Dear nine-year-old Rick:
Before you sprint out to the mound for this Little League game, I want you to do a few things for me. Two favors, basically.
The first one’s pretty simple. I just want you to take a moment and check out that word written in script lettering across the front of your uniform.
It says …
Now, I get that this word doesn’t really mean anything to you right now. But take pride in it — in being a Cardinal. Just trust me here. You’ll understand why by the end of this letter.
Second, I want you to promise me that for the next few hours you’ll focus on this game that you love so much and just go out and be a kid. Pitch and run and hit and high-five and jump around and just … have a blast. Don’t think about anything other than doing what you love.
You deserve that escape, an experience of pure joy, after what went down last night — the screams from Mom, her cries for help, the sound of fists meeting flesh, all of it.
And, as much as I hate to say it, it’s looking like tonight might be more of the same back home.
So enjoy these two hours, kid.
Clear your head. Play your heart out. Laugh with your buddies and be thankful that baseball sometimes allows you to forget about everything else.
Then, when the game is over … maybe snag one of those bats leaning up against the fence and sneak it home with you.
Just in case it gets really bad later tonight.
If it does get bad later, if Dad comes home from the bar wrecked again, and looking to hurt Mom, here’s what I want you to do — because we both know you’re going to be too scared to use that bat on him, and you’ll be way too afraid to call the cops on your own father.
Tonight, if it happens again, I want you to try a new approach.
Instead of feeling guilty and blaming yourself all night for not being able to help Mom, I want you to try as hard as you can to tell yourself that this is not your fault.
What’s happening is not your fault!
You’re just a little kid. And as much as you wish you could save Mom from this nightmare, and from all the pain, there isn’t much you can do beyond comforting her after the beatings, and telling her that you love her, and that you’re sorry for what she’s going through.
Feeling guilty is only going to make things worse for you.
Instead I want you to tell yourself over and over again that you can get through anything.
Look, I know you feel completely powerless right now, and … weak. But you’re a strong kid — much stronger than you realize. And that strength is going to serve you well in the years to come.
You and Mom are gonna get through this rough patch together. And before too long you’re going to accomplish some truly remarkable things as a result of sheer persistence and determination and toughness. You’re about to embark on one of the most incredible, improbable, amazing sporting lives in history.
For starters, you’ll be happy to know that you’re going to be a Cardinal for the next four years — when you’re 9, 10, 11 and 12 — and then again when you’re 14 and 15. You’re just somehow going to keep ending up in a Cardinals uniform.
So that’s cool.
Because the Cards have the best fans. Bar none. Even at the Little League level … in a sleepy beach town … on the Florida coast, Cardinals fans are just … the best. The parents will have this song: “Ohh, engowa … Cardinals got the power!” You’ll hear it nonstop. Every game. All game long. And it will have you pumped every time.
You’re smaller than most of the other kids, and kind of pudgy. And that won’t change anytime soon. So you won’t be the best player on your team. But you’re going to get better and better with time, and when high school rolls around something almost magical is going to happen.
One day you’ll be on the mound throwing 84 and be pretty good. Then you’ll wake up the next day and somehow be throwing 94. With a ton of work, you’ll turn your curveball into a big-league caliber pitch, and your numbers will be off-the-charts good. You’re going to become untouchable. And senior year, after not giving up a single run — earned or unearned — during the regular season, you’ll have this thought:
I can be the best pitcher who ever lived.
You’ll have struck out 162 batters in 74 innings. So it won’t just be one of those pipe-dream type things, either. You’ll really believe it.
And so will a bunch of scouts.
At first, after you get drafted by the Cardinals in ’97, everything will sort of come easy. It will almost seem too easy, actually. During your first season of pro ball, you’re going to break a record at Single A that many people thought might stand forever. You’ll go 17.2 consecutive innings without giving up a hit, and in doing that you’ll eclipse the mark previously held by one of your idols growing up, Dwight Gooden. The following year you’ll have a 2.35 ERA and be named minor league pitcher of the year.
And then, almost before you know it, only 16 months after your first game as a professional, you’re going to get the call.
By 2000, you’re going to already be a top-of-the-rotation major league starter for the Cards. You’ll be 20. Living your dream. Doing what you love. And doing it better than almost any other human being on the planet.
You’ll be riding high, kid. On top of the world.
But here’s the thing about that….
I need you to listen up here. You cannot allow baseball to become your entire life, your complete identity. As wonderful as the game is, and as much as you love this sport, you also need to work on developing yourself as a person. There needs to be something more to Rick Ankiel — and to your world — than just baseball.
