Rick Ankiel was supposed to be baseball’s next big thing. Sports Illustrated, in 1999, dubbed the then 19-year-old lefthander the St. Louis Cardinals prospect, “Can’t miss kid.”
Only, he missed a lot.
Ankiel got a case of the yips so bad that he now says he had to drink vodka before a baseball game to calm his nerves. Here’s the set-up:
St. Louis called up Ankiel in the 2000 season and, when injuries crushed the Cardinals pitching staff, he started game 1 of the NLDS against the Braves. In one of the biggest meltdowns in post season history, Ankiel threw NINE (!) wild pitches in four innings of work. This video gives a sample of how wild he was:
Fast forward to the 2001 season. This is how Ankiel described his first start to 590 The Fan’s “The Ryan Kelley Morning After”:
“Before that game…I’m scared to death. I know I have no chance. Feeling the pressure of all that, right before the game I get a bottle of vodka. I just started drinking vodka. Low and behold, it kind of tamed the monster, and I was able to do what I wanted. I’m sitting on the bench feeling crazy I have to drink vodka to pitch through this. It worked for that game. (I had never drank before a game before). It was one of those things like the yips, the monster, the disease…it didn’t fight fair so I felt like I wasn’t going to fight fair either.”
Ankiel threw five innings that day. He struck out eight, walked three and got the win – his last as a starting pitcher. He couldn’t cure the yips, but in a testament to the kind of athlete he was, he remade himself as a centerfielder. He ended up playing another seven seasons for six teams and hung up the spikes for good in 2013.
Ankiel now works as an announcer for the Cardinals and is promoting his book, The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life