Any player/Any era: Rick Ankiel

What he did: Ankiel’s is a story in three parts. He started as a phenom pitching prospect for the St. Louis Cardinals (“here was Sandy Koufax,” Buzz Bissinger wrote of an 18-year-old Ankiel in 3 Nights in August.) Then came an inexplicable collapse in the 2000 playoffs, as Ankiel suddenly and permanently lost his ability to throw strikes. He bounced between the majors and the minors for the next several years before resurrecting himself as an outfielder in 2007.  He’s had some ups and downs and is on his fourth team in three years, though Ankiel at least has a spot with the Washington Nationals.

Another left hander made the transition from the pitching mound to the outfield in the Cardinal organization decades prior, albeit with much greater success. I wonder if Ankiel had followed Stan Musial’s career path, he might be something more than a 31-year-old journeyman today.

Era he might have thrived in: Musial could do everything except throw because of a shoulder injury that ended his pitching career before it ever really began. Ankiel would come with a cannon arm and power hitting good enough to net him 25 home runs in 2008. He doesn’t offer much speed, which the St. Louis farm system placed a premium on at the beginning of Musial’s career, though the team made exceptions occasionally for men like Johnny Mize and Joe Medwick. Perhaps Ankiel could join their ranks.

Why: I don’t mean to slight Musial, who might be the most underrated player in baseball history. Stan the Man put together a Hall of Fame career in the relative obscurity of St. Louis, and prior to this, he worked hard transforming himself in the minors into a position player. He went 18-5 as a pitcher in the Florida State League in 1940 and played the outfield between starts, hitting .311 in 405 at-bats. By the time of his shoulder injury that August, it was already apparent to Musial’s bush manager Dickie Kerr and Cardinal general manager Branch Rickey that his future was in the outfield.

Thing is, I question how much of Musial’s success was due to natural talent, how much was due to hard work, and how much can be attributed to playing in Rickey’s farm system, one of baseball’s greatest. Would Stan Musial have been Stan Musial had he come up as a Pittsburgh Pirate or New York Yankee, two teams he wanted to sign with? Would he have become a lifetime .331 hitter had he not hurt his arm? Retired scout Ronnie King said Musial’s hitting abilities wouldn’t have shown without the injury. “If you get a left hander and a 20-game winner, you’re going to make him pitch,” King told me.

I wrote here recently about how I believe so much of baseball success comes down to being in the right place at the right time, and for Musial, it was getting optioned to Daytona in 1940 after a couple fruitless years in the minors, making a deep Cardinal team at the onset of World War II, and managing to play through most of the conflict because of his large number of dependents. The second world war benefited no baseball player like it benefited Musial, and I question if Ankiel could have had similar success in his circumstances.

There’s another possibility here, too, the chance that Ankiel never loses his equilibrium on the mound, pitching for a better club in a talent-depleted majors. Maybe Ankiel does big things as a young hurler for the ’42 Cardinals who won 106 games and the World Series without, get this, any Hall of Fame pitchers. He’d just need something to get out of military duty.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

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