Book review: ‘The Phenomenon’

Rick Ankiel had an extraordinary gift for throwing a baseball and used that talent to parlay it into pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals when he was just 20.

But his promising career unraveled in an instant when he threw the first of a number of wild pitches in a playoff game on national television.

In his recently released autobiography, “The Phenomenon: Pressure, The Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life,” he reveals how he lost his confidence and nearly his baseball career.

Ankiel’s story is about a person who didn’t necessarily conquer his fears, as learn to deal with them.

While many athletes find their careers sidetracked by physical injuries, Ankiel’s was one that became all but derailed by what he described as “the yips,” an inability to throw strikes.

That he had little problem with control before that fateful playoff game in 2000 is what utterly befuddles and frustrates the young pitcher.

By the following year, Ankiel is languishing in the minor leagues, desperately searching for answers.

When a sports psychologist enters Ankiel’s life, he begins to find a new perspective and ways of dealing with the demons.

There are setbacks along the way, to be sure, as Ankiel’s troubled mind finds release with alcohol and drugs.

All the mental anguish and the work finally pay off when Ankiel makes it back to the Major Leagues.

His story eventually takes a strange twist which I won’t reveal, although close followers of the game of baseball know where the next path took Ankiel.

Ankiel shares the ups and downs of his rather unusual journey from a troubled boyhood in Florida with an often-absent and abusive father to playing in the Major Leagues.

His father, a convicted felon, casts a considerable dark shadow over Ankiel’s life.

It’s clear that he hasn’t come to terms with his father, and yet he doesn’t blame him for the haunting anxieties that nearly destroyed his career.

In truth, Ankiel isn’t sure what caused him to suddenly lose his grip on his fastball and his life as well.

Much of the story is given over to his thoughts and fears and his never-ending search for answers. While some readers may find such soul-searching a bit much, I found it made for a rich reading experience.

It’s perhaps cliche to suggest that athletes, even those with considerable talent, are human too, but Ankiel’s story certainly reinforces that truth.