Make friends with people outside the sport, learn new things … heck, get good at golf.
Just, you know, in case things don’t go exactly as planned.
October 3, 2000.
It’s going to be a Tuesday. The weather will be perfect — almost too perfect for early fall in St. Louis.
Eighty two, with a slight breeze. Blue skies and sunshine.
You’ll be starting Game 1 of the NLDS at Busch Stadium against the Atlanta Braves and a future Hall of Famer named Greg Maddux.
I know, right? Unreal.
It will be your coming out party on the national stage, kid. The entire baseball world will tune in to see the 21-year-old rookie fireballer who has been striking out more than a batter an inning in the bigs.
Listen, there’s no easy way to put this.
It’s gonna be a rough day.
You’re going to be staked to a 6–0 lead in the first inning, and you’ll be cruising along. Then, in the top of the third you’ll throw a cutter to Andruw Jones. It will be off the inside corner a bit, and maybe a little low. It won’t be a terrible pitch, but it’ll get past the catcher for a wild pitch.
It happens. No big thing, really.
For some reason, your mind will immediately go to this thought:
Millions and millions of people just saw me throw a wild pitch on national television.
Then you’ll think about your family watching the game, and your friends. You’ll think about your hometown, and how you had wanted to represent for Port St. Lucie. And your teammates. And the manager who trusted you enough to give a rookie the ball in Game 1 of the playoffs.
You’ll think about all the people you’re letting down.
You’ll think all of that stuff … in the span of about three seconds.
And just like that, without even really knowing it, you’ll be shook.
After another wild pitch, you’ll walk Andruw. Then you’ll throw an even wilder pitch to the next batter, Chipper Jones. That one isn’t going to be anywhere close to the plate. From there, it’s going to snowball on you.
I’ll spare you all the details of what follows, but there will be two more wild pitches and four walks that inning. Four runs will score.
You’re going to be forced from the game before getting the third out of the inning.
And you’re not going to know what hit you.
It’s gonna be like … What the f*** was that all about?
You will not see this coming. Not in a million years.
Everything will seem so perfect when the Cards draft you straight out of high school, and you’ll pass every test on your way up the ladder. The possibility of failure, on any level, in any way, is never going to cross your mind.
Not even for a second.
You’ll be so successful, so dominant, coming up in the Cards’ system that your Double A catcher, a guy named Keith McDonald, is going to start telling the hitters what pitches you’re about to throw. He’ll want to see how you handle adversity, so you’ll be better equipped to deal with it the first time you struggle in the bigs.
Now, let me give you a bit of scoop at this point, just as an aside: Eighteen years after that happens, you’re still going to be kind of pissed off about that s***.
But the point here is that you’re going to be so successful at the minor league level that people on your own team will have to try to create struggles for you. They’ll help batters cheat in order to give them a shot at hitting your stuff….
And you know what? It won’t make any difference, man.
You’re not going to struggle. And when you get called up in 1999, as a 19-year-old kid, you’re going to be more convinced than ever that you’re on the path to being one of the best to ever play the game.
Ronald C. Modra/Sport Imagery/Getty Images
On that first day in the majors, you’re going to be playing catch with guys on the big league squad — guys you haven’t heard of yet, but who will be big-time pitchers by the time you break in, Darryl Kile, Matt Morris, a few others — and you’re going to notice something.
Your stuff is better than theirs.
You’ll be able to tell. You’ll know it. And, you know what? They’ll know it, too.
You’ll be throwing harder than them, with more movement. So you’ll never be more confident than on that first afternoon at Busch Stadium. But really, before you even arrive at the ballpark, you’re going to be feeling like you can take on the world.
People will recognize you in the airport that day. The fans are going to blow you away. You won’t even have played for the big league team yet, and they’ll already know you. They’ll know your stats! They’ll offer to buy you a beer. (Politely decline.) Or to introduce you to their daughters. (Again, steer clear.) It will seem like someone is pranking you.
But it will be real — a dream come true in every way.
And then, out of nowhere….
That October 3rd nightmare is going to hit you like a ton of bricks.
After the game, you’ll blame everything on a mechanical hiccup.
“This is nothing,” you’ll tell the reporters gathered around your locker. “It will never happen again.”
That’s what you’ll say.
But … you won’t be sure, really. Because you will have no idea what the f*** happened to you out there on that mound against the Braves.
