And with that, one of the strangest career trajectories in modern baseball finally came to an end.
The Cardinals drafted Ankiel right out of high school in 1997, and by 2000, he was No. 1 on Baseball America’s annual list of top prospects.
He had a stellar first season that culminated in one of the few managing mistakes Tony La Russa ever made: Ankiel’s arm spiraled out of control when he started the National League Division Series, throwing wild pitches and walking so many Braves that the stream of players circling the bases looked more like something you’d see at a T-ball game than a match-up between two teams battling to go to the World Series. He repeated the same performance against the Mets in the National League Championship Series, and the Cards would have to wait another four years to make it to the World Series and six to earn their 10th championship in franchise history.
Ankiel continued to struggle for the next few seasons, battling injuries and moving in and out of the minor leagues. If he were anyone else, the story might have ended there: a promising high school player achieves some moderate success, chokes and then fades into obscurity.
But because he’s not any other player, Ankiel instead spent the next few years training as an outfielder. He’d always been a strong hitter for a pitcher, and his crazy pitching arm worked in the outfield. Ankiel’s first game back included a three-run home run against the Braves, and his continued dominance at the plate left him slated to replace Jimmy Baseball himself when long-time centerfielder Jim Edmonds was traded to the Padres.
It was the ultimate comeback story, until Ankiel ran into another slump. Between 2009 and 2013, he was traded more often than the most desirable present in a game of Yankee Swap, playing for the Royals, the Braves, the Nationals, the Astros and the Mets.
As he tries to move on to the front office, it’s worth remembering the 2000s’ most doggedly determined comeback kid, and the best outfield arm in the MLB.
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