Friday, August 10, 2007

Welcome back

In the old days, I would have been listening to the playoffs on a transistor radio I smuggled into class, until the teacher caught.

But this was the year 2000, and I could follow the game via the Internet. I was particularly interested in the opening divisional series game between St. Louis and Atlanta because a key member of my fantasy team that year was pitching for the Cardinals.

Rick Ankiel
had turned 21 a few months before but already had established his presence in the National League by compiling an 11-7 record and striking out 194 batters in 175 innings, turning in a performance that earned him second place in the Rookie of the Year balloting.

I checked in and saw St. Louis had scored six runs off the Braves' Greg Maddux in the first inning, so it looked like it would be smooth sailing for Ankiel. I went back to work for a while, then took another peek at the scoreboard.

It took me a while to decipher what exactly was occurring, but apparently the rookie was having control problems. I remember seeing "wild pitch" listed with alarming frequency, and in fact, Ankiel ended up throwing five balls away in that single inning, the first pitcher to do anything like that in 110 years, let alone in the postseason. Manager Tony La Russa finally yanked his pitcher after he'd given up four runs and walked a total of six batters in his 2 2/3 innings.

The Cardinals won the game and swept the Braves to advance to the championship series against the Mets. Obviously considering Ankiel's meltdown a fluke, La Russa started the rookie in the second game. The result: 2/3 of an inning, three walks, a wild pitch and two runs.

La Russa used Ankiel again in mop-up duty as the Cardinals lost 7-0 in the fifth and deciding game. According to Retrosheet, "Ankiel's last warm-up throw went to the backstop; during (Mike) Bordick's at bat the crowd chanted 'wild pitch' to Ankiel." The crowd was prophetic. Bordick walked, was sacrificed to second, and scored after two wild pitches. Ankiel then walked Edgardo Alfonzo and was relieved.

Ankiel won two more games in the majors, one each in 2001 and '04, but a series of injuries ended his pitching career. He announced he was going to switch to the outfield, but no one took that very seriously. Besides a semi-successful switch by Brooks Kieschnick in the other direction, no one has made that radical of a transformation in baseball's modern era.

But ya never know. Check this out:

St. Louis 5, San Diego 0

I guess the name Rick Ankiel will be prominent on the fantasy waiver wires once more.


Here are some other players who made the switch from pitcher to batter:

George Herman Ruth (as if you didn't know). Keep in mind that Ruth was regarded as the best left-handed pitcher in the American League when he made the switch. In 1916, he hurled nine complete-game shutouts, still the AL record for lefties, later tied by Ron Guidry. And don't forget the 29 2/3-inning scoreless streak in the World Series.

George Sisler. The Hall of Fame first baseman always said his greatest thrill was, as a young pitcher, beating Walter Johnson twice. But Sisler's St. Louis Browns needed his bat more than his arm, and he compiled a lifetime record of 5-6 with a 2.35 ERA.

Francis "Lefty" O'Doul. The future batting champion, who still co-holds the National League record for hits in a season, was a marginal major-league pitcher with the Yankees and Red Sox in the early '20s, compiling a 1-1 record in 34 relief appearances. In 1923, he set a 20th-century record by allowing 13 runs in a single inning.

"Smokey Joe" Wood. Howard Ellsworth Wood was a pitcher of legendary prowess during the Dead Ball era, winning 81 games before he turned 23, including a 34-5 season for the Series-winning Red Sox in 1912. He hurt his arm the following spring, and despite leading the AL in earned run average in 1915, decided he was through pitching. He came back as an outfielder with Cleveland and played in the 1920 World Series.

James "Cy" Seymour. In his first two full seasons with the New York Giants, 1897-98, Seymour was a 20-game winner. In 1898, he struck out 239 batters, an extremely high total for the era. He also walked 213, eclipsing any single-season mark of the 20th century, and his career totals show 655 bases on balls in 1,043 innings. By 1905, he was a full-time outfielder with the Cincinnati Reds and nearly won the Triple Crown, posting a .377 batting average with 121 RBI and finishing second with eight home runs. He also led the NL in slugging, hits, doubles, triples and total bases. Not bad for an ex-pitcher.

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