Day One passes for OF Ankiel

Friday, March 11, 2005

JUPITER, Fla. -- Rick Ankiel began his new life in baseball, likely a long climb back as an outfielder, on Thursday.

The former St. Louis Cardinals phenom played designated hitter in an intersquad game, a day after walking away from a once-promising pitching career. And almost walking away from game totally.

"Yeah, totally," Ankiel said. "You sit at home and you think about it and you try to make the right choice. Obviously, for me it's making a choice where I'm going to be happy."

Ankiel, 25, told manager Tony La Russa earlier this week, "I'm done." The counter-offer from La Russa and general manager Walt Jocketty was that Ankiel consider trying the outfield and take a day off to think about it.

"I was as frustrated as could be," Ankiel said. "I wasn't sure if I still wanted to be a part of the game or not."

On Thursday, the day the decision was announced, Ankiel said it was as if a dark cloud above his head had vanished. He came to the spring training complex on Friday feeling refreshed and invigorated for his new challenge.

"You sleep better, that's for sure," Ankiel said. "I wake up happy to come here."

There's no time to lose for Ankiel, 25, and the Cardinals put him right to work in an intersquad game thrown together after the team was unsuccessful lining up a "B" game with another team. He immediately produced with a single off farmhand Brad Thompson in his first at-bat, and added a broken-bat groundout.

Those two plate appearances matched his total from last September with the Cardinals when he was 0-for-1 with a walk.

Ankiel was always considered a very good hitter for a pitcher, with a .207 career average and two homers, a double, a triple and nine RBIs in 87 at-bats. He impressed as a designated hitter for the Cardinals' rookie league team in Johnson City, Tenn., in 2001 when he hit 10 home runs.

"Those 10 homers are pretty impressive," La Russa said. "He did that without a lot of batting practice. He really has a nice stroke."

La Russa believes Ankiel will have an easier time getting up to speed as an outfielder. He played left field, right field and first base in high school.

"He's way behind, but he's talented so talent makes up for a lot," La Russa said. "I'm not too worried about his outfield play, it'll come.

"I think he'll get there quick to where he's not a liability."

To his credit, Ankiel didn't just kill time when he was in the field shagging flies before games.

"I think that helps out," he said. "I tended to power shag before."

The Cardinals are unsure at which minor league level Ankiel will start his new career. He'll have to be outrighted because he's out of options, but such a move should be eased because he's finished pitching.

Ankiel has spent his entire career in the Cardinals' organization after being drafted in the second round in 1997. He said he's prepared if another team claims him, but reiterated that he doesn't plan to take the mound.

On Wednesday, Jocketty said if anybody claimed Ankiel as a pitcher that team would be making a "costly mistake."

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