Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The definite Ankiel

Most players who achieve the definite article, one of the greatest honors in sports -- The Pujols and The Santana for example -- reach definition by virtue of complimentary abbreviation. That is to say, people get tired of calling them The Great Albert Pujols, or The Great Johan Santana, and simply go by The Pujols, or The Santana.

But Rick Ankiel's ascent to article definition happened more as a celebration, a coronation really, of normalcy. Sure, his career slash line of .265/.306/.502 helps, but it's Ankiel's pursuit and ultimate achievement of zen on the baseball field, after his theatrical youth, that grant his status.

As Ankiel passes through the league and visits each city for the first time, the story of his meltdown is replayed upon arrival, like urban legends and creation myths surrounding carnival freaks. This is also true of Josh Hamilton. Now, most people don't show up for the freaks, but when they're there, it's natural to remark, "There's the freak, there's the monster." Freaks are kind of hard to ignore.

But whereas Hamilton has embraced the role and is easy, accessible and free with fans and media, Ankiel remains private, a clubhouse shut-in who rarely speaks to even the most partisan beat reporters. Because of this, Hamilton's story is rehashed the second time he visits a city, and the third. Hamilton perpetuates his image as a(n) (recovering) addict.

In the absence of content, and in the interest of not boring their consumers, Rick Ankiel's returned presence demands highlights of his first visit, if it demands mention at all. Media-types may bring up Ankiel's complicated past, but only as a vehicle for introducing his present, and often his pitching exploits go un-noted the second time through.

Rick Ankiel the pitcher is quickly dying. Is Josh Hamilton the addict?

The remarkable thing is, it's not supposed to work that way.

The Ankiel narrative started as a story.

The Phenom Rick Ankiel who demanded -- and received -- such a large signing bonus he fell a round in the draft was supposed to represent the evolution of pitching -- and was covered accordingly (think Kazmir, Scott circa 2005). Then, he was the future, a lefty who combined a mid-90's fastball with a devastating curveball. He wasn't afraid to throw inside and was a bit wild -- but had enough command he racked up 416 K's in 298 Minor League innings as a teenageer

When he lost "it," Ankiel became The Freak Rick Ankiel, somebody to be mocked and derided. In reality, he was just a man who's always been able to throw a baseball, who forgot how. See why he constructed the cocoon?

He remained The Freak when he took up hitting, his unfortunate past always taking center stage before his at-bats. Then he hit. Then he looked like he finally found peace. Then people started to forget about the past.

That's what he is now, he's The Non-Story Rick Ankiel

This is abbreviated to The Ankiel.

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