If Cardinal Nation were a perfect world, Rick Ankiel would be pitching in the St. Louis starting rotation. Based on his rookie season of 2000 (11 wins, a team-leading ERA of 3.50, a team-leading 194 strikeouts), the 28-year-old Ankiel would be in his eighth year in the big leagues, well over a 100 career wins, and earning upwards of $10 million a season. His mighty left arm would be to losing streaks as penicillin is to bacteria.
If Cardinal Nation were a perfect world, Anthony Reyes would be pitching in the St. Louis starting rotation. Based on his rookie season of 2006 (merely 5 wins, but a one-hitter thrown against the reigning world champions and 17 consecutive Tigers retired in Game 1 of the World Series), the 25-year-old Reyes would be establishing himself alongside Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, and one Rick Ankiel as the National League's preeminent rotation motored, yet again, toward October baseball.
Cardinal Nation is not a perfect world. Not by a longshot. Instead of forming a lefty-righty combination to make opposing batters quake in their spikes, Rick Ankiel and Anthony Reyes -- together as one, in some respects -- form the most compelling storyline for the 2007 Memphis Redbirds. With the local club's season down the tubes as far as the Pacific Coast League standings are concerned, the progress of Ankiel and Reyes merits the attention of Cardinal fans from St. Louis to Southaven.
A Redbird official recently pointed out that Ankiel will hardly ever raise his head in the on-deck circle. Certainly the most recognizable player in a Memphis uniform -- he received the most votes of any player in the PCL for the Triple-A All-Star Game before refusing to play -- Ankiel has taken to life as a professional outfielder with the joy and exuberance you might see on the face of a toll-booth operator. He refused to accommodate ESPN when the sports-media giant came to town to profile a player aiming to achieve something Babe Ruth and Stan Musial managed, but few others before or since. (According to the same Redbird official, Ankiel resents the on-air treatment he was given in the aftermath of his famous pitching meltdown during the 2000 playoffs for St. Louis.)
The saddest part of Ankiel's rigid approach to big-league rebirth is how very well it's going on the field. He leads the PCL with 27 home runs (through Sunday), leads the Redbirds with 72 RBIs, and has played a graceful, if not spectacular, centerfield. The only reason he hasn't entered the batter's box at Busch Stadium in 2007 is the lack of options the Cardinals hold. Once promoted, Ankiel could not be sent down for more Triple-A seasoning. He'll be a Cardinal when rosters expand in September, playing the outfield . . . and facing a throng of media types interested in sharing his amazing story. Keep your eye out for a smile.
As for Reyes, the meltdown has little to do with any mental block. But having started the season 0-10 for St. Louis -- 0 and 10! -- a meltdown he has certainly suffered. Partially the victim of poor run support from a struggling lineup -- he has the rare distinction of having lost the first two complete games of his career -- Reyes is too young for Cardinal management to allow a season-long downward spiral. Back in Memphis, Reyes has shown the same nasty stuff that dominated PCL hitters in 2005 and parts of 2006. Through Sunday, he has 33 strikeouts in 39 innings, with an ERA of 2.79. Like Ankiel, Reyes will be wearing two cardinals on his jersey come September.
While it may seem fitting, it's not appropriate to use the word "jinx" as we witness the rise and fall (and rise again?) of Ankiel and Reyes. When a franchise has literally buried two pitchers recently (Darryl Kile in 2002 and Josh Hancock last April), a pair of rising stars struggling for big-league jobs become merely the latest cases in a sport where survival of the fittest means just that. Perhaps the day will come when Reyes leads a St. Louis rotation and Ankiel bats cleanup behind the mighty Albert Pujols. For now, though, that's a perfect world that feels a bit out of reach.