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Where Are They Now: Rick Ankiel

Rick Ankiel is writing a book.

And it promises to be must read material.

When Hollywood comes looking for its next “feel good” story and personality, they should look no further than Ankiel.

As far as personal stories go, Ankiel’s has the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and plenty in-between. From pitching on the three different USA Baseball national teams (1996 18U, 1997 Junior Pan American team, 1997 IBAF “AAA” World Junior Championship) to reaching the major leagues as a coveted pitcher before retiring as an outfielder, staying as far away from the mound as he could possibly be.

Rick Ankiel with the New York Mets

“I’ll finish the book this year,” Ankiel says. “It’s my story and what I’ve gone through… and there’s definitely a lot of interesting stuff in there, that’s for sure.”

Indeed, there’s a lot the lefthander endured after signing with the St. Louis Cardinals as a second-round draft pick out of Port St. Lucie High School in 1997. He watched his father, the very man who helped teach him baseball, go to federal prison for drug smuggling. He watched as his half-brother was incarcerated 28 times in six years for serious offenses including rape, cocaine possession, drug smuggling and burglary.

But Richard Alexander Ankiel had something they did not – a God-given talent to throw a baseball from the left side.

After his junior year of high school, Rick got his first taste of international baseball when he was selected to the USA Baseball 18U National Team to play in the 1996 “AAA” World Championship tournament in Cuba. He was good, starting one game in which he pitched seven innings for the win, allowing one earned run. After the tournament, he hustled back to Port St. Lucie High to begin fall semester classes, having missed the first week while out of the country.

That trip was eye opening for the 17-year-old. He heard the Cuban fans beat drums, chant in the stands, and rally around their team and country. He saw passion. He also learned the importance of teamwork and listening to those who had experienced this environment before. It’s a lot for a kid to deal with, taking the mound in a foreign country where it seems everyone wants to see Team USA fail.

But Ankiel thrived on it. You want pressure? Try watching your father – a man you love – argue violently with your mother – a woman you love - and you’re virtually helpless to do anything about it. Pitching in another country was miles away from that ugly scene, both physically and figuratively.

And Rick embraced it.

“For me, it was unbelievable,” he says. “It was such a life experience to be able to put a USA Baseball uniform on. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before, and I would never give that opportunity away. From day one, I knew I was representing my country, my family, my school and myself. And I had all my teammates to travel with and play ball with… It was one of the best opportunities I’ve ever had.”

By the spring of 1997, Ankiel was a known commodity with scouts flocking to his games to see firsthand the Florida lefthander with the electric fastball. He also played his second year with the USA Baseball 18U National Team, going 1-0 with a 0.71 ERA and an eye-popping 20 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings at the Junior Pan American Championships in Brazil where the USA went 6-1, earning a bronze medal. He later posted a 1-0 mark in two appearances in the 1997 IBAF “AAA” World Junior Championships in August in New Brunswick, Canada, fanning 27 in 15 2/3 innings.

“Those were the good ol’ days,” he says.

In between the Pan Am Games and the World Championship tournament in Canada, Ankiel graduated and was drafted by the Cardinals. He did not sign with St. Louis until after returning from the World Championships in late August 1997. Almost two years to the day of signing, he made his major league debut as the youngest player in the big leagues.

It would be easy to say the rest is history and they lived happily ever after, but that’s not quite the case.

In 2000, at the age of 20, Ankiel strung together an outstanding season, going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA and striking out 194 in 175 innings pitched as he finished second to Rafael Furcal in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting. But he also uncorked 12 wild pitches, a sign of things to come.

Why do pitchers, catchers or even infielders suddenly lose the ability to throw the ball where they want to? What happens when the mind tells you one thing, but the body doesn’t listen? That fall, pitching in his first-ever playoff game – Game 1 of the NL Divisional Series – Ankiel inexplicably lost his ability to function on the mound, becoming the first pitcher in 110 years of major league history to throw five wild pitches in one inning. One. Inning.

After shutting out the Braves for the first two innings, Rick Ankiel lost his way in the third, allowing four runs on two hits with four walks and the five wild pitches.

