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How we got into Rick Ankiel’s pants

April 20, 2011

I got into Rick Ankiel when we all did—when he was a hotshot phenom with a surfer-dude hairdo and a lefty curveball that left dollar signs in its wake. Lacking cable TV or home internet access in those dark years at the turn of the 21st century, I didn’t follow him day to day as I would later on, but I knew of his mystique, of his blazing rookie campaign at the age of 20, and, alas, of the fateful October night that kicked off his legendary downward spiral. Over time, Ankiel transformed from a historic prospect into a topic polite Cardinal fans didn’t bring up, not without shaking their heads and clucking.

Did any of us really believe, during those years when he toiled quietly at Memphis, fighting off a couple of devastating injuries and showing up in the back of the sports section now and then, that we’d see him in the big leagues again? I didn’t. I admit it. I’d moved on. But Rick Ankiel kept plugging away, until, on August 9, 2007, in his first game in the majors as an outfielder, he did this—hit a 3-run homer that cemented a Cardinal win, sent the crowd into ecstasy, and (as you can see in the video) put one heck of a smile on the unsmiley face of Tony La Russa. And he didn’t stop there, adding two more home runs and a sliding catch two days later, and continuing to dazzle Cardinal Nation with his power, his range, and his ridiculous cannon of an arm in the months and years to come.

It was just about the best baseball story of the decade. And it should have ended with Ankiel blasting a walk-off, World-Series-winning, stadium-light-exploding homer in a Cardinal uniform, then retiring to toss curveballs to his son in a twilit field somewhere. Instead, after a couple of seasons of declining production and skyrocketing strikeout totals, Ankiel left without much fanfare, spending time in Kansas City and Atlanta before settling in Washington.

This is where the pants come in.

See, as much as I love Rick Ankiel, I don’t love him one-tenth as much as my girlfriend, Julie, who, when asked to supply a couple of quotes for this blog post about why she adored him so, contributed the following:

Why Rick Ankiel is my Boyfriend:

1) His body simply goes where the ball is—he has baseball in his CELLS.
2) He’s dreamy (when not sporting a disgusting porn-stache).
3) Only Boyfriend and Babe Ruth have ever thrown 10 winners and hit 50 home runs.
4) We didn’t have to shoot him to get him to stop pitching.

P.S. Please make sure his name is pronounced correctly in your blog.

She’s hardcore, y’all, and his departure was tough on her. Which is why I started trolling eBay early last fall in the quest for a particularly meaningful Ankiel trophy she could call her own. Baseball cards? Boring. Jerseys? She’s got ‘em. Bobbleheads? Please. A pair of….Rick Ankiel’s game-used, dirt-smeared, road-grey pants?

Perfect.

The guy selling them, it turned out, had just splurged to pick up Ankiel’s walk-off, splash-down home-run ball from Game 2 of the 2010 NLDS, and felt he needed to unload a couple of pieces from his Ankiel collection to compensate. He was glad to know that the pants were going to a loving home, and boy, did they ever. See for yourself:

What—your Christmas-morning pictures don’t include women wearing enormous baseball trousers with cats stuffed into them? Okay. I won’t judge.

The pants are now on display in Julie’s house (she’s still wrestling with the question of how best to incorporate them into her earth-toned decor), and Rick Ankiel is home—at least for a few days—in St. Louis, where the fans gave him an affectionate Midwestern welcome and Rick showed his class by taking out this half-page ad in the local paper. He’s had three hits and made a couple of laser-beam throws in today’s doubleheader, earning some wistful applause from the fans in red.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking, and maybe it’s just naive, but I have an indelible sense that Rick Ankiel’s story with the Cardinals isn’t over yet. I imagine a spring training a decade or two in the future, when a guy with some grey hair and a bit of a paunch turns up as a coach at the Cards’ camp, showing the big-league hopefuls how to catch sinking liners and throw bullets from the outfield, spinning them an unbelievable tale of perseverance and redemption. I imagine two little girls in red caps leaning over the railing and saying excitedly to one another:

“Hey, isn’t that Rick Ankiel? ….Why isn’t he wearing any pants?”

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