Note: Here is the original story that was published in the Post-Dispatch on Aug. 10, 2007, the day after Rick Ankiel made a dramatic return to the majors. Ankiel announced this week that he will attempt another comeback, at age 39.
Saying 'my kids want to see me play' and 'I want to take this (comeback) seriously,' the former Cardinals pitcher and outfielder said he will need three or four months to get into pitching shape.
Nearly 2½ years after pitching a baseball became so frustrating and draining that he decided to call it a career, Rick Ankiel completed a most remarkable reinvention by making his major-league debut as an outfielder Thursday.
The Cardinals called up the one-time pitching phenom and started him in right field against the San Diego Padres. A private welcome in the clubhouse that manager Tony La Russa called "enthusiastic" and "moving" went public in the first inning when a standing ovation greeted Ankiel as he strode toward the batter's box.
He received a curtain call in the seventh inning when he drilled a home run to right field in his fourth at-bat of his second life in the big leagues.
"It's very overwhelming, " Ankiel said before the game. "All of the hard work that you put into it ... it feels like you're being rewarded."
Bringing Ankiel to the major leagues before they had initially planned is more than a promotion for the Pacific Coast League's leading slugger. It's a commitment to him. Ankiel, 28, is out of options and will not be returned to the minor leagues this season, meaning the Cardinals plan to play the outfielder. La Russa said Thursday that Ankiel will play all three outfield positions and start many of the next week's games, even if it means less playing time for some of the established outfielders.
Long pegged as a September call-up so the Cardinals could get a look at him for next season, he has arrived in August because he has earned more than an audition. La Russa believes "he's going to give us a boost."
"If I didn't think ... if the coaches didn't think ... having him in the lineup gives us a better chance to win, he wouldn't be here, " La Russa said. "We need to see Rick here and really assess how major-league-ready he is and give him as many opportunities (as we can). He has his best opportunity to shine."
In his last big-league appearance, Ankiel was the winning pitcher for his four innings of relief on Oct. 1, 2004, against Milwaukee. That was his 13th win in the majors, 11 of which came during his rookie year of 2000. In the nearly three years since defeating the Brewers, Ankiel retired as a pitcher after endless battles with his mechanics and attempted the improbable - getting back to the majors with his bat.
In 2007, he has been the best power hitter in Triple-A. Ankiel leaves Memphis as the league leader with 32 home runs to go with 89 RBIs. In a poll of Pacific Coast League managers conducted by Baseball America, Ankiel was voted the league's best power prospect. That echoes the sentiment of Cardinals minor-league field coordinator Jim Riggleman, who said "the moment he stopped pitching is the same moment he became the No. 1 power bat in the system."
"In baseball, by any standards, he's somewhat of a freak," Riggleman said Thursday. "To have that kind of curveball and that kind of fastball as a pitcher and then have that much power with a bat in his hand and run like he does ... you just don't see that."
Ankiel's move to the 40-man roster and his promotion to the majors comes as a result of Scott Spiezio being placed on the restricted list Thursday.
Ankiel brings a blast of jazz to what has been a muted environment and inconsistent lineup.
Adam Kennedy - Ankiel's pal in the minors and former roommate - saw Ankiel's No. 24 jersey hanging in the locker next to his and said that was enough to give him a "shot of adrenaline."
Kennedy had two hits and was the Cardinals' starting second baseman Aug. 23, 1999 - the night Ankiel, a second-round pick and widely regarded as the game's best pitching prospect, made his major-league debut. The catcher for the Montreal Expos that night was Michael Barrett, now a catcher with the Padres. On Thursday, Barrett - who thinks they had never met before - embraced Ankiel as if a longtime friend.
"I welcomed him back, " Barrett said. "I can only imagine how humbling it would be to go through what he's gone through, especially as talented as he is as a player. I'm glad he's back in the majors where he belongs."
The Cardinals stayed with Ankiel through professional and personal ordeals. When he was ready to walk away from the game in March 2005, general manager Walt Jocketty enticed him to stay and try to make it as a position player. Jocketty said Thursday that Ankiel's second debut "is a day I've been waiting for probably as much as he has."
La Russa said the plan was to call up Ankiel for next week's trip to Milwaukee and Chicago's Wrigley Field. But a spot became available a few days early.
"He's done his part, " La Russa said. "He went down to Triple-A and had a hell of a year, so you ought to get something from that unless you're blocked at the big-league level. I don't think we've got three blocks out there."
When Ankiel came up to bat in the first, Cardinals fans stood. San Diego starter Chris Young, who leads the majors in ERA, stepped off the rubber to give the applause time to build.
Ankiel popped up to shortstop and a new career was under way.
"I appreciate (the Cardinals) giving me a chance to start my career over, " Ankiel said. Getting back to the majors "has been a goal that I've set for myself. One that I've reached. I'm looking forward to reaching my next goal ... which is staying here. ... I'm happy to be home."