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Archive for Saturday, August 11, 2007

Storybook return begins with a bang for Ankiel

August 11, 2007

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— He carried a red equipment bag and the dream that still belonged to him after so many summers and setbacks, so many disappointing turns, so many disappearances. What a long, strange trip it had been.

And now he was back ...

Was this Roy Hobbs, or Rick Ankiel?

At 4 Thursday afternoon, Ankiel re-entered a major-league clubhouse. Some things had changed since Ankiel last crossed this threshold. He's 28 now, and married. He's had Tommy John elbow surgery, and knee surgery, and an epic meltdown of confidence. He had to deal with a father who was sent away to federal prison for drug peddling. He's had so much to cope with, so much heartbreak.

And of course Ankiel no longer is a pitcher, having walked off the mound for the final time in the spring of 2005, unable or unwilling to handle the extreme pressure that had virtually ruined his competitive psyche.

But here was Ankiel, among the baseball faithful, reborn and renewed ... and a bit of a national curiosity.

The power pitcher was now reinvented as a power bat, and called up from Memphis to boost a lineup that's dragging with a .400 slugging percentage, the Cardinals' lowest since 1997. And after using his last supply of resolve to climb baseball's Jacob's Ladder, up through the minor-league system, how would Ankiel do?

The famous writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American lives. But Ankiel defied those words, and conventional baseball wisdom, and just about everything we expected from him in the seventh inning Thursday night.

Ankiel turned on a curveball offered from San Diego reliever Doug Brocail and launched it deep into the right-field seats for a three-run homer. Ankiel announced his return with a trumpet blast, and it blew away the visitors in the Cardinals' 5-0 victory before 42,848 fans.

So many were stunned. The delirious fans. The ecstatic Cardinals. The Padres.

And after Ankiel sent that incredible flare that officially signaled his reentry, did you see the look on the face of Cardinals manager Tony La Russa in the dugout?

It's been a tough season for La Russa. He had not smiled like this, or applauded with such vigor, all season. But what Ankiel did prompted La Russa to let loose.

Ankiel was more pumped than anyone. In his first three at-bats, he was too fired up. He popped up, and struck out twice. He had slammed 32 homers for Class AAA Memphis this season, but conquering the next level won't be easy.

"I was trying to slow things down," he said. "I was so excited, I felt nervous. I was just really trying to breathe and let my talent take over."

The talent surfaced a few minutes after 9 p.m.

Ankiel's home run traveled 378 feet through the humidity, through his troubled past, and into this delightfully new stage of his life. And he absolutely deserved this, earned this.

"Unbelievable," Ankiel said, before laughing out loud. He went "floating" around the bases in his home-run trot. And what about the curtain call from the fans?

"I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do there," he said.

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