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Ankiel should overcome woes


Special to ESPN.com

I've seen it happen too many times. It's happened to Chuck Knoblauch, Mark Wohlers and Steve Sax. And there is nothing funny about this Camusesque unwiring of the mind that causes a baseball player to be unable to throw a ball to another player.

Rick Ankiel says his public hell is mechanical, not psychological, and in time we'll find out. He has arguably the finest sports psychologist in the business in Harvey Dorfman, since Ankiel's agent Scott Boras is wise enough to employ Dorfman to help his stable of clients. Ankiel is 21, which is good. What we don't yet know is whether or not his intrepid appearance is a facade, or whether there are self-doubts that have been jarred to the surface.

Ankiel is so unusually talented and so young, any normal human being roots for him; the others make fun of what happened in Game 1 of the Division Series and Game 2 of the NLCS. He can talk to Wohlers about the humiliation yuckitup TV people sometimes heap on such struggles, but if there is some mental trauma, this will not be an easy struggle to overcome. One psychologist was asked this spring how many players overcome these haywires. "Very few," he replied. "Almost none." Which is why Sax and Wohlers deserve so much admiration.

Mariners coach Larry Bowa remembers Steve Blass throwing a pitch that nearly ended up in the third-base dugout in a spring training game. Terry Steinbach could tell you about a guy named Bill (Wild 'n Wonderful) Mooneyham, who developed such a complex about uncorking wild pitches in the bullpen that rolled onto the field and stopped games that he could only throw changeups while warming up.

In the late '80s, there was a guy named Steve Gasser who might have been the next Nolan Ryan, but for a spring training game and some fears and all of a sudden he went out of whack. Gasser went to see Dorfman at his Prescott, Ariz., house that sat on a hill. Dorfman got Gasser to play catch, but Dorfman stood downhill in the driveway, so Gasser knew that if he made a wild throw, Dorfman would have to walk the quarter mile down the hill to retrieve it. Every throw was perfect, because Gasser was thinking about Dorfman, not himself.

In the late '70s, the Red Sox had two great young pitching prospects named Steve Schneck and Bobby Sprowl. Schneck led the Double-A Eastern League with a 2.15 ERA in 1978, but hit a couple of batters throwing BP in spring training with the Red Sox and suddenly couldn't throw strikes ... and the last time I saw him, he was pitching in an extended spring game against Harvard and the fourth ball to the sixth straight batter that he walked hit a player in the on-deck circle. He won two more professional games in his life.

Sprowl had been thrown out against the Yankees in the Boston Massacre series in September 1978, then the next spring was wild throwing BP. Some of the 25 guys in 25 cabs yelled at him, he couldn't throw pitches in the cage and when Don Zimmer sent him to try to pitch a 'B' game in Daytona Beach, he nearly threw a pitch into the press box.

Ken Tatum was the best reliever in the American League in 1969 for the Angels, and was again in 1970 when he hit Paul Blair in the jaw. Blair was never the same hitter, but Tatum could never again pitch inside. "Whenever I tried," Tatum said years later, "I couldn't get my arm to do it."

There's nothing humorous about Rick Ankiel's public humiliation. Wohlers has overcome it, and believes that his problem was as much physical as the product of a traumatic string of personal experiences. Knoblauch has publicly pretended to deny, but that has been a shield to protect himself from his national spotlight. He now says "my elbow is killing me and I have to have it checked," and thinks perhaps if he gets that cleaned out his mind can clean out as well.

There's nothing humorous about it because you can fix mechanics and scope an elbow, but the mind is another matter. "You never want to talk about it," Greg Maddux once said, "because back deep in your mind you're always afraid it could happen to you."

News and notes

  • The Indians will pick up the option on Kenny Lofton, then this week will have a tÍte-‚-tÍte with Manny Ramirez. Word is that they'll offer Ramirez a Chipper Jones-type deal without the deferrals -- a straight $90 million for six years -- and when he rejects it, the Tribe will know he's gone and will turn their attention to Mike Mussina.

    One of the intriguing dynamics in this winter's free-agent sweepstakes is the time frame on the Big Four, Ramirez, Mussina, Alex Rodriguez and Mike Hampton. "It's not only the players, it's the rivalry between Scott Boras and Jeff Moorad that may drag things out because the Rodriguez-Ramirez contracts are a rivalry unto themselves," says one GM. "What each could do is set some incredibly high bar, and the only way the player will get signed fast is if someone like Jerry Reinsdorf swoops in and meets the asking price."

  • The Indians may change from one of the game's most dangerous offensive teams to a pitching-oriented club more out of the mold of their great '54 club. Danys Baez is lighting it up in the Arizona Fall League, C.C. Sabathia isn't far away, and if they could sign Mussina, they'd have a starting rotation with Mussina, Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley, Dave Burba and Charles Nagy -- and that's before including Baez, Sabathia and others.

  • Carl Everett has been on vacation, and his agent Larry Reynolds hasn't spoken with him in 10 days. Reynolds is trying to figure out how to solve the wall between Everett and Jimy Williams, but is a long way from asking for a trade, if he does. Everett likes Boston, and the Red Sox need his production, so coaches think that what may have to happen is that Williams and Everett meet -- like on the Courtney Campbell Causeway between Tampa and Clearwater, halfway between their houses -- and work out their differences.

    That presumes Williams returns, which seems likely. But that doesn't stop Dan Duquette from the occasional jab at his manager, or, specifically, his lineups. In his online chat this week, Duquette brought up the fact that the Sox were 36-21 when Jose Offerman started at second base. Translated, that means that Duquette believes that their best lineup had Offerman at second and a legitimate first baseman beside him. While Duquette is trying to move Troy O'Leary to make room for a power-hitting left fielder, in his chat he held out hope that Cuban Juan Diaz and Dernell Stenson might get into the first base mix in 2001. Meanwhile, another first base/hitter prospect, Shea Hillenbrand, is off to a big offensive start in the Arizona Fall League.