His pitches sailed wide, sailed high, sailed wide and high, flew to the backstop and bounced several feet in front of the plate. Few actually ever crossed the plate, but Ankiel kept digging deep to try and pull out of sudden disaster. Nothing worked.

He made two other appearances during the Cards’ playoff run, but twice failed to finish an inning against the Mets because of control issues.

The troubles continued the next season, and Ankiel was sent down to try and work it out. Ultimately, he plummeted all the way to rookie level before he found some success on the mound. It was also there, as a designated hitter, that Ankiel began driving the baseball at the plate.

He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2002, and returned to the majors in September 2004. He seemed fine, and pitched fairly well in a few brief relief appearances.

Then during a spring training game in 2005, he again lost it, throwing just three strikes in 20 pitches in one game. Some of it may have come from trying to work through a nerve flair-up in his elbow, but he just couldn’t throw a strike. It seemed like the end of the line.

“I just came to a point where I knew it wasn’t working,” he says. “And I didn’t know what my future would be. I felt like my personality was changing, my relationships were changing with my friends and family, and I realized it wasn’t the future I wanted.”

It was then the Cardinals announced Ankiel would remain with the organization as an outfielder.

“When I made the switch, I kind of felt like people were receptive,” he says. “I know there were a lot of naysayers, but the people who knew me best were behind me. I think watching me go through the struggles was starting to wear on everybody. Tony La Russa, Dave Duncan, my teammates… they didn’t want to watch me struggle. They knew what I was going through. I think in the end, you know, everybody had to deal with it in some way.”

Ankiel put on a power display in the minors at Triple-A Memphis in 2007, slugging 32 home runs with 89 RBI before being called back to the major leagues as an everyday player. It didn’t take him long to go from a curiosity to an integral part of the Cardinals’ lineup. On August 9, his first day back in the majors, Ankiel was 0-for-3 when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the seventh with two on against San Diego’s Doug Brocail. On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, Ankiel slugged a home run to right. He tried, but could barely contain a grin as he rounded the bases to a deafening roar.

“As I was running, I was watching the flight of the ball and looking at the fence,” he says. “As soon as I knew it was a home run… I can’t even explain the emotion that I felt. I think I just kind of floated around the bases. I couldn’t feel my legs. I remember thinking, ‘That just happened!’”

Ankiel hit 11 home runs for the Cardinals that season, then added 25 in 2008 before falling back to 11 his final year in St. Louis. He batted .240 lifetime, and slugged 76 home runs – 74 of which came in the seven years he played as a regular. After the Cardinals, Ankiel logged time with the Royals, the Braves, the Nationals, Astros and the Mets before calling it a career in 2013.

And what a career it was.

Along the way, Ankiel became the first player since Babe Ruth to have won at least 10 games on the mound during his career while also hitting at least 50 home runs lifetime. He also joins Ruth as the only two players in history to have both started a playoff game as a pitcher and hit a home run as a position player.

“I always felt like I had power,” Rick says. “The biggest challenge for me was going to be learning to hit day-in and day-out. That, and just getting my body ready to play every day, learning what that was all about.”

In 2015, he worked with the Washington Nationals helping on-field issues while also offering his insights into the mental aspects of the game. He took this year off to spend time with his family, which includes his wife and two young boys, and is working at finishing the book. He expects it to be on-sale sometime during spring training.

Who knows? Maybe that will prompt a call from Hollywood.


Where are they now: Don August

During the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, USA pitcher Don August was so sure he would not pitch a third consecutive day that he left his cleats, cup and fielding glove in his locker.

After all, the righthander out of small Chapman University already had pitched the previous two days, entering in the ninth inning each day – a 16-1 blowout over Italy and a 12-0 win over the Dominican Republic. “I was asked to hold the leads,” he says with a laugh.

1984 Olympic Team

So before the USA’s semifinal game against South Korea, August was just preparing to take it easy on the bench. “I thought they had some other guys they wanted to use,” August recalls. “And I thought, hey, I had already gotten to pitch in Dodger Stadium in front of my family, and had already appeared in two Olympic games.

