Rick Ankiel offers patience, dual-sided baseball appeal in broadcast booth for Cardinals

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Jeff Curry/USA Today Sports

Dan Buffa, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

I didn’t recognize the voice at first, but I could swear it was familiar.

Dan McLaughlin, Bally Sports Midwest play-by-play voice, was calling the St. Louis Cardinals game against the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday, and the color analyst accompanying him clearly wasn’t Jim Edmonds (not enough texts being read out loud) or Brad Thompson (you can’t miss his energy). But when he offered the perspective of a hitter as well as a pitcher, I knew the name. Rick Ankiel. He was always the guy who reminded you of what he could do on a baseball field, and not what his voice sounded like.

Name a baseball player and former Cardinal with a richer backstory, and I will challenge you each time. Ankiel came up through the Redbird system as a pitcher, and not just any other arm on the roster. Ankiel’s curveball went 12 to 6 right in front of a hitter’s eyes at the plate, flipping through the air before disappearing into the dirt. He coupled that with a deadly high-octane fastball that sliced and rose upon delivery. All of this seemed to be pointing towards Cy Young destiny and immortal Uncle Charlie glory, but one October afternoon at Busch Stadium 2.0 in 2000, it all came to a sudden halt.

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I won’t waste much time with further details because the past is the past and doesn’t deserve too much of a role in a story that points forward. Ankiel lost control of his pitches that day and struggled to reacquire that touch over the next few years. All in all, his pitching career lasted 242 innings and 269 strikeouts, which left a bittersweet label on his potential… until he picked up a baseball bat and joined the other side of the attack.

Three years after his final MLB season as a pitcher, Ankiel smoked 11 home runs in 190 at-bats for the Cardinals. It’s hard to forget Tony La Russa’s genuine smile after Ankiel’s first official HR as a position player. He would hit 47 home runs in his first three seasons with St. Louis, before he played for a few other teams. A career that started with back-breaking curves ended with big swings to the fence. Using the phrase “one of a kind” can oddly get burnt out in pro sports, but it fits Ankiel.

After a brief time away from baseball, which included a book and starting a family, Ankiel tried to make a comeback to the St. Louis bullpen a few years ago. Imagine doing the impossible and deciding to go for even more impossible. A pitcher to a hitter to a pitcher? It didn’t come together, but the missed chance at pitching redemption did offer more time in the booth.

Ankiel is a natural color analyst. Think about it. It isn’t his job to talk nonstop and over McLaughlin. It’s to provide a unique commentary on the game that supports the play-by-play. One of the best aspects of his broadcasting ability is picking his spots to inject a comment about a particular player or situation. Ankiel matches up with Danny Mac so easily, complimenting the broadcast instead of overpowering it.

He also offers the extremely rare point of view of a guy who successfully pitched and hit in the Major Leagues. He wasn’t a flash in the pan. Ankiel finished second in Rookie of the Year voting back in 2000, striking out 194 batters in 175 innings. He hit 25 home runs in the 2008 season, slugging .506 with 21 doubles and 42 walks drawn. You don’t fool big league pitchers for that long. Ankiel finished with a .724 lifetime OPS as a hitter, which would resemble rock candy for this 2021 team at the moment.

He carries the sage knowledge and experience of a guy who rose, fell hard, and rose again. There’s also always time for a revisiting of Ankiel’s arguably most famous moment. During a game against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field, Ankiel — playing center field — fired not one, but two, dead-set rockets from the wall in the outfield to Troy Glaus at third base to nail runners trying to collect extra real estate. And it wasn’t like Ankiel got the ball, took a couple seconds to load up, and then released. As the fictional driving range pro Roy McAvoy would advise, he gripped it and ripped it.

So, you get him talking about hitting, playing the outfield, and pitching. You add in the Rocky-esque tale of crash and burn with the rebirth, and his stories never get old. Every generation needs to hear an Ankiel story so they understand that good times can happen after a knockdown. A kid with a turbulent childhood like Ankiel-who rose to the highest level of his sport at two completely different positions, on both sides of the television set-can inspire like no other.

If I were choosing the rotation at Bally Sports Midwest, I would write Ankiel’s name on the lineup card more often. He’s patient, offers a dual-sided game appeal, and can crack a few jokes without pulling all the attention on himself.