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Rick Ankiel segment premiers tonight on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel

I got an early look at HBO’s Real Sports segment on Rick Ankiel. It’s excellent.

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Photo Credit: HBO/Real Sports

If you’re a reader of this blog then you likely know Rick Ankiel’s story. He was a phenom, a top prospect in baseball who broke into the league at only age-19 and lived up to the hype by throwing 175 innings in his rookie season and striking out 194. Only Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson had a higher strikeout rate, and it was good enough to earn him runner-up to Rafael Furcal for the 2000 NL Rookie of the Year Award.

Then, it all imploded. I was watching when it happened. A lot of you probably were, too. October 3, 2000, Game 1 of the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves, when at some point in the 3rd inning Ankiel suddenly couldn’t throw the ball anywhere near home plate. It was an odd, difficult thing to watch, and even though the Cardinals won that game and dominated the series by outscoring the Braves by 14 runs en route to a three-game sweep, Ankiel’s meltdown is what most people remember.

Tonight at 10 pm eastern, you can see Ankiel talk about this moment and everything that followed in a sit-down interview with Jon Frankel of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. I was able to get a sneak-peak at the segment and highly recommend it for anyone interested in Ankiel’s story or sports psychology in general.

First, that infamous inning is still very difficult to watch. This might be weird but I change the channel or look away anytime I come across it on television so this may have been the first time I’ve seen the wild pitches in over ten years. It’s excruciating, like watching someone’s dreams and livelihood collapse on one of the biggest stages. But what’s worse is the short clip Real Sports shows of Ankiel in Memphis when he was trying to fix whatever ailed him. Amateur video captures Ankiel throwing a few pitches to the backstop with numerous boorish fans loudly mocking him.

As the interview shows, all of this weighed on Ankiel even heavier than we all probably imagined. And it took a giant toll on his mother, too, who is brought to tears at the mere mention of Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS and the few years that came after. When his final attempt at pitching sputtered in 2004, Ankiel matter of factly walked away. At the team’s urging, he reinvented himself as an outfielder and worked his way back to MLB, and at the time of his retirement in 2013, as the segment mentions, he was the first player since Babe Ruth to hit 50 home runs and win ten games as a pitcher.

More touching though are the comments from Steve Blass, a pitcher for the Pirates from 1964-1974, who, before Ankiel came along, was probably the most well-known pitcher to lose his career to this, otherwise known as “the yips” or even “Steve Blass disease.” It’s interesting to hear Blass’ words because he’s one of the few athletes who can relate to Ankiel, he even mentions that when he watched Ankiel’s initial meltdown he knew the phone would start ringing with reporters looking for a comment. But after hearing that Ankiel reached out to Blass when deciding to write a book about his life, you feel better knowing that they found each other.

I don’t want to give the entire segment away, but the last thing I’ll touch on is Tony La Russa, who offered this quote:

“The happiest two moments I've ever had in uniform happened the same day. We recalled him from the minor leagues and he hits a home run.”

That night would be August 9, 2007, when Ankiel hit a three-run home run in his first game as an outfielder. Watch enough La Russa interviews and you know he can speak with great hyperbole, like claiming he’d want Yadier Molina as his catcher even if he batted .000. But here, I believe him. He’s been consistent with this statement since that very night in August, and only twice can I vividly recall La Russa brimming with a wide smile before a game actually ended: David Freese’s triple to tie Game 6 of the 2011 World Series; and Ankiel’s home run. It was a wonderful moment in what has been a pretty fascinating saga.

Ankiel’s book The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life is due to hit shelves next month, and below is a clip from tonight’s episode of Real Sports, which, again, is on at 10 pm est on HBO. The segment will also be available on HBO Go, HBO Now, and HBO On-Demand for the remainder of March and April.