“I was just going to sit on the bench and root for the team.”

But head coach Rod Dedeaux and the U.S. coaching staff had other ideas. The coach told August he would be the first used in relief that day. “I remember thinking, whoa, I didn’t expect that.”

So off he went back into the clubhouse and emerged with cleats on his feet and a fielding glove in his hand.

During the third inning, August was told to begin warming up. By the fifth, he was inserted into a 2-2 game. So much for entering games with a big lead. “This one mattered,” August says. “When I came in it was tied, a man on third and two outs.” After falling behind 2-0 in the count, to the first batter he faced, August eventually coaxed the out needed to get out of the inning.

South Korea never threatened after that.

August tossed up zeroes the remainder of the game, earning the win when the U.S. pushed across three runs in the bottom of the sixth in what wound up a 5-2 win. That earned August the win, and sent the U.S. into the gold medal championship game against Japan. “I pitched in three of the five Olympic games,” he says. “I just wasn’t expecting to pitch that day.”

The U.S. lost in the championship game, but the team did experience having MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth – the organizer of the L.A. Olympics – place silver medals around their necks.

The Olympic experience just furthered what had already been a great year for August up to Los Angeles. He was dominant at Division II Chapman College as a junior, earning an invitation to try out for the U.S. Olympic Team. But August initially wasn’t going to attend the tryout at Cal State Fullerton in the fall of 1983. “It was on a Saturday morning,” he says. “I was a lazy college kid who wanted to sleep in.”

Chapman head coach Paul Deese would have none of it, telling August, “Oh, you’re going.”

August attended, and impressed. The next May, he received an invitation to attend a smaller tryout in Louisville consisting of the best players USA Baseball had seen at the various area tryouts like the one at Fullerton. It also didn’t hurt August’s profile that, even though pitching for a D-II program, he was consistently beating major D-I programs such as Cal State Fullerton and USC – the school he had hoped to attend in high school, but which inexplicably stopped recruiting him despite posting an outstanding senior season that spring.

USC’s loss was Chapman’s gain.

August said throughout the entire Olympic Team Tour across the country during the summer of ’84, Dedeaux – the legendary USC coach – never said anything to the pitcher about the snub. “We never talked about it,” August says. “He never brought it up and neither did I.”

During the Team USA tour across the country in preparation for the Olympics, August was drafted in the first round of the 1984 MLB Draft by the Houston Astros, who selected him 17th overall. It was validation that he was among the best pitchers in the country.

“It started that year with the Chapman season,” August says. “I got a lot of recognition. When I pitched, there would be 15 scouts with radar guns on me. Even in the bullpen when I was getting ready to take the mound they would be watching my bullpen session. Everything just worked out that year.”

Two years after the Olympics, August and another pitcher were traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for veteran pitcher Danny Darwin. Houston was surrendering one of its top pitching prospects for a veteran that could immediately help the team’s playoff push.

In 1988, August made his major league debut and finished the season with an outstanding 13-7 mark and 3.09 ERA. His last game in the majors came in 1991. “I kind of battled a couple years in the minors trying to make it back,” he says. Stints in the Mexican League and a five-year run in Taiwan followed. He closed out his playing days in Italy in 2000.

Upon his return to the States, August secured his teaching license and worked fulltime teaching Social Studies and U.S. History to junior high and high school students. Today, he works as a substitute teacher handled all grades and assignments. He also has spent the last 14 years as the head JV baseball coach at Menonomee Falls (Wis.) High School, where he also assists the varsity team. The team won the Wisconsin state title last season. “That was almost as big to me as a lot of other stuff I’ve done in baseball,” he says.

But nothing will be as big as the 1984 Olympics, when Don August was pitching near home, in front of friends and family, and wearing the red, white and blue while at the top of his game.

“That was great, that was awesome,” he says of the experience.

He’s got an Olympic silver medal to prove it.


Where Are They Now: Matt LaPorta

When he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 14th round of the 2006 MLB First-Year Player Draft, most people who knew Matt LaPorta figured the Florida Gators junior slugging first baseman would sign and forego his senior season in Gainesville.

But most people were wrong.