    Bait-and-see for the Marlins
    One of the most interesting teams to watch in 2001 is Florida, if -- and that's if -- owner John Henry gets some hope of a new stadium. "We played at $20 million this last year," says GM Dave Dombrowski, "but $7 million of that was tied up in one person who didn't play (Alex Fernandez), so we were really a $13 million team. We've made a lot of progress and some young players developed, but it's hard to know how far they're going and exactly how good we can be."

    Dombrowski thinks Ryan Dempster is a legitimate No. 2 starter and likens him to Tim Hudson, is pleased with his bullpen and the progress made by Derrek Lee, Preston Wilson, Mark Kotsay, Luis Castillo and Mike Lowell. Alex Gonzalez? Not so pleased. "What we have to see is if Lee can be a more consistent RBI producer, for instance," says Dombrowski. "He made tremendous improvement this season and usually that RBI knack takes a few years to develop, so we're hopeful."

    There have been rumblings that the Marlins would like to get Charles Johnson back, but if Henry doesn't have a park in sight, it seems hard to believe that he'll have the cash for a 30-homer catcher.

    Will Suzuki join Sasaki?
    Ichiro Suzuki is one of the greatest hitters in the world. His average for the Orix Blue Wave this season was .387, which follows seasons in which he batted .385, .342, .356, .345, .358 and .343. He has announced he will jump to the U.S. this winter, which will set up a huge bidding war, led by the Mariners. Oh, yes. He turns 27 on Oct. 22.

    "He trained with us two springs ago, and believe me, you'd love him," says Lou Piniella. "He is a slasher. He hits the ball hard in the alleys, makes good contact, a good baserunner. He reminds me a lot of Johnny Damon. Same kind of player. He doesn't run as well as Damon, but he is a good right fielder with an outstanding right-field arm. He'll be a terrific sign."

    Since Damon and agent Scott Boras are going to dump Kansas City and either force a Shawn Green deal or play it out for next fall's free agency, there are many who have speculated that should Alex Rodriguez leave Seattle, the M's would go after Damon with young pitching to offer. But perhaps Suzuki could be their Damon, and the pitching could be used to get a power bat.

    From the booth to the field
    The broadcast booth seems to be a better training ground for major-league managers than the minor leagues. If, as expected, Bob Brenly and Buck Martinez get the Arizona and Toronto jobs, they will join Larry Dierker in the move from the booth to the dugout without ever managing in the minors. In contrast, looking at the last 20 Baseball America minor-league managers of the year, only Eddie Haas, Kevin Kennedy, Butch Hobson, Buck Showalter, Terry Francona and Jim Lefebvre got the chance to manage in the majors.

    Dierker managed the Astros into the playoffs three straight years. Brenly was a respected coach with the Giants before moving into the booth, while Martinez has been one of the most respected and thorough analysts in the business for years. "A lot of the traditional baseball people are disgusted by these types of moves," says one GM. "But if they get the right coaches -- especially a bench coach similar to Bill Virdon with Dierker his first season -- it can work. The job has changed. It's a people business, and Brenly and Buck are great people persons who know what makes young players tick and are smart enough to appreciate that they have to surround themselves with good staffs."

    There is no question that not only could Tim McCarver have been an extraordinary manager, he might still be able to walk down and do it; but then, there aren't many people like Tim McCarver.

    One current manager isn't quite as approving of the notion. "How come Brenly, Buck, Kennedy, Jeff Torborg and guys like that talk about how good they have it because they can walk home as soon as the game is over? But they still want to manage?" Because it's in their blood. Kennedy has a terrific job with Fox, but he rode a lot of buses to get to the bigs, he felt that he was unfairly fired in both Texas and Boston and knows he can prove his worth with one more opportunity.

    Other thoughts

  • Of the 154 players listed in the Baseball America Top 10 Prospects lists, 50 were first-round picks, 37 were undrafted foreign signees. Considering the cost of first-round picks and the escalating foreign market, it is increasingly clear that the talent-acquisition market is for the wealthy.

  • Tim Raines Jr. was fourth in the minors in stolen bases with 81 for the Orioles' Frederick club in the Carolina League.

  • Reliever Bert Snow led the minors in strikeouts per nine innings with 13.05 for Oakland's Double-A and Triple-A clubs in Midland and Sacramento. Snow, a 10th-round pick out of Vanderbilt, was Mark Mulder's teammate with the Bourne Braves of the Cape Cod League in 1997. Midland first baseman Jason Hart was first in the minors in hits (183), fourth in RBI (125), fifth in doubles (45), first in extra-base hits (79) and first in total bases (325). Hart has been player of the year in two minor leagues.

  • Hector Villenueva hit 38 homers in the Atlantic League, in case you were wondering.

  • Because Tomo Ohka has been a success since the Yokohama Baystars gave him to the Red Sox as a favor to International Scouting Director Ray Poitevint, Boston each year sends a young pitcher to Yokohama on loan. This year it was reliever Rafael Betancourt, who was 1-2, 4.08 for the Baystars.

  • If you believe, as many do, in the importance of contrast on a pitching staff, consider Glavine-esque left-hander Bud Smith of the Cardinals. He won 17 games in the minors. Imagine him going with Darryl Kile and his curveball, Rick Ankiel with his power and yakker and Matt Morris' power in the Cardinals' rotation in the near future. Not that anyone will ever again overlook Britt Reames.

    Seeking relief
    There are several teams looking to upgrade their bullpens -- the Royals, