Rick Ankiel, the former St Louis Cardinals pitcher, tells the story of his struggle to overcome what is commonly known as “the Yips”, and how he reinvented his baseball career and ultimately his life.
Rick Ankiel was billed as the next Sandy Koufax – in possession of a “once-in-a-generation” pitching talent that would be not only his ticket to the big leagues and a life of wealth and success, but his route out of a broken home dominated by the fleeting yet overbearing presence of a cruel and abusive father.
And that’s exactly how it all seemed to be panning out. Ankiel was drafted to Major League Baseball straight out of high school by St Louis Cardinals, eased his way through his formative minor league years, and took his rightful place on an MLB mound.
Ankiel’s full debut season in MLB, in 2000, went as expected. At the age of 20 and ripping 97mph fastballs and a devastating curveball, Ankiel claimed 197 strikeouts in 30 games started, ranking him seventh in the league. He struck out batters at an average rate of 9.98 strikeouts per nine innings, placing him second in the National League behind only Randy Johnson.
Ankiel belonged. The sky was the limit and baseball braced itself for the Ankiel era.
Then it was gone. In an instant. In front of a packed Busch Stadium, watched by millions live on TV, during Game 1 of the 2000 National League Division Series against Atlanta Braves.
The Yips, The Thing, The Beast – The Phenomenon had struck.
What followed was Ankiel’s tortuous battle to overcome an incurable, insurmountable, and inexplicable mental condition in the hope of rescuing his prodigious baseball career. But more than that – in the hope of regaining control of his life.
The Phenomenon documents Ankiel’s journey, covering his childhood and high school days, offering us a glimpse into a broken family – his relationship with his sweet-natured but downtrodden mother, his violent and physically abusive father, and his wayward brother.
He takes us through his draft process and his early steps in professional baseball, and then his breakthrough in the Major Leagues.
But of course, the bulk of The Phenomenon sifts through the rubble of Ankiel’s mind and life after the earth-shattering moment of that fateful game.
Unsurprisingly, this is a far more intense read than your standard sports memoir. It draws similarities to Andre Agassi’s Open – another autobiography that focused more on internal struggle than athletic success.
Ankiel, with the support of ghost writer Tim Brown, captures his physical and psychological battle in vivid detail throughout The Phenomenon, mixing clever and relatable metaphors with descriptive emotions to convey his excruciating and seemingly helpless torment.
Ankiel’s battle is relayed so effectively you can feel his constant, unrelenting suffering. Even on the “good days”, as Ankiel calls them, we share his mild relief as the pressure eases while retaining a sense of anxiety knowing The Thing is never too far away.
Ankiel’s relationship with sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman is central to The Phenomenon and therefore his journey. Dorfman takes on something of a father figure role in Ankiel’s life – a heartwarming relationship that also serves to further highlight the fractured bond with his actual father.
While The Phenomenon is for the most part an intense journey, particularly at Ankiel’s lowest and most desperate moments, it isn’t all doom and gloom!
The book is littered with humour and feel-good moments as Ankiel defies the odds to reinvent himself as an outfielder and hitter, meets his future wife and ultimately comes to terms with his condition.
In fact, Ankiel’s redemption is made all the more sweeter due to the depths of despair from which he recovered.
The Phenomenon is certainly not a casual Sunday stroll of a read. It is an intense emotional rollercoaster, offering a fascinating insight into the unique psychological struggles of an athlete and his inspiring redemption.