Matt Laporta

LaPorta, the 2005 SEC Player of the Year as a sophomore, believed he could improve his draft standing if he returned for his senior year at Florida. Conventional wisdom suggests that players returning to school after being drafted as juniors lose much of their bargaining power. After all, seniors have little leverage remaining when they enter their last season of eligibility.

It can be a difficult decision for a young player. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion. And most aren’t shy about sharing them.

“On one hand it’s a difficult decision because the world says it’s a dumb decision and you keep hearing that you’ll never get as much money as after your junior year in college,” LaPorta says. “It was just a lot of negative things.”

But LaPorta never wavered.  He was used to waiting to fulfill his dream of playing major league baseball. Coming out of Charlotte High School in Punta Gorda, Fla., in 2003, the Chicago Cubs called his name in – like the Red Sox later – the 14th round. The opportunity to play Division I baseball at Florida lured him away from signing out of high school. LaPorta understood that a down year as a junior in college in which his batting average fell from .328 as a sophomore (while helping the Gators reach the College World Series final), to .259 played a role in his draft placement in 2006. “But I believed in how good I was and believed in the talent I was blessed with,” he says. “I believed in the kind of player I was.”

Indeed, it proved to be a huge positive. LaPorta regained his stroke and earned his second SEC Player of the Year honor, batting .402 with 20 home runs. It was the kind of performance that had helped land him on the 2005 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team two years before where he played alongside some big names – then and now – such as David Price, Max Scherzer and Matt Wieters to name just a few. That tenure helped convince LaPorta he belonged.

The Milwaukee Brewers certainly thought so, taking LaPorta in the first round of the 2007 Draft with the seventh overall pick. His “gamble” of returning to school – he’ll tell you it was no gamble at all – had paid off. He received a $2 million signing bonus.

But even as a professional, Matt’s time with USA Baseball wasn’t through. He was selected to the 2008 United States Olympic Baseball Team where he primarily played left field. In a four-game pre-Olympics exhibition series with Canada, LaPorta slugged three home runs and delivered five RBI. In the Olympics in Beijing, LaPorta was involved in a hard slide at home plate in the fifth inning of a game against the host Chinese. Two innings later, he was struck in the head with a fastball by relief pitcher Chen Kun. LaPorta sustained a minor concussion and was taken to a local hospital. The U.S. won the game 9-1.

He bounced back in the Bronze Medal Game, slugging a home run to help secure a medal for the Americans.

“It was amazing being on the podium and having a medal placed around your neck,” he says. It’s hard to duplicate that feeling. It was a great experience and I’m very grateful for it.”

The Olympic experience remains a highlight of LaPorta’s baseball career, which ended last spring when he retired to begin his new career as a loan officer with SunTrust Mortgage in the Tampa area.  His good friend, former NFL punter Tony Umholtz, introduced him to mortgage banking, and LaPorta – despite not studying it in college and with no real experience in the field – flourished. “I’ve really enjoyed it and I do see it as a long-term career. I do have to say this is harder than baseball. With baseball, I had played it all my life. With this, you learn something every day.”

Matt Laporta

LaPorta has landed on his feet post-retirement and he’s set up a charitable foundation to help other former players ease into their new lives and careers. LaPorta’s “Next Up” foundation helps ex-players make the most of their opportunities, and assists in resume building, interviewing skills and offers an assessment test to determine what fields make the most sense. “As a baseball player, you haven’t had that many jobs,” he says. “So job skills aren’t necessarily going to stand out on a resume. What we like to do is extract the intangibles of a baseball player that made him successful. And by successful I mean anyone who ever played at any level from A-ball to the big leagues.

“We let them know we’re here for them and to use the foundation as a resource for whatever they need to get done,” he adds.

LaPorta is taking on the business world with the same drive that led him to Florida, the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team and the U.S. Olympic Baseball Team. He says he may coach someday when his kids are older, and he still follows the game.

“I do see myself in some capacity having something to do with baseball,” LaPorta says. “It’s such a great game.”


