The Un-Natural (Where have you gone Ricky Ankiel, an online drugstore turns its lonely eyes to you?)
There were two baseball stories that caught the public’s attention this year. Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s major league career home run record and Ricky Ankiel, once a promising pitcher, returned to the majors as a home run hitting outfielder. Both events evoked Babe Ruth who remains the sport’s patron saint. Bonds now holds the two records that people associated with Ruth for more than a generation, the single season home run record (73) and the career home run record. Ankiel’s reinvention echoed Ruth’s own fabled transformation from Hall of Fame level Red Sox pitcher to New York Yankees slugger, a shift so iconic that Bernard Malamud made it the center of his novel The Natural.
For a couple weeks, it appeared that the Bonds and Ankiel stories were supposed to contrast with one another. Despite his numbers, Bonds had sullied the game through his likely use of both steroids and HGH from 1999 to 2004. As he approached Hank Aaron’s 755, the baseball gods were punishing him by having a cloud of flying accusations follow him from stadium to stadium. Even more painful, Bonds’s team was stuck in last place. They had been collectively dragged down by their flawed star’s pursuit of the record. Ankiel’s story was all about how hard work and belief in self had let Ricky Ankiel keep his dream alive. After their world series win last year, the Cardinals had appeared to be cursed. First, manager Tony La Russa had been arrested for drunk driving then pitcher Phil Hancock had died while driving drunk. The team had no performed on the field. Ankiel got called up from the minors, hit nine home runs, and suddenly the team had gotten back into the playoff race. Ankiel’s inspiring story had saved their season. He was the anti-Bonds.
Yesterday, it turns out that Ankiel was linked to eight shipments of HGH in 2004 not long after he had undergone Tommy John surgery. Ankiel and the Cardinals quickly explained that he had a Doctor’s prescription and that HGH was not a banned substance in 2004. As to the facts that he was getting the drug from a shady non-bricks and mortar pharmacy and that HGH doesn’t seem to be the norm for elbow reconstruction surgery, Ankiel and the Cardinals have a whole lot less to say. When asked what other drugs his doctor might have been prescribed, Ankiel’s response was that the information was protected by physician-patient privilege. Nonetheless, every article I saw on the story took pains to mention both the doctor and the fact that baseball had not banned HGH in 2004. The shipments to Ankiel apparently stopped just before MLB started testing for it.
Not a single Ankiel article mentioned the fact that Barry Bonds’s likely use of HGH occurred before 2005.
Will the public turn on Ricky Ankiel as this story unfolds? I don’t know. The game needs heroes and that heroism usually has to take the form of hitting lots of home runs in the middle of a pennant race. Ironically, the Cardinals have the game’s best young home run hitter in Albert Puljos. It’s just that Ankiel’s comeback has been a more riveting story than the fact that no player in history has done more in his first few years in baseball than Puljos
Is the disparate treatment of the Ankiel and Bonds story just a matter of black and white?
It’s possible. Roger Clemens is likely as surly as Barry Bonds yet when Clemens announced his comeback this year at Yankee Stadium it got a standing ovation. The fact that Ankiel is white has likely played some role in his getting sympathetic press both for his return to the majors and with the HGH revelation. Still, I have trouble thinking of Barry Bonds as a civil rights icon. He has Aaron’s record, but Aaron’s own chase had more honor. It’s not the drugs. Aaron was forced to deal with the racism that came with being a black player chasing Ruth’s record less than ten years after the shooting of Martin Luther King. That’s just not part of Bonds’s story arc.
Going way back, Ruth’s home runs rescued baseball from the taint of the Black Sox scandal. The Ricky Ankiel story had promised to help pull the game out of the steroids-HGH scandal. Instead, it was like pulling the game’s head out of the water then dunking it back in. It's that moment in an action movie when someone comes to the rescue forty minutes into the movie only to turn out to be yet another bad guy in disguise.
A couple days ago, I got in a conversation with a couple guys who were doing fantasy baseball leagues. Even though most of my friends would have predicted that I was exactly the sort of person who would have gone for fantasy baseball in a big way, I never have. Anyway, they began talking about a number of their roster coups and it struck me that I didn’t know many of the names anymore. It’s not a shock. Players move from team to team quickly now and there are a lot more teams than there were when I was a kid memorizing the stats pages in the Sporting News for every team in the majors. Knowing every twenty five man roster in baseball is just a much more difficult feat today. The shock about my not recognizing so many baseball names is that I didn’t feel any sadness about it.