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We Made Rick Ankiel Play Jenga With Us

Illustration for article titled We Made Rick Ankiel Play Jenga With Us

When Rick Ankiel’s long, strange career ended in 2013, he was left with a .240 batting average in almost 2,000 at-bats, a 3.90 ERA over 242 innings, and a place in the record books next to Babe Ruth as the only other player to start a playoff game as the pitcher and hit a home run in the postseason as a position player. Now, after a stint as a life coach for the Nationals, and amid serving as an analyst for Cardinals games on Fox Sports Midwest, Ankiel is an author of a new autobiography, The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life, with Tim Brown, that focuses on the years of mental struggle that at one point threatened to end his career.

The book begins with that disastrous inning in Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS, in which Ankiel, still a rookie pitcher, mentally unraveled over the course of four walks and five wild pitches. From there, it retraces Ankiel’s childhood in Florida with an abusive, sporadically absent father and his rapid rise through the Cardinals’ system. The bulk of the book focuses on his mental state in the months and years after the yips took hold, when managing and masking the anxiety became all-consuming. Eventually, with the help of sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, who became a much-needed father figure, Ankiel pitched again for the Cardinals. Only to announce his retirement the following spring training and return home, buoyant and relieved to never have to pitch again. That same day, he got the call from his agent, Scott Boras, that set off the second half his career, in which he transformed into an outfielder and eventually became an October hero for the Cardinals.

The book is interesting and readable—both because Brown is a savvy writer and because, rather than just recount biographical details, Ankiel is genuinely revelatory about subjects he avoided discussing during his career. In the midst of what sounds like a grueling press tour recounting some of the worst times of his life, we asked Ankiel to play a game of pressure-packed Jenga, and talk about his life.

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