Where are they now? David Eckstein

When David Eckstein was a college infielder at the University of Florida, he asked his coaches to send a note to USA Baseball to let the organization know that the ambitious young man in Gainesville, Florida was interested in tryouts.

He never got a call.

David Eckstein (left)

Several years later when the organization was searching for professional players to build a roster for international play, Eckstein – then a major league infielder – again sent word that he would love to come to whatever tryouts were necessary to have a chance to wear the red, white and blue.

He never got a call to tryout that year, either.

But a funny thing happened a few years after Eckstein was named the 2006 World Series MVP for the world champion St. Louis Cardinals; he finally connected with USA Baseball, working as an honorary manager during the 2014 Tournament of Stars, following in the footsteps of his brother, Rick, a former coach in the USA Baseball organization and current batting instructor at the University of Kentucky.

At the Tournament of Stars, Eckstein worked as a position player coordinator, watching hundreds of 18U players. His job: Find talent, which in that setting wasn’t difficult. “It was all around me,” he says.

He worked with USA Baseball all the way through the selection of the 2014 18U National Team 20-man roster. Suddenly, he had to look at the game differently. He had to mine for talent. “I legitimately didn’t know any of the kids, and you’ve only got five days,” Eckstein says. “You’re not looking for a kid to have a good week, you’re looking for a kid with the right reaction and attitude, and how they represent USA. You’re watching them in all aspects of the game including how they are on the bench. I’ll walk over and sit on the bench and just watch.”

It was during one of these impromptu bench sessions in ’14 that Eckstein first saw Nick Madrigal, now at Oregon State. He recalls being impressed. “I’m sitting on the bench, and the players are telling the other players, ‘Man, you got to get up and see this kid hit,’” Eckstein says.

“To me, Nick Madrigal was the best high school shortstop in the nation last year. I’d put him up against anybody, and I have no problem saying that.”

Madrigal was a 17th round pick of the Cleveland Indians last season, but opted to sign a scholarship offer with Oregon State.

“That’s a kid I see a lot of me in,” Eckstein says. “Because if he was even close to 6-foot [he stands 5-7] he’d have been a first rounder.”

Eckstein’s dream of wearing the red, white and blue uniform – remember his earlier efforts? – became reality this summer when he was named a field coach for the 2015 USA Baseball 18U National Team. Working as first base coach, hitting instructor and infield instructor, Eckstein received a gold medal as the team won a third straight world championship by beating host Japan in the title game of the 2015 WBSC U-18 Baseball World Cup.

“It was such a great experience over there with that group,” says Eckstein, who had previously travelled to Japan as part of the 2002 MLB All-Star contingent that played a series against the Japanese. “I was so proud to wear the uniform. It was the first time I had ever gotten to wear USA across my chest.”

David Eckstein

His work with USA Baseball (which Eckstein says he’s enjoyed as much as anything in his career) is a likely stepping stone for a return to the on-field work in a more permanent role, as instructor, coach or talent advisor at whatever level of baseball comes calling. “I definitely do see myself back on the field at some point,” he says. “Baseball is still my passion.”

His next dream: Coach with his brother, Rick.

But there’s more than baseball in Eckstein’s life these days. He’s taken on a role as a business partner at Her Universe, a company that was the brainchild of his wife, Ashley. The company ( produces and markets superhero and sci-fi fashionable apparel for girls and women, a group previously unserved in the business world. Among the licenses Her Universe holds: Marvel, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Transformers and Star Wars – the latter a license Ashley was turned down for twice by LucasFilm – that despite that she’s the voice of Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels. Ashley would not be denied. The third time she met with LucasFilm, she secured the license.

“It’s aimed at Fangirls,” Eckstein says of the business model. And business is booming. Eckstein knows a little something about persevering when the odds seem great. A 19th-round pick by the Red Sox in 1997 out of Florida, the 5-foot-6, 179-pound middle infielder played bigger than his physical stature.

David did not study business in college, but he’s been a quick study in learning how the business world works. He credits his baseball career for that.

“Business and baseball are a lot alike,” he says. “You’ve got to stay focused and stay with what you’re good at and not try to do too much. You’ve got to be patient.” For Eckstein, that patience was rewarded when USA Baseball finally called.

