Rick Ankiel’s Third Act

This is the worst time of the baseball calendar. There’s… nothing… going… on. Oh, there’s the odd free agent signing here and there, and I guess we’re getting into arbitration season where teams and arb-eligible players pretend that they are not going to just split the difference up until they get to the doorway of the hearing room. And there’s always the spring training truck. That will leave in a couple weeks. That’s nice.

But if you were paying close attention last week, you would have seen a couple stories that reveal a tiny bit about where the game was going. You’d have to be a baseball junkie to have noticed them (then again, you are reading a baseball website in mid-January…) In one piece of news, the Boston Red Sox have established a Department of Behavioral Health within their organization and hired former pitcher Bob Tewksbury along with two other players to provide counseling services to their minor leaguers. New Los Angeles Dodgers farm director Gabe Kapler has been emphasizing a “more cerebral” developmental system in his first developmental camp in charge. (He’s also making sure that all Dodgers minor league affiliates have a Spanish-speaking coach on staff.) Teams are starting to pay attention to the mind as well as the body, not just with lip service, but with actual organizational structures.

But maybe the most interesting move of January goes to the Washington Nationals, who have hired former pitcher and former outfielder Rick Ankiel to be their inaugural life skills coordinator. Ankiel, who still passes the “older than me” test (by a few months) will rove through the Nationals’ minor-league system. But what will a life skills coordinator do? To find out, I spoke with Doug Harris, Nationals Assistant General Manager for Player Development and Pro Scouting. He said “This job will evolve as we go. Rick is a resource. He’s been through a lot of life experiences, both as a person and a player… We’re not pretending that that he’s a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but when he walks onto a field, there’s a certain respect and comfort level that people will have for him. They’ll dialog with him more quickly. He’ll be in the outfield or around the batting cage talking to guys.”

Harris said that Ankiel would be ready to address a wide range of concerns that players might have, whether on the field or off. If a player was too far inside his own head and in the middle of a 1-for-26 slump, Ankiel has the credibility to say “I’ve been there.” If the issue has more to do with an off-the-field problem, Ankiel is ready for that too. Said Harris, “Obviously, we have people on retainer who are professionals to handle major concerns,” but he sees Ankiel as a bridge to players being willing to access those services or even to admit that they need those services. Harris said “[The minor leaguers] might tell you some things, but not everything. But they might talk to another person.” Ankiel proved himself to be a well-respected teammate during his first tour with the Nationals in 2011 and 2012, and the Nationals are hoping that Ankiel will be that other person.

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Last August at the SaberSeminar in Boston, I presented on the issue of minor leaguers and how they are at a time in their lives when they face the challenge of becoming adults in addition to the challenge of becoming a major-league ballplayer. For example, how does a team handle it when a major-league player doesn’t know how to cook a healthy meal? Some teams have an on-call chef/diet consultant on staff, but how do you identify a player who has that need and get him to accept the help of that resource? If there’s one thing that young men are famous for, it’s believing that they don’t need help from anyone about anything. At the seminar, I advised the audience that the most important parts of addressing these issues were the connections between the players and the resources. Rick Ankiel is now that connective tissue for the Nationals.

Ankiel’s new job tells us something interesting about where baseball is going. It also tells us something about baseball that we should have been paying attention to all along. What it tells us is that Ankiel’s credibility as a former player and as someone who can say “I’ve been through the same things that you are going through” is more important than a degree. It’s better to give someone with the credibility of “I’ve been there” a crash course in being a good social worker rather than the other way around. The credibility aspect is that important. There’s a lesson buried in there somewhere for those of us who spend our time on the internet telling players and teams and managers everything that they are doing wrong.

When I was in graduate school (I’m a clinical psychologist by training, hence my column is “Baseball Therapy”), the school’s training clinic had satellite offices in two Chicago public housing communities. That meant that I, who was raised in the suburbs of Cleveland, was walking in to provide counseling services to teens (and their families) who were skeptical of me. I didn’t know what it was like to live in public housing, and like it or not, that was going to be an issue – in both directions. I was an outsider (and I made the mistakes to prove it.) But the clinic also had the foresight to try something innovative. They hired community members to act as liaisons between the clinic and the community. Ruby and Sonia knew everyone in the community. We did a lot of home visits, but to do that, we needed the family to let us in the door, both literally and metaphorically. It helped a lot when I could take one of those folks along. None of them had degrees (one of them, I helped her study for the #GoryMath section of her GED exam) but that wasn’t the point. They didn’t have to provide services. Their job was more important than that. Their job was to say “He’s OK.” Without them, I couldn’t do my job. Rick Ankiel is now the baseball version of that community liaison.

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Rick Ankiel tells us a lot about where baseball is going. We’ve seen progressive teams moving forward with an emphasis on some of the “soft factors” before. But now someone’s been reading up on how to do it well. I’m sure that some out there are thinking that the idea of having someone on staff whose entire job is just to hang out and talk with guys about their problems is some sort of narrative-driven garbage. But the research is pretty clear on this one. The single greatest factor that predicts whether a person will achieve anything in therapy is whether there is a strong “therapeutic alliance” between the patient and the therapist. Do they both actually buy into the therapy? There will be cases in which Ankiel will no doubt talk to guys who just need the ear of someone who can honestly say “I understand.” There will be baseball-related struggles which he is uniquely qualified to talk about in a way that “the front office guys” aren’t.

But then, there will also be cases which are beyond Ankiel’s training and in which the correct course of action is to refer to a professional. (His job will be to know the difference.) Ankiel is no stranger to thriving through professional help. He’s spoken about his own struggles, particularly after his famous sudden loss of his pitching ability, and how sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman (now deceased) helped him out. At some point, Ankiel will probably find himself talking to someone with a problem that, if not handled correctly, could spiral out of control. Suddenly, a prized prospect “takes a step back.” It’s a lot easier to get that player to open that door and to buy into whatever help he needs if there’s someone next to him who comes from the same place that he does and can honestly say “It worked for me.” I like to think that there are people in front offices who are reading the treatment effectiveness literature and taking it to heart.

There will never be a WAR value associated with Ankiel’s work behind the scenes in the same way that there was with his on-the-field performance. His job will involve a lot of personal conversations and people have a right to their privacy. We probably won’t know who he worked with unless someone publicly thanks him. What he might end up doing is simply stopping a problem from getting bigger. It’s easy to see the value in someone fixing something. It’s harder to see the value in prevention, but do not be mistaken. It has plenty of value. In fact, given what we now know about managers and their ability to fight against “the grind”, this is the sort of thing that can have a major impact on a team. But that unseen work stretches throughout an organization. Teams are showing that they are taking this sort of thing seriously. The soft factors have real value, so it makes sense to devote real resources to them and to do it right. It might have looked like a minor organizational hire in January, but Rick Ankiel could actually end up producing a few more WAR behind the scenes for the Nationals. Maybe more than that other free agent guy they signed the other day.