Friday, September 7, 2007

This is What Baseball Has Become

It was the feel good story of the year. Something to hold on to in a season that will forever be remembered for the mayhem that surrounded Barry Bonds breaking the all-time Major League Baseball home-run record. It was a story of perseverance and overcoming the odds. It personified what sports was all about. But it's not anymore. Now it personifies what baseball has become.

Eight years ago Rick Ankiel was the hottest pitching prospect in the nation. In 2000, his debut for the St. Louis Cardinals, Ankiel went 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA, 194 strike outs, and finished second in voting for the NL Rookie of the Year. The Cardinals won the Central Division and were matched up with the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs. And that's where it all began to fall apart for Ankiel.

Rick Ankiel got the call to start Game 1 against Greg Maddux and the Braves. He allowed a single and a double in the first two innings and gave up a couple walks, but he took the mound in the third with the Braves still off the board. In the third Ankiel threw 5 wild pitches, walked 4 batters and allowed 4 runs on 2 hits, before being replaced.

Despite his performance, the Cardinals swept the Braves, and advanced to the NL Championship series. Ankiel saw the mound again in Game 2 of the series, but 20 pitches into the first inning we was pulled. 5 pitches went past catcher, Eli Marrero, 2 of them ruled wild pitches.

In Game 5 of the series Ankiel was brought as a relief pitcher in the 7th inning. He faced only 5 batters, walking 2 and throwing 2 wild pitches. The Cards dropped game 5, and were eliminated from the playoffs.

After that, Ankiel's Major League career was essentially over. He made brief appearance with the Cardinals in 2001 season, but spent most of it in the St. Louis minor league system. He sat out the 2002 season with a left elbow sprain, and returned to the minors for 10 starts in 2003 before having season ending Tommy John surgery. Again he returned to the minors for the 2004 season, and eventually made a few relief appearances in the majors towards the end of September.

And that was it. It was an amazing story of an incredibly gifted young pitcher's collapse. Or at least that's how it was supposed to end. But instead Ankiel's returned to the minors for the 2005 season and announced he was transitioning from the mound to the outfield. He progressed through the next two seasons, and despite more injury trouble, he began working his way back up the Cardinals minor league system.

On the 9th of August, 2007, after posting impressive numbers for the St. Louis AAA minor league affiliate in Memphis, Rick Ankiel made his return to the Major Leagues. In the 7th inning with 2 runners on base, Ankiel hit a 3 run home run to right field. The first time a player had hit a home run as both a pitcher and a positional player in 50 years. Cardinals manager Tom LaRussa said short of the World Series victory, it was the happiest he had seen his ball club.

But it didn't end there, over the course of August Ankiel continued to impress. On the 11th he went 3-4 with 2 home runs, 3 RBIs. He drew a standing ovation from the crowd every time he stepped to the plate. On the 31st, with his team trailing by a run in the 6th inning, he hit his first career Grand Slam. Suddenly, with only a month left in the regular season, and after spending half the season in the minors, he became the favorite for the MLB Comeback Player of Year.

Last night against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rick Ankiel went 3 for 4, with a double, 2 home runs, and 7 RBIs. And this morning as sports fans awoke a crossed the country to drink a cup of coffee and check out the happenings of the sports world, it should have been just another installment in the amazing uplifting story that his career has become. But it wasn't. Instead the leading baseball story was from a report published in the New York Daily News alleging Rick Ankiel had purchased a 12-month supply of the Human Growth Hormones Saizen and Genotropin in 2004 from a Florida physician under investigation by the Albany County District Attorney.

The most surprising aspect of the story is that it really shouldn't be that surprising. Sure, his head hasn't ballooned like that of alleged HGH user Barry Bonds. He doesn't look monstrous like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, or Rafael Palmeiro. He's 6'1", 210 pounds. But this is what baseball has become. This is what it's regressed to.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one to white-wash baseball past. I realize that Mickey Mantle wasn't one the best of guys. And I know Babe Ruth greatly benefited from the Yankees having the left field fence in at a ridiculous 295 feet. But there is something different about everything in the steroid era. There is a great unknown that has transformed even the most naive fans into cynics. Some optimists talk of the possibility of Alex Rodriguez surpassing Bonds in Home Runs like the record will be saved. But who is to say A-Rod isn't juiced? Currently, though on the Major League Baseball Banned Substance list, HGH isn't even tested for. Granted, outside of a vague allegation by Jose Canseco (who at the time was pimping his latest book), no one has offered any serious evidence pointing to A-Rod as a steroids user, so it would be surprising.

But, really, it shouldn't be. This is what baseball has become.

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