Ankiel shows strong work habit in camp

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

JUPITER, Fla. -- Rick Ankiel is finally close to being where he wants to be for the next 10 years after making the transition from starting pitcher to an everyday outfielder.

His path to a starter in the Cardinals' outfield -- most likely in center field -- was not an easy one as he battled injuries, family issues and questions about his use of human growth hormone.

On Monday, Ankiel caught almost everything hit his way and kept his focus during a base-running drill during the hottest time of the day.

Ankiel has not changed the serious work ethic that characterized his efforts last spring, when he was trying to land a spot on the major-league roster.

"I'm just happy that all the hard work feels like it's paying off, and knowing I have the opportunity to be an everyday starter is definitely a great feeling," Ankiel said. "I think it's what everyone strives for as a goal."

Ankiel, 28, didn't make the team out of spring training last year, but he was called up on Aug. 9 and played in 47 games. He finished with a .285 batting average, with 39 RBIs and 11 home runs.

"I'm happy for him, and I'm happy for us," Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "We've always known he is a good athlete. Even when he was a pitcher, he was a good hitter for us."

His major league career began in 1999, and in 2000 he had an 11-7 record with a 3.50 ERA to help St. Louis win the National League Central title. But he threw nine wild pitches in that postseason and never regained his control.

In March 2000, Ankiel's father, Richard, was sentenced to six years in prison for drug smuggling.

One injury after another kept Ankiel either in rehabilitation or in the minors before he announced in March 2005 during spring training that wanted to resurrect his career as an outfielder.

Stints in the minor leagues and a 2006 knee injury that kept him out all year didn't dampen his desire to achieve that goal.

Ankiel had a successful campaign at Class AAA Memphis for most of 2007, hitting 32 home runs in 102 games, before getting called up to St. Louis.

He was hitting .358 and appeared ready to lead St. Louis to the NL Central lead when he faced another obstacle.

The New York Daily News reported in September that humane growth hormone shipments were sent to Ankiel in 2004. The HGH was later determined to be prescribed as part of Ankiel's recovery from shoulder surgery, before baseball officially banned HGH in 2005.

Ankiel's performance took a nose dive after the HGH story, getting just seven hits in his next 55 at-bats, and the Cardinals faded far out of contention.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who championed Ankiel's chances for success in the outfield last spring, said the HGH story was a lot for Ankiel to handle after all he had gone through.

"These guys are human beings, and when somebody gets accused of something -- and he hadn't really done anything wrong -- I'm not sure who it's not going to bother," La Russa said. "Unless you're the coldest guy on the face of the earth, especially as hard as he's worked to get to that position where not only was he successful at the Class AAA, but he made an impact at the big-league level.

"I thought that was on the cruel side, myself."

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