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Let's Go to the Videotape: The Ankiel Meltdown

You've seen worse, Rick.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
You've seen worse, Rick. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
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The Mets' rather quiet offseason has reached the spare parts phase, and one thing they still lack (that they can afford, anyway) is a lefty bat off the bench. As such, within the last few days, rumors have rumbled that they may have interest in outfielder Rick Ankiel. Not a bad option as a lefty bat--not a great one, but not a bad one either.

However, I wonder if Ankiel would really want to come to the Mets, because it was against the Mets that the first phase of his career, for all intents and purposes, ended.

In the 2000 playoffs, while the Mets were dispatching of the Giants in four games, the Cardinals rolled right over the mighty Braves, sweeping them while barely breaking a sweat. Which is not to say they didn't have issues. A freak injury involving a hunting knife knocked out regular catcher Mike Matheny, and Mark McGwire's knee issues limited him to pinch hitting duty. Starter Garrett Stephenson was also dealing with an injury, which just served to exacerbate concerns about their rookie lefthander Rick Ankiel.

It's hard to remember just how good Ankiel was when he first came up, and just how much promise fans saw in him. With a plus-fastball and a devastating curveball, Ankiel's stuff drew comparisons to Sandy Koufax, and at the time that comparison it didn't seem complete blasphemy.

Ankiel had earned enough trust with Tony LaRussa to draw the game one start in the division series against Atlanta, beating out the much more experienced Darryl Kile for that honor. He did have a flair for wildness, issuing 90 walks and unleashing 12 wild pitches during the regular season, but no one could have imagined what happened during that game. After the Cardinals hung six runs on Greg Maddux (aided by some weird errors), Ankiel allowed the Braves to crawl back into the game with a bout of wildness that resulted in five wild pitches in a single inning, a dubious mark no pitcher had ever achieved.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, they won anyway, 7-5, and cruised to a series win. Unfortunately, the injury to Stephenson prevented any thought of subbing for Ankiel in the playoff rotation. LaRussa had little choice but to run Ankiel out as his NLCS game two starter, cross his fingers, and hope for the best. He didn't get it.

For years, this game was my white whale. I desperately wanted to see again, but all my internet scouring was in vain. I wanted it because A) I didn't have it, and B) I wondered if Ankiel's performance was as awful as I remembered, or still as hard to watch as available descriptions of it made it sound. A few months ago, I was finally able to get my hands on a copy of game two of the 2000 NLCS. My conclusion is yes, it is every bit as brutal as all that.

This is extremely difficult to watch, even when you know exactly what's coming. Ankiel is completely out of whack, mechanically, mentally, emotionally. When the ball leaves his hand, no one knows where it will go, least of all him. He manages to strike out the first batter he faces, Timo Perez, which only gives the crowd false hope. And even during that at bat, he uncorks a pitch to the backstop. Shots of the Cardinals dugout show LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan grimacing, gesturing ineffectually, doing whatever they can to transmit some semblance of control to Ankiel, all for nought.

He only lasted 2/3 of an inning, threw two more wild pitches (a tally that doesn't include all the pitches that eluded the catcher with no one on base), and allowed two runs. The Cardinals went on to drop a sloppy affair, 6-5, and fall behind in the NLCS two games to none.

As if all this weren't enough, this game was broadcast on Fox, which means Buck and McCarver called it, lending another layer of indignity to the episode. For those of you who prefer not to hear those voices, here's the WFAN radio call with Bob Murphy and Gary Cohen, who are sympathetic to Ankiel's plight while also being good at their jobs.

This is split into two pieces because YouTube told me to. Part One:

Part Two:

However, this incident in and of itself is not what makes me think Ankiel wouldn't come to the Mets. It's what happened a few days later, during game five of the NLCS. The matter of the Mets winning that game was practically a foregone conclusion once they scored three runs in their first turn at bat. It was further cemented when Todd Zeile hit a bases-clearing double in the bottom of the fourth to knock Pat Hentgen out of the game and put the Mets up 6-0. In the broadcast booth, Buck and McCarver whined about Shea Stadium swaying and the jet-engine decibels of the PA system.

In the bottom of the seventh, with things seemingly out of reach, LaRussa decided to send Ankiel out for one last ditch attempt to repair his mechanics and self esteem. Fox's cameras captured pitching coach Dave Wallace hoping that the Mets fans would "do the right thing" with Ankiel on the mound.

Ankiel's first two pitches were more or less normal, but his third sailed up and in to Mike Bordick. From that point forward, the Shea Stadium crowd hounded him relentlessly, chanting WILD PITCH and letting out expectant WHOAHs with each pitch out of the strike zone. Ankiel eventually wound up giving up two more wild pitches, bringing his postseason total to nine.

I can't think of an athlete in any sport who had his career implode in as ugly fashion as Ankiel's. There have been other players who suddenly lost it, even pitchers, but guys like Steve Blass or Chuck Knoblauch seemed to lose it gradually. With Ankiel, it all disappeared at once, and on the biggest stage imaginable. That he returned to play in any capacity at the major league level is something of a miracle.

Watching this clip from game five of the NLCS now, I can't imagine him wanting to come back to the place (and specifically, the fans) most associated with his death as a pitcher. But hey, stranger things have happened. Remember when we had to cheer for Jeff Francoeur?