Almost two decades ago, Rick Ankiel was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. In fact, Baseball America named him the best prospect in all of baseball before the 2000 season.
But then the 2000 playoffs happened.
Ankiel started two games – one against Atlanta in the NLDS and one against the Mets in the NLCS – but lasted just four innings combined. Even worse? He walked 11 batters, allowed seven runs and threw nine wild pitches in those four innings.
He officially had a case of the yips.
“When it first happened, I was so young, I didn’t completely understand what was going on,” Ankiel said on CBS Sports Radio’s Gio and Jones. “Even after that first game, I remember doing an interview with the media and saying, ‘This is a mechanical issue. It’ll never happen again.’ I didn’t understand fully what was going on, either – only the results of it, the fact that I let my team down, and I had no clue what the next four years was going to look like.”
Ankiel, who ultimately became an outfielder, opened up about his struggles in a new book, “The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life.”
The book was a long time coming for the 37-year-old.
“It was not something that was talked about (in the locker room),” Ankiel said. “I think it was one of those things that were taboo and didn’t want to be talked about because nobody, God forbid, (wanted) it to happen to them. I had seen it on TV. I had seen Chuck Knoblauch and seen them go through it, and at the time, I thought, ‘What’s wrong with you, man? How hard can it be to throw a ball?’ But after going through it and understanding how deep and dark this can be, it’s not something to joke around about, that’s for sure – not when you’re going through it, anyway.”
Ankiel tried various coping mechanisms, including alcohol. He drank vodka before his first start of the 2001 season – and beat Randy Johnson.
“I’m not proud of that moment,” Ankiel said, “but at the time, I was scared to death. I remember leading up to that game, I was warming up underneath the stadium in our batting cage. I didn’t even go out to our normal bullpen, just trying to see if I could get a feel for the ball and the strike zone. That was just a frightening time. It did work. I remember sitting on the bench and thinking, ‘Man, I’m having to drink to make it through a game. This is crazy.’”
Ankiel used vodka again before his next start, but the Cardinals lost to the Astros, 7-4.
“It didn’t work,” Ankiel said. “That speaks to how powerful the yips is and how powerful all that can be – because it just overcome the alcohol. It didn’t matter how much I drank. It just overcome it. The anxiety got so much that you’re looking down and you can’t feel the ball in your hand. At times, it seems like you can’t even remember what your mechanics are supposed to be.”
Or that you’re even holding a baseball.
“You can’t even feel it,” Ankiel said. “That’s the scariest part. You know what you want to do, you’ve done it your whole life, you know exactly what your mechanics are supposed to be – and you’re telling yourself all these things. It’s funny because when you start your windup, you’re fine – until the last bit of your windup. You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine – until right before you go to release the ball. Then it’s like you black out and have a mini-seizure. It’s so bizarre. And the thing about it is it consumes you. You’re a big-leaguer and you’re living your dream and you’re on the path to being who you want to be, and all of a sudden, it’s taken away from you and nobody can explain it to you; nobody wants to talk about it; the people who have been through it, they’re embarrassed or it’s frightening and maybe they don’t have answers, either. So all of a sudden you’re lost in this world of what do I do and where can I go? I was always a person who thought, ‘I can work harder than this. I can beat this with hard work. I can beat this with mechanics.’ And that just wasn’t the case. The harder I worked, it seemed like sometimes the worse it got. It just becomes so hard to deal with.”