When you take the hill next, for a second-round matchup with the Mets, and proceed to throw the ball over Timo Perez’s head, toss five pitches to the backstop in the first inning and get pulled after getting only two outs….
That’s when you’ll know.
It’s going to be something called the yips … and it’s going to pretty much completely take over the next four years of your life.
During the offseason, you’re going to take every approach you can think of to get beyond your throwing problems … and that will only result in the yips tightening its grip on you. You’ll ignore it for a while. Then you’ll dig in and try to get to the bottom of it. You’ll talk with a sports psychologist for hours and hours about your childhood, and how your dad called you terrible names and didn’t show you the love you deserved as a kid. You’ll drink beer and smoke weed. You’ll throw hundreds of pitches — thousands, maybe — at a particular spot on a brick wall to show yourself that you can still be precise with your pitches. You’ll read articles about Steve Blass and Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch, and all the other guys who never got back to their former level of success after they ran into throwing problems.
You’ll do … everything.
And when you come back to camp the following spring, there will be 30 cameras on you anytime you go out on the field and play catch.
I wish I could give you some solid advice for how to handle that. But, really, I don’t know what to say. It’s going to be a near impossible situation.
Every day will be a struggle, and before you know it you’ll have gone from that invincible kid who blazed his way through the minors to someone who has no idea where the ball is headed when he releases it from his hand.
And you’ll have no idea how to fix it.
The constant questioning, the heckling from people in the stands, that’s going to be difficult. Your mind and body are going to become conditioned to going through hell on game days, though. You’ll adapt to that situation.
But those days in between starts….
Those will be rough, man.
It will be a 24/7 battle, with no off days.
You’ll have this recurring dream that you’re on the mound and just cannot throw a strike. You’ll try and try, but every pitch will be more wild than the one before. It will just get worse and worse until … you wake up soaked in sweat, your heart beating out of your chest.
So, on top of everything else, you’re never going to be properly rested when you get to the ballpark.
In the clubhouse, a lot of guys will steer clear of you — the last thing anyone in baseball wants is to somehow “catch” the yips by talking or thinking too much about this thing that randomly latches on to guys without any warning. But some of the older players will sit you down and try to help.
You’ll hear it all. Everyone will have an idea.
Picture the catcher’s mitt as a cement block in the middle of a giant wall? Sure. Why not?
Tap your toe on the rubber before every pitch? O.K.
Sneak some vodka into the water bottle you use during a start?
That’s going too far.
That’s a line I’m not going to cross.
Wait … you know what?
What the hell? Let’s see if this might actually work.
You’re going to be desperate. Struggling. Searching. Reaching … for anything that might be able to help in some way.
So you’ll throw at imaginary bricks, and tap your toe for no reason, and … yes … you’ll try pitching a major league game or two buzzed, in the hopes of figuring something out.
After a while, you’ll try so many things that you won’t even remember what square one was.
And, I am sad to report: None of that stuff is going to work.
There isn’t going to be an easy fix here, buddy.
But here’s the thing: It won’t break you. It won’t defeat you. And you’ll actually be a better man for it.
And that’s what I want you to take away from this part of your life.
You are a strong person. Always remember that.
The Cardinals, God bless ’em, aren’t going to give up on you.
They’ll send you down to the minors — all the way down … Johnson City, rookie ball — and give you all the time and support you need to figure out how to overcome your throwing issues.
So, listen up here. This is important.
Do not let that organization, or Cardinals fans, down. Do everything in your power to show them how grateful you are for their kindness. Take nothing for granted. Bust your butt every single day to get back out there in front of those fans at Busch.
Because if you do that, and just work your ass off, I can promise you that you will make it back. You’ll make it back to Busch. You’ll get 10 innings with the Cardinals in 2004. But the grind won’t be worth it. The mental exercises you have to do all day to be ready for the call from the bullpen will be too much.
But here again, don’t give up. Just get … how should I put this….
When the throwing problems continue during several seasons in the minors — and the nightmares persist and the injuries begin to mount — be open to another way forward.
A weird way.
At one point, in 2005, you’re going to retire from baseball.
But when your retirement is only four hours old, you’re going to get a phone call.
“Are you ready to go play?”
That will be the question your agent, a guy named Scott Boras, puts to you over the phone on the same day that you inform Cardinals manager Tony La Russa that you’ve decided to call it a career.
You’ll just stay silent there for a second.
“I think you can make it as an outfielder, Rick.”
You’ll think he’s crazy at first.
