03/16/2007 10:33 AM ET
Rick Ankiel: Having fun again
Rick Ankiel's game is evolving since his beginnings as a pitcher. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
I've always considered myself a baseball player -- not just a pitcher -- so I'm happy that the Cardinals have given me the chance to work my way back to the big leagues as an outfielder.
I first reached the majors as a pitcher when I was 19 years old, back in 1999, and I experienced some success my first couple of years. But I hurt my elbow in 2002 and underwent "Tommy John" surgery in 2003. I went to winter ball after the 2004 season and my (elbow) nerve flared up again. And when I got back for Spring Training in 2005, my arm just didn't feel the same anymore.
By then, the whole process was beginning to affect me off the field, too. It got to the point where it just wasn't any fun pitching and it was wearing on me at home as well as the field, putting a strain on my relationships. When something's bothering you that much, it's not worth it. I knew it was time to try something new.
At the same time, I didn't want to walk away from baseball. You can only play the game for so many years, so I needed to be comfortable with my decisions. I didn't ever want to look back with regret that I didn't give it a try. I believe I've always had the talent to be an outfielder and just needed the opportunity. So I asked myself, why not?
It wasn't hard to go back and start again as a hitter because it made the game fun for me again. I took the view that it was a challenge. Not many people have been able to accomplish something like this, so it gave me something to prove.
All of a sudden I was happy to come out to the park again every day. I had a chance to prove I could play the outfield and hit.
I haven't had steady progress as an outfielder, but setbacks are always part of baseball. At first it became apparent I hadn't been conditioned to be an everyday player. My body just wasn't ready for all of that hitting and swinging, so my first season as a hitter (2005) I was hurting a little bit. Then last Spring Training I tore my patellar tendon and ended up having surgery on my left knee last June. That cost me another season.
I haven't had an injury-free season yet, so hopefully this will be the year. I feel like my progress this spring has been great. I feel good about the way I've been playing, especially considering I didn't get any at-bats last year. I've felt comfortable in the box this spring. I feel like I'm seeing the ball well and my timing is coming around.
Now I need to get at-bats under my belt. As I said earlier, it's a challenge for me and I'm having fun with it. I've done pretty well so far in camp and the indication the Cardinals have given me is that I'll go back to Triple-A Memphis and get those at-bats I need.
My future is up to me now. If I tear it up in Memphis and put up good numbers, I'll get a shot. I'm only 27. A lot of good players aren't getting to this level until about now anyway, so I feel like I'm right about where I should be despite switching to the outfield.
My plan is to take it one day at a time and not take anything for granted. I've got something to prove and I'm having a lot of fun.
Rick Ankiel was only 20 years old when he first reached the majors in 1999 and posted a 13-10 record with a 3.90 ERA and 269 strikeouts in 242 innings over three-plus seasons. Switching to the outfield in March 2005, he went on to bat.259 with 21 home runs and 75 RBI in 85 games between Double-A Springfield and Class-A Quad Cities that year but missed all of 2006 with a knee injury.