In a surprise move this past week, Memphis Redbirds outfielder Rick Ankiel declined to take his elected place on the 2007 Pacific Coast League All-Star Team roster. Ankiel, who turns 28 in two weeks, is competing in that role at the Triple-A level for the first time this season, though he had experience there in his celebrated and troubled earlier life as a pitcher.
This season, Ankiel is second in the PCL with 22 home runs and his standout play has caught the fancy of many. After all, chicks (and all fans alike) dig the long ball. But, is there more to it than that?
Ankiel was selected as a 2007 PCL All-Star via fan voting and according to one report, garnered almost 20% more votes than the next most popular player. Yet, he elected not to participate in the Triple-A All-Star Game, scheduled July 11 in Albuquerque.
The reason provided by the player and his manager is that the time off is needed to give Ankiel’s knee a rest break. The outfielder missed the entire 2006 season following surgery for patellar tendinitis in his left knee.
Ankiel is currently playing every day in centerfield for the Redbirds, even when the designated hitter role is available, so he certainly seems physically able to compete in Albuquerque. Instead, one has to assume that Ankiel prefers to avoid media scrutiny during the three days of All-Star festivities.
Our Scout.com Memphis beat writer Brent Diederich seems to confirm the theory, observing that “Ankiel is just plain done with the media; he wants no part of any kind of interview or attention.”
That seems most plausible. After all, how many times can he be asked the same questions about his past – questions for which he likely has no answers?
Yet, did Ankiel inadvertently draw even more unwanted attention to himself by his controversial decision to stay home from the Triple-A All-Star Game?
Diederich offers considerable eyewitness evidence that the big boys of the media world have descended upon Memphis in recent days. While not on a pilgrimage to Graceland, they’ve found their subject almost as elusive as The King.
“The New York Times, USA Today and ESPN’s Outside the Lines have all been to Memphis the past week and all wanted stories on Ankiel. Unfortunately I know they didn't leave happy as they didn't get what they wanted, but that's just the way he is, just not media friendly anymore,” our reporter observed.
Let’s put on the table the dirty little question no one wants to ask.
How much of Ankiel’s allure is his play as an up-and-coming power-hitting outfielder and how much is morbid curiosity about the former pitching star – the man who lost his control during the 2000 playoffs, worked his way back after a series of injuries, only to inexplicably walk off the mound in Spring Training, 2005, deciding he no longer wanted to pitch?
As much as Ankiel the promising outfielder wants to fit into the background, the notoriety of Ankiel the unfulfilled pitcher will seemingly never, ever let him quietly escape.
After all, he has been in the Cardinals organization over eleven years now since having been drafted in 1997. The second-round pick received an estimated $2.5 million bonus at the time, and expectations have remained high ever since – expectations that Ankiel has consistently struggled to meet, no matter what role he played.
Here and now, Ankiel would probably prefer to remain low-key in his approach as he toils to complete his yet-unfinished business in learning to play the outfield and becoming a more polished hitter. Yet, his ever-improving, attention-getting results indicate time is rapidly running out.
At most, his days and nights in Triple-A will last just another month or two, until Ankiel’s bat and glove totally erode the remnants of the initially-credible arguments that he needed more minor league seasoning.
Certainly by September and perhaps sooner, Rick Ankiel will outgrow Memphis and the call will be made for him to return to St. Louis.
One aspect seems clear. The already uncomfortable media scrutiny will only increase, perhaps to levels not seen in St. Louis since the days of Mark McGwire, especially if Ankiel excels. No one can be sure of its impact on the player.
The Cardinals brass would never admit it even if true, but I can't help but wonder if there is more to consider than just his play on the field regarding the timing of Ankiel’s return to the majors. May they prefer to select a time when the pressure and attention would be lowest possible to give Ankiel the best chance to plant his feet firmly on the ground? Would they be wrong in doing so?
The most recent case similar to Ankiel's would have to be Cincinnati Reds’ outfielder Josh Hamilton. Tampa Bay’s former 1999 first-rounder self-destructed off the field, leaving the game entirely before righting his personal and professional ship and unexpectedly reaching the majors in 2007.
Since Spring Training, the media scrutiny on Hamilton has been intense, even more so when he was hospitalized earlier this season with intestinal problems. I don't know if the focus in Cincinnati and on the road has diminished yet, but can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a segment of people, fans and media alike, guilty of ambulance-chasing, just waiting for a slip.
Perhaps someday after Rick Ankiel returns to the majors, the continual media probing of his past will diminish and he is given a fair chance to be just another big-league outfielder. But, don’t expect it anytime soon.
What can we do?
As much as many well-intentioned Cardinals fans want to see Ankiel in the St. Louis outfield yesterday, why not let the professionals who are being paid to guide the man balance the needs of both the organization and the player himself?
In the meantime, all the questions and scrutiny may not be helping smooth Rick Ankiel’s already-bumpy comeback road to the Major Leagues.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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