The Current

How anxiety derailed former MLB pitcher Rick Ankiel's career

"I really didn't know what was happening. All I was thinking was why is the ball not going where it was supposed to go."
Rick Ankiel of the St. Louis Cardinals reflects on his career and his struggle with anxiety in his new book, The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life. (Doug Benc/Getty Images)

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Whenever a game was on the line, Toronto Blue Jays ace reliever Roberto Osuna would trot out of the bullpen and often shut down the threat.

But in June, many fans were left scratching their heads when he sat out a game.

Soon baseball would learn the answer to the mystery around the pitcher: Osuna was struggling with anxiety.

Anxiety among professional athletes is not often spoken about by those in the big leagues who have struggled with it. But it was anxiety that destroyed the pitching career of Major League Baseball's number one prospect, Rick Ankiel.

"My heart goes out to him because I understand what that's like and how debilitating that can be," Ankiel tells The Current's summer host Michael Finnerty, responding to the news of Osuna admitting he's struggling from anxiety.

"I think as an athlete, you know, a lot of times you're taught to hide these emotions, and it's really hard to come forward and come out with because now you're given the entire world ammunition against you."

I got it off my chest. Everybody knows about it.  And here I am.- Rick Ankiel

Ankiel describes his own battle with anxiety in his new book, The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips and the Pitch that Changed My Life, and says the first step in dealing with anxiety is recognizing what it is and admitting to it.

"A lot of times you'll find with guys, the more you talk about it, the easier it is for them to get over it because now it is not this secret they are trying to hide, right?" Ankiel explains.
Rick Ankiel was 25 when he returned to the major league as a hitter after dealing with his anxiety. He played seven successful seasons. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

"I got it out, I got it off my chest. Everybody knows about it  And here I am … This is what I'm battling against and I'm going to go out there and give it everything I got."

When Ankiel pitched his first full season in the National League in 2000 with the St. Louis Cardinals, many sports pundits called him the next Sandy Koufax. He was the number one pitching prospect in all of baseball the year before, and it looked like a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame was in his future.

And then he started a game against the Atlanta Braves in the 2000 National League playoffs, and all that changed.

Not only could I feel it. I could hear it coming. I could hear the blood draining from behind my ears.- Rick Ankiel

In the third inning, Ankiel threw five wild pitches.

"I really didn't know what was happening. All I was thinking was why is the ball not going where it was supposed to go," Ankiel tells Finnerty.

The next year, the young pitcher's confusion would turn to panic and anxiety.

"The anxiety that would come, the nervousness was just debilitating. Not only could I feel it, but I could hear it coming. I could hear the blood draining from behind my ears," he explains.

"And then all of a sudden, it was like my body would take over. My heart is going a hundred miles an hour. My mouth became so dry I felt dehydrated like I was standing in the desert."

Ankiel struggled as a pitcher for another four years and was sent to the minors, returning in 2007 to the major leagues as an outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals.

In March 2014, he retired after playing for 11 years  for six different teams.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.

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