Last Sunday, I was in my car and I happened to turned on Fresh Air on NPR to the sound of Terry Gross introducing Rick Ankiel
as this week’s guest
. The name was vaguely familiar to me as a moderately enthusiastic baseball fan, and as the story unfolded on the radio, I recalled the events of game one of the 2000 National League Division Series played by the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves. A game where a guy they were calling “the next Sandy Koufax
”, a 21 year old who had secured a slot in the St. Louis Cardinals system at the age of 18 with a signing bonus of $2.5M, managed five wild pitches
in a single inning. He chalked it up to the yips.
To athletes and fans, that is likely a term with which they are at least passingly familiar. The yips refers to the acute psychological and physiological occurrence in which a motion or action, previously reproduced thousands of times, suddenly becomes impossible or unreliable at best. It’s a disconnect between the body and mind of the athlete that can strike suddenly and spiral completely out of control as anxiety from each successive mistake steadily mounts.
In The Phenomenon
, Ankiel and co-author Tim Brown
describe the events that day at Busch Stadium and its aftermath. The Cardinals would go on to win that game and the NLDS, but for Ankiel, the damage was done. He would spend the next several years playing minor league ball at lower and lower levels while he battled alcoholism, injury, and the yips in an effort to pitch his way back to the majors - which he did, only to reinvent himself as a power-hitting center fielder.
This is not just a book for baseball fans or sports enthusiasts in general. It’s an eerily relatable biography with a focus on family, mentorship, and personal struggle both superficial and unseen. More than a story of one of the most bizarre and unlikely baseball careers in recent memory, The Phenomenon
is a case-study in the concept of mind over matter, both for better and worse.