One of the strangest things about this Spring for the Cardinals is the absence of Rick Ankiel. In some shape or form, Ankiel has been a part of the organization since his drafting right out of high school in 1997. The Cards letting him walk (and eventually sign with Kansas City) was probably the right decision, but it put an end to one of the strangest careers in Cardinal history.
It seems like a long time ago that Ankiel burst onto the scene in 1999 as the most ballyhooed Cardinal pitching prospect since Steve Carlton. The Phenom the Cardinals hadn't had in years. The promise Ankiel showed after a late callup in 1999 and during his rookie campaign of 2000 had Cardinal Nation salivating. His upper-90's fastball and a deadly 12 to 6 curveball at the tender age of 20 was something extraordinary. It was easy for us all to imagine Ankiel anchoring the Card rotation for years to come.
Then came the fateful postseason of 2000, when Ankiel lost his feel for the ball during the post-season. One of the most enduring and sad memories I have as a Cardinal fan is watching a bewildered Ankiel throwing ball after ball to the backstop in the NLCS against the Mets that year. It was difficult for anyone to not feel sorry for him.
Following a couple of injury plagued years in the minors, Ankiel returned in 2004 to limited success out of the bullpen. When he announced the following Spring that he was giving up pitching to become a hitter......most of Cardinal Nation rolled their eyes when Walt Jocketty announced that the Cards would give him that chance. His eventual return to the majors as an outfielder was something out of a storybook, with Ankiel homering in his first game back. His transformation to a hitter is something to be admired.....a transition that very few major league pitchers could ever have made. In addition, the throw he made from centerfield against Colorado in 2008 remains the best throw I have ever seen on a major league diamond. It was one of those plays where you watch the replay several times, and you're still not sure you believe what you are watching.
It was a strange journey in St. Louis for Ankiel and I hope only the best for him in Kansas City. He went through a lot of scrutiny and more than his share of bad times as a Cardinal, but he didn't complain and never made excuses. In spite of his struggles, he represented Cardinal Nation very well.