Rick Ankiel was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1997 and debuted in the majors in late 1999. Before being drafted, he was one of the most highly touted pitching prospects of that year. In 2000, as the second youngest player in the league at 20 years of age, Ankiel went 11-7 for the Cardinals. He was in the top ten in the majors in nearly every pitching statistic and was second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.
The Cardinals made the playoffs in 2000. Due to injuries on the pitching staff, Ankiel and veteran Darryl Kile were the only two pitchers who were totally healthy. Ankiel started game one of the playoffs against the Braves on October 3, 2000. He made it through a couple innings without allowing any runs. In the third inning Ankiel threw five wild pitches. He allowed the Braves to score four runs on two hits and four walks. Despite the Cardinals still winning the game, Ankiel would never be the same after his disaster of an inning.
Ankiel developed what is commonly called, in sports and other competitive events, a case of the “yips”. This affliction occurs when someone loses the ability to do something that they previously could do at a very high level. Manifesting itself mentally and physically, this breakdown usually occurs very quickly and harshly. For some, like Ankiel, the yips are tied to a specific moment. The yips are beyond the typical slump or setback that anybody could experience; they are often devastating and even career ending. Ankiel’s story is extraordinary because he completely lost his ability to pitch at a high level, but worked incredibly hard to reinvent himself as a successful major league outfielder. He played in the majors another seven years after his pitching career was over.
The book provides some biographical information regarding his childhood with an abusive father who was essentially a career criminal. Ankiel would eventually make the decision to sever his relationship with his father. Interestingly, Ankiel points out that bad cases of the yips don’t necessarily occur more in people who had difficult childhoods or intense trauma in their lives. He remarks that people of all different backgrounds and circumstances have experienced the issue. It’s a major reason that the affliction is so difficult to understand.
Before reading this book, I was much more familiar with the yips in golf and darts. In golf, I was aware of great golfers like Tom Watson and Bernhard Langer who battled the yips. There was also the case of Eric Bristow, a world champion dart thrower who eventually lost his ability to throw at a competitive level. In darts, they call this problem “dartitis”. A more recent case, professional golfer Kevin Na has battled his own strange version of the yips. Na has openly discussed that he often becomes extremely uncomfortable when he sets up to hit shots. His incredible discomfort sometimes results in absolutely awful shots that are, to put it nicely, uncharacteristic of what you’d expect from a pro golfer. His most infamous moment was at the 2011 Texas Valero Open where he took a sixteen on a hole. Around that time, his anxiety actually got so bad that he had trouble committing to swinging at the ball. He became known for “waggling” his club over and over and over…. until he could make himself pull the club back and swing at the golf ball. At times, he even had to yell at himself out loud to force himself to swing. It’s a great illustration of how the mind can become the greatest obstacle for very talented folks. I root for Kevin Na because he overcame a lot of those issues and has only gotten better since then.
I have particular interest in cases of the yips because I have experienced the yips personally. I’ve never competed at a very high level in any sports or games, so my issues are absolutely nowhere near the level of the most famous cases like Ankiel. Still, I have often had strange, temporary problems with things that I’m usually pretty good at playing. In darts and golf –games that I’ve played enough to be reasonably good at- I’ll go through stretches where I develop a persistent and irksome belief that I have completely lost the ability to physically throw a dart or hit a golf shot. It becomes impossible for me to perform at my normal levels of capability. It is a very odd and frustrating feeling. I played baseball my entire childhood and casually tossed baseball for countless hours in my youth. One spring a couple years ago, I went to the first game of the year for a recreation softball league. I tried to warm up before the game and literally could not do anything but throw the ball straight into the ground or 6 feet above the head of the person I was warming up with. Something like that is pretty terrible as an average person who just has a competitive personality. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be elite at something to the point it becomes your career/life, and then totally lose it.
“The Phenomenon” employs the help of experienced sportswriter Tim Brown to give a straightforward account of Ankiel’s experiences in baseball (his career ended in 2013). It never feels forced and the story is arranged in a pleasant, logical way. The book is never overly dramatic and it never feels like Ankiel is begging for sympathy or making any excuses. Honestly, the writing style did leave me lacking an emotional attachment to Ankiel. At the same time, it might be the best way to give a thorough account that is succinct and easily digested. I will say that the late chapter that focuses on Ankiel’s therapist Harvey Dorfman was excellent and gave some emotional insight into Ankiel (Dorfman was present throughout the book but discussed in more detail in chapter 28 where Ankiel honored his memory). Dorfman helped him overcome his obstacles and obviously became a close friend and some form of a father figure to him. Ankiel’s love for Dorfman was very evident in what I thought was some of the best writing in the book.
I glanced through some comments and reviews about this book online. Reading comment sections in general is rough; reading comment sections regarding anything involved with sports will make you shake your head so vigorously it might go a full 360 degrees. But I just can’t help myself. I read one remark that went something like “Ankiel is no phenomenon, he’s a player who sucked so he took *steroids to pitch, then he sucked again and took steroids to hit home runs”. I paraphrase, but it was something like that. Although it was not necessarily the worst comment I saw, it annoyed me because the person clearly did not understand the purpose of the book’s title. The intent was to play off of the fact that Ankiel was such an impressive, naturally gifted player; remarkable enough that he might be described as a phenomenon. But a phenomenon can also be an unusual occurrence that has unexplained causes or origins. The title is a clever kind of double meaning. Yips can take insanely talented individuals down to a level in which they can barely function. This absolute breakdown is still a mystery to even the best psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors.
*Ankiel admits in the book that he did take HGH to help his body recover from injury, but it was before the substance was banned. It’s possible that he used steroids more than he admits –and on a different timeline than he admits- but nothing has been proven regarding any abuse beyond what he admitted in the book. I have to take the word of the guy publicly baring difficult and embarrassing parts of his life over the opinion of a random internet commenter.