10 years ago today: Rick Ankiel gets sent down

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Having walked five and thrown two wild pitches the night before, Rick Ankiel was sent down to Triple-A Memphis on this day 10 years ago.  It’d be 3 1/2 years before he returned to the majors and six before he was back for good.

After going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA as a rookie, Ankiel experienced a meltdown in the 2000 postseason.  Named the Cardinals’ Game 1 starter in the NLDS, he threw five wild pitches and walked six on his way to giving up four runs in 2 2/3 innings.  He worked twice more in the NLCS, throwing four wild pitches and walking five in 1 1/3 innings.

The hope was that Ankiel would find his form over the winter, but while he was no longer denting the backstop in spring training, control remained a big problem.  He ended up going 1-2 with a 7.13 ERA in his six starts for the Cardinals.  He struck out 27 in 24 innings, but he also walked 25.

Ankiel then completely lost it at Memphis, walking 17 and throwing 12 wild pitches in 4 1/3 innings.  The Cardinals backed off him for a bit before sending him all of the way down to Rookie ball to get him out of the spotlight.  The treatment worked, as he came back to post a ridiculous 158/18 K/BB in 87 2/3 innings for Johnson City of the Appalachian League.

At that point, Ankiel’s stuff was still some of the best in baseball, and the hope was that he’d come back and emerge as one of the NL’s elite hurlers.  Ankiel, though, went on to miss 2002 with an elbow injury.  Tommy John surgery followed in 2003.  He returned to the majors as a reliever in Sept. 2004 and showed promise.  While he allowed six runs in 10 innings, he posted a 9/1 K/BB ratio in the process. 

Ankiel went on to pitch successfully in Puerto Rico over the winter, but he tweaked his elbow towards the end of the stint and his command issues came back after he rejoined the Cardinals.  On Feb. 28, he threw just three strikes in a 28-pitch batting practice session.  Nine days later, he announced that he’d make the full-time switch to the outfield.

Of course, the story has a semi-happy ending from there.  Ankiel returned to the majors in 2007 and hit 36 homers for the Cardinals in 585 at-bats through the end of 2008.  Unfortunately, he’s dealt with injuries and hasn’t been nearly as productive since. The Nationals opened this season with him as their primary center fielder, but he’s currently on the DL with a sprained right wrist.

What in the heck is Derek Jeter doing with the Marlins?

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Last night we linked the Miami Herald story about the Marlins firing special assistants Jeff Conine, Andre Dawson, Tony Perez and Jack McKeon. Let’s talk about that a little bit.

The firings themselves are eyebrow-raising inasmuch as “special assistants” like that are rarely key front office personnel. Former players, Hall of Famers and former managers like those guys are really ambassadors for the team and, particularly in the case of Jeff Conine, who is known as “Mr. Marlin,” why would new ownership want to kick its ambassadors to the curb? It’s not like you can just hire a bunch of new franchise legends for he role. Who ya gonna call? Dan Uggla?

Sure, I can see an argument for changing their responsibilities. If they actually had say in baseball operations, I can see new ownership wanting to relieve them of those duties. It’s also possible that Jeff Loria paid them too much money for guys who are only team ambassadors. So, sure, if the job is too cushy by the standards of the gig, I could see Jeter cutting their pay or their duties to make it conform to what other clubs do with their former stars. Maybe that makes them want to quit. If so, that’s OK I suppose.

Beyond that, however, it’s hard to see why you would NOT want guys like Conine, Dawson, Perez and McKeon to represent your club in the community and in the service of impressing prospective season ticket holders. The franchise’s first star player, a Hall of Famer who ended his career with the club, another Hall of Famer who is from Cuba (which is kind of a big deal in a place like Miami) and the manager who brought the club its last World Series championship are exactly who you want to represent your team. Especially when nearly everything else about your team has, for so very long, alienated the very public you want supporting it.

But let’s say, for the moment, that there was a good reason to fire those guys. Let’s say they’re all flaming jackwagons who have secretly poisoned the franchise from within. Let’s say that, despite his grandfatherly charm, Jack McKeon is a ruthless Machiavellian. Let’s say that Conine, Dawson and Perez beat up copy boys in the stairwells and microwave leftover fish in the break room every day. Even if that’s the case, how does this happen?

And here’s the twist: Jeter asked Marlins president David Samson to fire those four Marlins luminaries for him, because Jeter didn’t want to do it.

Even more strange, Jeter made the request after telling Samson what he already knew: that Samson would not be returning as team president.

It seems that Samson did carry out the firings. Unless some handsome severance package was being held hostage over it, I’m not sure how Samson doesn’t tell Jeter, “Hey Captain RE2PECT, know what? Up yours, you do it yourself.” Of course, one can only project one’s own sensibility on a guy like David Samson so much, so let’s cut him a bit of slack here. We don’t know how the conversation went. Maybe Samson was happy to tell those guys to hit the bricks.

But really, how doesn’t Jeter man-up and handle this himself? It’s not because he’s not yet officially the owner, because if he has the power to fire Samson, he has the power to fire Conine and his friends. Maybe there is more to this than the Herald story lets on, but as it stands now, it comes off as cowardice on Jeter’s part. It’s a really bad look.

I’ll be curious to see how this plays in the baseball establishment over the next couple of days. Everyone — particularly the press — loves Derek Jeter an credits him with a class, smoothness and media savvy matched by few others. This, though, was either (a) a failure of class and an act of disrespect to baseball luminaries; or (b) a complete bungling of public relations, serving to make what was, in reality, a reasonable move appear classless. It has to be one or the other.

Derek Jeter has been a teflon star for more than two decades, but two of the few things the media loves more than Derek Jeter are (a) old Baseball Men like McKeon, Dawson, Perez and Conine; and (b) “classiness.” It’ll be interesting to see if, for the first time in his professional life, the media gets its knives out for Derek Jeter for seeming content to dispense with both.

Dodgers top Giants, clinch fifth straight NL West title

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The Dodgers are NL West champions for the fifth time in a row. They clinched with a 4-2 win over the Giants on Friday night, taking their first and only lead on a mammoth record-breaking home run from Cody Bellinger in the third inning.

Rich Hill turned in another quality start, going six innings with five hits, a run and nine strikeouts to keep the Giants at bay. He tacked on an RBI hit of his own, too, lashing a double to left field for his first extra-base hit since 2007.

The Giants, meanwhile, deployed Jeff Samardzija and his 4.42 ERA for 4 1/3 innings. Samardzija was on the hook for the Dodgers’ four-run spread in the third and took his 15th loss of the season. Pablo Sandoval came through with a solo home run in the ninth, but the rest of San Francisco’s offense wasn’t so lucky against Kenley Jansen, who struck out the side to clinch the game — and the division.

After Friday’s showstopper, the Dodgers are just two wins away from their first 100-win season since 1974. If they win the remaining eight games of the season, they’ll beat out the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers for the most wins in franchise history.