PROB­LEM IS, ANKIEL IM­PROVES KC

The Kansas City Star (Sunday) - - LETTERS - SAM MELLINGER

SA base­ball man is stand­ing 20 feet or so back as Rick Ankiel, dressed in his blue Roy­als prac­tice jer­sey, digs in for his new team. Ankiel is im­por­tant for the Roy­als. “Take a look,” the man says. “He’s got as much raw power as any­body you’ll see.” First swing, Ankiel hits a weak grounder to sec­ond base. The base­ball man winces. He kicks lightly at the ground. It’s the open­ing days of spring train­ing and al­ready Ankiel is matched against an im­age he may not live up to. Ankiel, the cen­ter­piece ad­di­tion to the Roy­als’ 25-man ros­ter, is the best place to start when talk­ing about where they stand en­ter­ing the fourth year of gen­eral man­ager Day­ton Moore’s at­tempt to shed the fran­chise’s long-earned la­bel of laugh­able losers. He rep­re­sents the Roy­als’ hope, but also their anvil. He is the face of their prom­ise, but also their strug­gle. “I’m proud of who I am and what I am as a player,” Ankiel says. “He’s the full pack­age for me,” man­ager Trey Hill­man says. “There’s no ques­tion he should and he will con­tinue to get bet­ter,” Moore says. This is the Roy­als’ mes­sage, ex­cept a com­pet­ing ex­ec­u­tive sees Ankiel as an­other ex­am­ple of the Roy­als valu­ing po­ten­tial over pro­duc­tion.

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Ankiel was dis­carded by the Car­di­nals and wanted by other teams only as a role player, but he comes to the Roy­als as the start­ing cen­ter fielder set to hit some­where in the mid­dle of the lineup. He turns 31this sum­mer — four to five years af­ter most hit­ters peak — and is a .255 hit­ter in three sea­sons stut­tered by in­juries since be­com­ing a full-time out­fielder. “He looks lost to me,” says a ri­val scout. Who wouldn’t want to be­lieve in Rick Ankiel? He is im­pos­si­ble not to root for, the owner of one of base­ball’s coolest suc­cess sto­ries. You’ve prob­a­bly heard some of this, about how he went from can’t-miss pitcher and bud­ding star to busted dreams, then rein­vented him­self as an out­fielder and made it back to the big leagues. He went from star-crossed pitcher to the peo­ple’s star out­fielder, like go­ing pro in two dif­fer­ent sports. He burst into the na­tional con­science a decade ago when 50,000 fans for a Car­di­nals play­off game be­came ac­ci­den­tal eye­wit­nesses to an un­com­fort­ably pub­lic melt­down of a 21-year-old pitcher. He threw five wild pitches in an in­ning, the first big lea­guer to do that in 110 years. It looked, sim­ply, like he for­got how to pitch. A flaw­less de­liv­ery mor­phed into one with prob­lems a Lit­tle League coach could point out. This was Chuck Knoblauch throw­ing to first, Nick An­der­son at the free-throw line, or Jean Van de Velde at the Bri­tish Open. He was never again an ef­fec­tive pitcher. Then came a string of rev­e­la­tions about a per­sonal back­ground that in­cluded a pushy fa­ther who ended up in prison for deal­ing nar­cotics, a tough go for a sen­si­tive kid whose phys­i­cal tal­ent pulled him into big-time sports be­fore the rest of him was ready. Which is why his base­ball rein­car­na­tion cap­tured so many hearts. As much be­cause they liked his spirit as his chances, the Car­di­nals let Ankiel try to con­vert to full-time out­fielder in 2005. No­body ex­pected much, but af­ter he hit 53 homers in two mi­nor-league sea­sons they brought him to St. Louis, his sto­ry­book jour­ney com­plete with a three-run homer his first game back. This is part of what the Roy­als like about Ankiel, the ath­leti­cism to do it phys­i­cally and re­solve to do it spir­i­tu­ally. He’s easy to root for, to hope he can thrive in Kansas City this sum­mer. “With his makeup and his winning-type at­ti­tude,” Moore says, “that can hap­pen.” That’s the Ankiel every­one would like to see. It’s just that many base­ball peo­ple see him as a bet­ter story than as a fix for the Roy­als’ prob­lems. That’s what Car­di­nals GM John Mozeliak seemed to say when he took the un­usual step of pub­licly point­ing out holes in Ankiel’s swing while an- nounc­ing he had no reg­u­lar spot in St. Louis’ out­field. “That’s his busi­ness,” Ankiel says. “He has the right to say what­ever he wants to say … (but) show me a hit­ter who doesn’t have a hole in his swing.”

