The book: “The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips and the Pitch that Changed My Life”
The author: Rick Ankiel with Tim Brown
The vital statistics: Public Affairs Books, 304 pages, $27, released today, April 18
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Barnes and Noble, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com, at the publishers’ website
The pitch: One very small part of the Rick Ankiel story that has already circulated and made headlines prior to the book’s publication is how he once drank vodka before a game to calm his nerves.
It’s not quite along the lines of Dock Ellis taking LSD before pitching a no-hitter, but it’s on that same sort of soft sensationalized narrative that takes away from what’s really going on with this self-exploration of a pitcher who once, all of the sudden, in an MLB playoff game, wasn’t able to pitch.
A piece on Ankiel that also aired on HBO’s “Real Sports” got into the drinking aspect as well, but was wise not to make that the main hook. What that HBO piece eventually alluded to was, yes, there’s a book coming out about all this. We’ll just make it look as if we’re really doing all the heavy lifting in this story — interviewing Ankiel’s mom, former Pirates pitcher Steve Blass, etc., — and then it’ll look as if the book is following up on our story.
It’s the complete opposite.
So, Ankiel once was self-medicating and trying to fool his mind into divert attention from the real problem.
“One moment, I was a pitcher,” he writes. “The next, I was a patient. A project. A cautionary tale. A lab rat. A fairly miserable human being … a casualty of the game, of a broken family, of a heartless world, of all that stuff that may or may not have been swirling around in my head.”
As Ankiel dictates this all to writer Tim Brown, the Yahoo Sports baseball writer and former L.A. Daily News and L.A. Times Dodgers and Angels reporter, he explains in Chapter 16 more about the vodka incident, a Sunday afternoon game in Arizona when he was trying to get himself back on track.
It’s six months after his implosion on the mound during a Cardinals playoff game against Atlanta on national TV, a 21-year-old with all the potential riding on his left arm — with a 6-0 lead in the third inning, he throws a Major League record five wild pitches. Video evidence regrettably still exists, with Jon Miller framing it as something from the “Wildness Hall of Fame.”
Again, that’s just a very small part of this journey, a recovery that includes the publication of this book as he finally gets the nerve to go back and retrace his steps to see not only what happened, but how he can help others who continue to go through this inexplicable phenomenon.
“I could hear the blood draining from my head,” he says many times over in describing how he felt a disconnect between his brain and his arm.
His fastball was moody, his curveball was a safety net and the results were a moving target, he explains.
Now we finally learn more about his relationship with a life coach, the late Harvey Dorfman, who came as a recommendation from his agent, Scott Boras. We discover more about how he dealt with a father who was in and out of jail for drug trafficking and had an abusive relationship with his mother, who never married him.
This is far more of a mind-over-matter journey, shaped and written by Brown in a way that makes it far more palatable to the baseball fan who watched this take place, then saw his remarkable comeback as a center fielder that was as a huge a second act in baseball that anyone could have thought possible.
Ankiel was once called “The Natural,” and then compared to Babe Ruth in how he was able to rack up X-amount of victories on the mound as well as hit Z-amount of home runs as a player. Only now does he appear to be more comfortable in his own skin as he tries another career – a Cardinals TV analyst.
Whatever humiliation Ankiel once felt, undeservedly so, he now has some redemption after this vulnerable reveal of a path that no one should ever feel they have to take alone.
Congrats as well to Brown, who once did the same kind of work in presenting the life and times of Jim Abbott in 2013.
And a nice endorsement from book blurb extraordinaire Bob Costas, who says: “Each year lots of baseball books roll off the presses. Some are very good, a few are extraordinary. Rick Ankiel’s memoir falls in to the second category. … A winding and often bumpy road that ends with perhaps that best of victories — good-natured acceptance and the personal understanding and insight that goes with it.”
== An excerpt from Sports.Yahoo.com.
Also of note:
= “Baseball Junkie: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of a World Series Champion,” by Aubrey Huff with Stephen Cassar, due out May 9. The former San Francisco Giants outfielder known for his 2010 “Rally Thong” writes about confronting his Adderall-infused baseball demons that led at one point to him putting a loaded gun against his head. He retired in 2012 at age 36.