His Toes tingled. That's what St. Louis Cardinals lefthander Rick Ankiel remembers about the morning of Oct. 3, 2000. He woke up much earlier than he wanted, tried to go back to sleep but could not. That's when he felt his toes tingling. Weird, he thought.
It was his day to pitch—not just any day but the opening day of a Division Series against the defending National League champions, the Atlanta Braves—and he was starting opposite four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux. Ankiel was 21 years old. His mother, Denise, would be in the stands at Busch Stadium. His father, Richard, could not make it because he was in federal prison. Richard was a cocaine runner with a rap sheet older than his son.
In the considered wisdom of Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, Ankiel, though a rookie, was equipped for the cauldron of this Game 1 start but not for the media interview room the day before. La Russa had sent veteran righthander Darryl Kile there as a ruse, giving the impression that Kile would be St. Louis's Game 1 starter.
Ankiel could not have known it, not even by the odd sensation in his toes, but he woke up a different pitcher that morning. He had gone to bed a prodigy, blessed with a gift for throwing 95-mph fastballs as if they were thunderbolts from Zeus and sweeping curveballs that broke like Lombard Street. Only three years removed from Port St. Lucie ( Fla.) High, he had whiffed 194 batters (eclipsing Dizzy Dean's 68-year-old franchise record for strikeouts by a rookie), had fanned batters at a better rate (9.98 per nine innings) than every other National League starter except Randy Johnson and hadn't lost in two months.
That afternoon and in two subsequent postseason appearances, Ankiel transmogrified before a national audience into a burlesque act that was among the wildest displays of pitching ever. In just four innings in those three playoff games, Ankiel walked 11 batters and threw nine wild pitches, including five in one inning—nobody in 110 years had done that—but not including assorted other scattershots to the backstop with no one on base.
The Cardinals beat the Braves but were eliminated from the postseason by the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series. Soon after, Ankiel and a teammate, righthander Matt Morris, drove from St. Louis to their winter homes in Florida, taking turns behind the wheel. Somewhere along the long ribbon of asphalt Ankiel blurted out to Morris, "What a way to start your career! My first year, and it winds up a big mess! Maybe five or six years from now I'll look back on it and laugh."
The first clues as to where Ankiel's career is going will come this week when the Cardinals open their spring training camp in Jupiter, Fla. Now more petri dish than phenom, Ankiel will be put under the microscope by team personnel and members of the media as they try to make sense of what happened in October. It was either an untimely breakdown in confidence, mechanics and nerves—that's what he and the Cardinals believe—or it was a manifestation of a phenomenon so feared among ballplayers that they speak of it, if they dare to at all, as a monster: the Thing. It's the sudden and inexplicable loss of control that killed the career of 1970s Pittsburgh Pirates ace Steve Blass and sidetracked Braves star reliever Mark Wohlers, who made comeback strides with the Cincinnati Reds last season.
"To me it was a mental block," Morris says. "He'll be fine. He's handled it great. But you know people will be watching, even if he looks fine. It's like a recovering alcoholic. You're never recovered, you're always recovering."
Ankiel has always carried himself with a cocksure strut and hasn't given even a hint of introspection. Second baseman Adam Kennedy, the Cardinals' first-round pick in the 1997 draft (Ankiel fell to the second round because of his demand for a huge signing bonus, which wound up being $2.5 million), remembers when he first met Ankiel later that year. "He had confidence and arrogance written all over him," says Kennedy, now with the Anaheim Angels. The two prospects became close friends. Two years later Ankiel's agent, Scott Boras, watched his then 20-year-old client pitch in his first big league game—a five-inning, six-strikeout no-decision against the Montreal Expos—after which Boras excitedly asked him, "The major leagues! How was it?"
"Oh," droned Ankiel, "it was O.K."