ST. LOUIS — With a catcher’s bat and a pitcher’s glove, Rick Ankiel started his newest chapter.
“It’s just kind of ironic that the first series I come to play with the Mets is here,” New York’s most-recently acquired outfielder said.
Ironic indeed. This was once where Ankiel, then a high-kicking, smooth-throwing, fast-climbing left-handed pitcher debuted with the Cardinals as a 19-year-old in 1999. And on Monday, it became the place where the 33-year-old outfielder joined his sixth team in what has become a long and defiant MLB career.
The Mets had signed him that day, and his trip to join the team was so rushed he arrived without his gear. Starting catcher John Buck gave up a bat. Pitcher Jonathan Niese lent a glove.
With the bat, Ankiel walked once and struck out twice. With the glove, he made a diving catch that wasn’t — Ty Wigginton’s fly ball in the seventh inning popped out of his grasp and helped the Cardinals beat the Mets 6-3.
All of this was ironic, and a bit odd. Ankiel arrived to help the Mets hit, but he really hasn’t been hitting that well. In 65 plate appearances with Houston, he averaged 194/.231/.484. While he hit five home runs in that time, he struck out a dismal 35 times.
But from a step back, wasn’t the image of Ankiel standing in the outfield at Busch Stadium, playing for the Mets — one of the two teams he collapsed against as a pitcher way back when — just a little bit impressive?
Sportswriters go to town with the verbs used to describe Ankiel’s flameout as a pitcher, and it was so bad that most of the purple prose fits. He was the kid who made the game look easy, who took the mound by storm. Then he lost it all.
During his first full major league season in 2000, he had an 11-7 record and a 3.50 ERA. He finished second in voting for Rookie of the Year. He was rewarded with a playoff start. You probably know the rest.
In two brief outings, first against the Atlanta Braves, then the Mets, he gave up five hits, surrendered seven earned runs, threw nine wild pitches and walked 11. His postseason ERA was 15.75, and he would never figure out how to pitch effectively again.
His story could have ended there. But Ankiel came back.
That left arm that forgot how to throw from the mound could still swing a bat — and fire missiles from the outfield grass. He started again in St. Louis, in 2008 and 2009. During those two years, he hit .248/.313/.450 with 109 RBIs and 36 home runs. It could have been a happy ending, but more chapters were meant for Ankiel’s career.
In decline, he was sent away from St. Louis before the start of the 2010 season. From there, he bounced through four teams, the latest being the Houston Astros, who released him on May 9. Surely, this would be the end of Ankiel.
“New team. New teammates. New coaches. New manager,” he said after Monday’s game with the Mets. “It’s a little bit different, but once they say play ball, it’s all the same.”
He’s outlasted every label we figured would stick. He’s been a phenom, a bust, a man remade. Now, he is the veteran winning his fight to stay in the game.
That’s the thing about Ankiel. Baseball has discarded so many. Yet, he is still here.