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The Roy­als be­lieve in Rick Ankiel, and they should, be­cause he’s bet­ter than what they had. Without Ankiel, the Roy­als would be de­cid­ing be­tween Mitch Maier and Brian An­der­son for cen­ter field, or worse, they’d plan reg­u­lar out­field time for José Guillen. Sign­ing Ankiel makes the Roy­als bet­ter, and that’s more in­dict­ment than ap­plause. This is the Roy­als’ pat­tern. Con­sider the re­cent his­tory: Two years ago, Guillen was an ag­ing out­fielder with a prob­lem-child rep­u­ta­tion, but got big money be­cause Emil Brown led the Roy­als with 62 RBIs the sea­son be­fore. Last win­ter, Kyle Farnsworth was a 30-some­thing pitcher who hadn’t been a top re­liever in four years, but got big money be­cause the Roy­als grew des­per­ate for a hardthrower in their bullpen. Last sum­mer, Yu­niesky Be­tan­court was bad enough the Mariners con­sid­ered re­leas­ing him, but the Roy­als traded for him be­cause they had Luis Her­nan­dez, Tony Peña Jr. and Wil­lie Bloomquist tak­ing turns at short­stop. If you’ve been eat­ing dirt, worms start looking like a good source of pro­tein. For most of the last two decades, the Roy­als have been pick­ing out worms. “(Ankiel) is not an im­pact player, but I un­der­stand the sign­ing,” a com­pet­ing scout says. “He makes them bet­ter, and if you’re say­ing that’s the prob­lem, well, I won’t ar­gue.”

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Pri­vately, some in the sport see this as a bit of an im­age sign­ing. Even if the money would be bet­ter spent on am­a­teur tal­ent, sign­ing Ankiel is a mes­sage to the Roy­als’ club­house that the front of­fice is try­ing to field com­pet­i­tive teams. Re­mem­ber that Zack Greinke talked about the Roy­als’ in­creased com­mit­ment to winning as a ma­jor rea­son for sign­ing his ex­ten­sion be­fore winning the Cy Young last year. Billy But­ler will have a sim­i­lar de­ci­sion soon, and this is one of those be­low-the-sur­face fac­tors that make build­ing the Roy­als even more dif­fi­cult. But move away from Ankiel now, to the Roy­als’ fu­ture on the next prac­tice field over. This is the part of the fran­chise that re­ally mat­ters, even if names such as Jor­dan Par­raz and David Lough and Danny Duffy are rec­og­nized only by the most hard-core fans or ded­i­cated au­to­graph seek­ers. The Roy­als are among base­ball’s big­gest spenders on am­a­teur play­ers, have been for a few years now, and it’s the only way teams like this can be­come fran­chises like the Twins or Rays. There are no winc­ing men over here watch­ing the Roy­als’ fu­ture, only the re­al­ity of what the Roy­als can­not say pub­licly — that Ankiel and Guillen and Be­tan­court are not part of any sus­tain­able fu­ture. If the Roy­als are to shake their loser la­bel, it will be be­cause the guys on this field le­git­i­mately re­place some of the guys on that field. It’s the only way for the Roy­als to break the pat­tern of giv­ing mil­lions to un­der­per­form­ing free agents, forced to pro­mote av­er­age play­ers as an­swers to a stack of prob­lems that could take years to fix. To reach Sam Mellinger, sports colum­nist for The Star, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to smellinger@kc­star.com or fol­low twit­ter.com/mellinger

JOHN SLEEZER | THE KANSAS CITY STAR

The Roy­als see what they want with out­fielder Rick Ankiel.

JOHN SLEEZER | THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Cen­ter fielder Rick Ankiel is tak­ing swings in the Roy­als’ train­ing camp in Ari­zona be­cause his for­mer team, the Car­di­nals, no longer had a place for him in their out­field.

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