS somewhere, as not only was it a chance to watch Ankiel, but it was my first indication that Albert Pujols was going to be special.)  Nothing worked, as we know.  He worked on dismantling a cement wall at his home in Florida to try to get it right, but as great as he could be there, he couldn’t bring it to the big leagues, to the crowd cheering on his every move.

This is a remarkably frank book that is told in a gripping, well-written way.  Tim Brown wrote the book with Rick and I don’t know if it is his style that makes this so real or if Ankiel tells his stories with this sort of detail and analogy.  However the division of labor shook out, it’s a book that you’ll pick up and probably not put down again until you just have to.  “Compelling” gets tossed around a lot as a descriptor, but it completely fits here.  You read Rick talking about how much he wants to be a good father for his sons after his father failed him and you can’t help but feel for him.

It also puts one urban legend to rest.  There was a story that floated at the time and may still be repeated that Rick gave Mike Matheny that hunting knife for his birthday on the eve of the 2000 playoffs.  The story went that he was so upset about what had happened with Matheny cutting himself and missing the playoffs that it triggered the wildness.  Ankiel mentions in passing who gave Matheny the knife and how the accident happened, but it didn’t come from the pitcher.  That had nothing to do with the meltdown.

When you read this, especially the ending, you have to admire this first pitch he threw last week.  Just because he’s retired, that doesn’t mean that the fear, the anxiety, everything isn’t still there when he’s placed back in that situation.  He may be able to come to terms with it a bit more now that it’s just an occasional thing, but that doesn’t make it any more impressive.

Ankiel also talks about his transition to becoming an outfielder and how that came about.  Not only was it not his idea, it was a plan that didn’t happen on the spur of the moment.  Many of us kinda thought the club mentioned it to him after they were surprised by his retirement, but that’s not exactly how the story played out.

Ankiel is open, honest, and upfront about everything, even his mistakes, over this long journey.  It’s a must read for Cardinal fans, for baseball fans of any stripe, honestly.  Get this book in one form or another.  You will not regret it at all.

Disclosure: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher, but I’d have gladly bought it on my own.

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