“I’ve really enjoyed it,” he says of the experiences with the organization. “And I was really honored to be a part of it.”


Where are they now? Ty Griffin

Remembering... Ty Griffin

Even now, some 27 years later, Ty Griffin still draws inspiration from the gold medal he and his Team USA teammates won in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

Ty griffin USA Baseball

And sometimes others do, too. Case in point, two years ago Griffin – head coach of the Tampa Catholic baseball team – was looking for something to give his Crusaders players an edge against crosstown rival and traditional powerhouse Jesuit and its ace (and former USA Baseball alumni with the 2010 18U National Team) Lance McCullers Jr.

He found it in his gold medal.

Griffin brought the gold medal with him to the game and after he went over the game plan with his players, he reached in and pulled the medal out. “I told them we’re all going to be connected to this gold and that’s how we’re going to play.” When the medal made its way around the group of players, Griffin – “Coach Ty” to his team – slipped the medal back into his pocket. What the players didn’t know is that their coach had also brought with him a fake medal – a lookalike – that was gold and good enough to fool a group of fired up ballplayers. When Griffin dug back into his pocket, he had the fake medal in hand and looked them in the eye. “I told them a win tonight would mean more to me than the gold medal,” Griffin recalls.

And then he wound up with medal in hand – the one the players thought was the real Olympic medal – and threw it over a nearby fence. A brief second of stunned silence. Then the players jumped to their feet, yelling and screaming and some high-fiving. Griffin’s theatrics had fooled everyone, and his inspired players couldn’t wait to take the field.

“They really bought into it,” the coach says with a chuckle. And it worked. Griffin’s Tampa Catholic team defeated McCullers and Jesuit.

Griffin is a veteran of big games, and as a player with USA Baseball, produced one of the organization’s biggest moments when he slugged a two-out, two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat Cuba in the preliminary round of the 1987 Pan Am Games. The victory was historic as it marked the first loss for Cuba in 20 years of Pan Am play, a streak that had reached an astounding 37 straight wins.

As he strolled to the plate with Central Michigan’s Larry Lamphere on base, Griffin – an All-ACC Conference player at Georgia Tech and the first-round pick of the Chicago Cubs (ninth overall) in the 1989 MLB Draft – caught a glimpse of his parents in the Busch Stadium stands. Cuba’s pitcher figured Griffin would be looking fastball and offered up a curve that just hung, and Griffin slugged his way into USA Baseball history. It was the second home run for the switch-hitting second baseman who had hit one left-handed earlier in the game.

“Just an unbelievable feeling,” he says of rounding the bases after the game-winner. “I just remember a lot of people cheering and waving flags.”

Ty Griffin USA Baseball

That victory served notice to the rest of the field that the Americans were serious about their baseball. The U.S. did reach the gold medal game before losing, but by reaching the championship game they had qualified for the 1988 Olympics.

“I remember Coach [Ron] Fraser coming in and telling us, ‘Look, our No. 1 goal is to get to the medal game,’” Griffin says. “‘And if we don’t, the United States won’t be represented at the Olympic Games.’ That’s what made the Pan Am Games so important is that we achieved our goal for us, but we also achieved it for the United States.”

The Pan Am experience carried over the next year when the 1988 Olympic Team was compiled. Several of the players from the ’87 Pan Am Team also were on the ’88 Olympic Team. And they knew they were good.

“We got a sense that we had a great team when we came back the next year to train for the Olympics,” Griffin says. “It was a great bunch of guys and we just connected and went out of our way to do things for the other players. We understood it was a team of great players.

“We matured as young people [after Pan Am] but also as ballplayers,” he adds. “We came to Seoul with the thought that this was ours to lose. If we played our game we knew it was ours. It was almost borderline cockiness, but we weren’t cocky in the sense of how we played. But the guys on that team fed off each other so well that there never was a time I didn’t feel we weren’t in the game.”

In addition to coaching high school players, Griffin was an assistant coach with the 2014 USA Baseball 14U National Team Development Program (NTDP). His goal is to coach for the organization in international play. Then maybe he can bring his medal out again.