The Phenomenon by Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown
Reviewed by Mark Hughson
Lately I've had the itch to read another baseball autobiography. Yes, it's interesting to read the observations of the experts and the tales from the historians, but nothing is quite like getting the real story from the players who were there. I want to live vicariously through their experiences, know what it feels like to be in that exciting moment, to really get inside their head! Be careful what you wish for, as they say.
Ankiel's book, subtitled The Pressure, The Yips, and the Pitch That Changed My Life, gives us the crucial stats from the get-go: The Cardinals prodigy pitcher had a great rookie season and was on the fast track to being "the next Sandy Koufax." Everything changed in a 2000playoff game.. Everything stopped. Something snapped. The Thing got him. The Yips. The Monster. The inexplicable fracture between body and psyche that plagued Ankiel throughout his major league life (as well as the careers of Mark Wohlers, Chuck Knobluach, and Mackey Sasser, among others). In the third inning of that playoff game, Ankiel racked up 35 pitches, two runs, four walks, and five wild pitches. One of those moments that puts you in the record books, though not for the reason one would hope. What followed was Ankiel's long road to recovery.
As with any decent baseball bio, there's lots of good stories and anecdotes—earning his dues as the new kid (literally - not even old enough to drink and sharing a locker room with Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Will Clark!), helpful coaches and teammates, and moments shared with a select few players who truly understood what Ankiel went through, because they went through it themselves. His afternoon with former ‘70s Pirates pitcher Steve Blass was especially endearing.
Getting inside Ankiel's head is a deep rabbit hole, and it's compounded by the frustrating fact that what exactly went wrong is still unknown. It's like reading a mystery novel, and being told that by the end you still won't know whodunnit. All we get are the trials and errors, coping mechanisms, conversations with his sports-psychologist-turned-father-figure, and the yo-yoing from majors to minors, team to team, and swapping positions along the way. This is not to say it's a bleak story—after all, Ankiel had 11 major league seasons under his belt when he hung up the glove. But it was a fight. I suppose we've all heard comeback stories, the ones that involve getting over slumps, getting past nasty dugout drama, and going from zero to hero. The Phenomenon is undoubtedly a comeback story, but the tumultuous struggle was entirely inside Ankiel's head. In his own words:
"I used to describe it this way: If a boy had reached to pet a large dog and that dog had bitten him, he'd think of that pain every time he put his hand near a dog again. That's what pitching had become for me, even when I was pitching well enough to keep pitching. Every time I picked up a baseball, I was reaching out to that dog. Its ears were back. It was growling. My heart raced. The blood drained from my head. I reached further and hoped it wouldn't bite and waited for the pain."
Bottom line: Fascinating read from a never-give-up athlete, even when the biggest battle was with himself.
Mark Hughson lives in Syracuse, NY and roots for the Oakland A's. When he's not writing baseball book reviews, he's knocking out music reviews for jeserybeat.com and scribbling a Scooby-Doo/Henry Rollins mash-up at retintheran.blogspot.com