But, you know what? You hit bombs in BP, and sometimes in games, too. Always have. I mean, why couldn’t you do it?
Within moments of hearing the idea, you’ll envision yourself hitting long home runs at the stadium. You’ll be able to hear that crowd roar for you.
Just like rookie year.
So, please, I’m begging you here: Be willing to reinvent yourself … and then dive in with all you’ve got.
Become an outfielder, kid.
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
I know, I know. That sounds insane.
I just told you a few minutes ago that you’re going to be a major league pitcher, and now I’m talking about you being an outfielder. In the bigs.
But trust me when I tell you that reinventing yourself as an outfielder is going to be a blast.
First off, all the anxiety and stress and worry and anguish that you felt as a pitcher will be gone. Completely. It will vanish. Just like that. And from the very first day you make the switch, it will be fun to come to the ballpark again.
It will be work, of course. Hard work. And it will take some time — among a zillion other things, you’ll need to somehow learn how to hit a frickin’ cut fastball.
But make no mistake about it, your bat is going to be your true ticket back to St. Louis.
That first at bat back at Busch, pay attention to your front leg.
It won’t be easy, because the fans are going to be going berserk. It’ll be a standing ovation unlike anything you’ve ever experienced — just a giant wave of applause, and then an incredible buzz that seems to sink into your body and fill up your heart with happiness and joy.
I’m not telling you to ignore that moment. Experience it. Definitely. Soak it in.
But also, in the midst of doing that, just take a split second to look down at your front leg as you step into the box.
As you get into your batting stance and put weight on your back leg, your front leg is going to come up off the ground and be shaking uncontrollably.
Like, really, really shaking.
And you won’t be able to make it stop.
For a split second, you’re going to have a thought that will remind you of something that crossed your mind during that playoff outing against the Braves in 2000.
People are going to see my leg shaking. Everyone watching this game on TV can totally see my leg going crazy right now.
But then, just like that, the thought will disappear.
And even after you pop up the first pitch you see, the Cards fans will still clap like crazy.
With that applause, they’re going to be telling you that they’ve got your back. That they always did. That you’re someone they care about.
Seven innings later, you’ll reward that loyalty with a moment so special and surreal that it almost seems too good to be true.
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
As you’re rounding the bases, it’s going to feel like the entire city of St. Louis is pulling you in and giving you a gigantic hug.
Two outs in the bottom of the seventh, runners on second and third.
At that point your redbirds will be up 2–0 over the Padres. Two–1 count.
You’re going to take a curve on the outside of the plate and yank it out towards right field.
When it crosses over the fence, that stadium is going to go nuts.
It’s going to feel like you’re floating around the bases, and it will all happen so fast, but as you’re making your way home be sure to look up into the crowd.
Look at the joy on all those faces. Feel that happiness.
They know what you’ve been through.
And, at that moment, as you’re rounding the bases, it’s going to feel like the entire city of St. Louis is pulling you in and giving you a gigantic hug.
So by this point I’m sure you realize why I told you earlier to take pride in that Little League jersey.
Once a Cardinal, always a Cardinal, man!
Your relationship with the Cards, and the people of St. Louis, is going to be special.
I’m pretty sure no other team would have put up with all the throwing difficulties for as long as they will, and I can’t imagine too many teams letting you switch to a position player after you tell them you’re retiring.
There are going to be so many points along the way where they could have bailed on you. The Cardinals, though, and the whole city of St. Louis really … they are going to stick with you.
Even after you play for a few other teams later in your career — heck, even after you retire from the game and spend most of your time in Florida with your family — the people of St. Louis are still going to show you so much love.
Jeff Roberson/AP Images
Any time you go back, they’re going to treat you like a Hall of Famer — like you’re Musial or Ozzie Smith … not some guy who threw a bunch of pitches over batters’ heads for a while in the early 2000s.
They will have made you part of their family — the Cardinals family.
And It’s never going to stop being special.
So if, as you grow up, you only remember one thing that I tell you in this letter — aside from, well, you know … always have a backup plan — let it be this: Show all the love you can to that city and those fans in return. And when the time comes, raise your own kids as Cardinals fans and have a blast sharing your mutual love for the greatest baseball franchise in the entire world.
Then one day, when they’re old enough, and when you’re feeling especially strong, sit them down and tell them about your dad, and what you and Mom went through back in the day, and about the yips, and all the other things that could have gotten the best of you during your life.
Tell them about how you never let any of those things defeat you, and about how you are living, breathing proof that they can do anything they put their minds to.