CLEVELAND — The comeback idea, hatched almost a year ago when he returned to the mound on a lark, has likely ended for Rick Ankiel before it could truly start this summer.
Ankiel is reaching a "decision time," his agent Scott Boras told the Post-Dispatch at the All-Star Game. That decision — whether he wants to try to ramp up his throwing with the intent to compete, or not attempt a third act in baseball — comes at age 40.
"He's a gifted athlete, capable of doing many things," Boras said. "But he has to make that call. He's coming up on decision time."
The delay could be the decision.
Ankiel's planned comeback, which he discussed as an analyst on Fox Sports Midwest and with St. Louis reporters, was sidetracked this past fall when he required elbow surgery to repair a damaged ligament. Ankiel had the procedure called "primary repair" -- the same one that Seth Maness had -- to allow for a swifter return than Tommy John surgery's standard yearlong rehab.
Ankiel had hoped to be ready to sign a minor-league contract with a team in May or June and see if he could compete for a role in the second half of the major-league season.
The Cardinals said they would be waiting with an offer, and they did check in with the lefty within the past month. John Mozeliak, the president of baseball operations, said he did not hear back from Ankiel.
Ankiel had begun a throwing program and strengthening in the spring. He shared some video of his workouts on social media. But a person familiar with Ankiel's work said the recovery had plateaued.
Asked at spring training if he would pitch by his 40th birthday, Ankiel grinned and said, "You guys just gave me a goal."
He acknowledged at the time that the rehab process was uncertain, and he did not have any guarantees how his elbow would respond.
Ankiel, who turns 40 on July 19, got the itch to pitch late last season while playing on a team with other former major-league players. In Louisville, Ky., he struck out the only batter he faced. He had not pitched competitively since 2004, and the next spring, during a sudden announcement at Cardinals' spring training, he retired as a pitcher only to return to camp a few days later, borrow an outfielder's glove from Jim Edmonds, and begin reinventing himself as a power hitting outfielder.
He worked his way through the minors in the new role and returned to the majors, homering in his first game back as an outfielder.
From 2008 to 2009, he appeared in 240 games for the Cardinals and had 36 homers and 109 RBIs. He was a league-average hitter according to his OPS.
A dozen years after his final pitch, Ankiel described his trouble with control, the yips, and what he referred to as "the monster" in an autobiography. The process of writing that book, with Yahoo! Sports baseball writer Tim Brown, helped him sort through his feelings of anxiety when pitching, tame them, and he would later say look at pitching anew, as something he wanted to try again and possibly something he'd like his kids to see him do.
After the outing in the exhibition game, during which he touched 89 mph, he told Brown that he was "toying" with the idea of a comeback.
Ankiel had returned to the Cardinals' fold as part of the Fox Sports Midwest broadcasts, and the club, with its past relationship with the lefty, said it was intrigued by his comeback and eager to be the testing ground for him. The Cardinals offered their facility as a place where he could work out. The team doctor performed the elbow surgery Ankiel required. And when he was ready, possibly some time in June, the Cardinals would be waiting with a minor-league offer.
They found themselves still waiting as June came and went.
The idea was to see how Ankiel progressed and whether he could be an option as a lefthanded reliever -- short, even single assignments. The Cardinals have since had Tyler Webb emerge in that role, and veteran lefty Andrew Miller reached the All-Star break cruising from his best monthlong stretch since signing with the team.
Baseball may impose a rule by 2020 that requires pitchers to face three batters, and that would effectively neutralize the specialist role.
Throughout the time he's been thinking of a comeback and recovering from the surgery he had to try it, Ankiel has consistently said there's no downside to at least trying. He said he would regret that.
"Why not take a shot?" he said in spring. "See how far it goes."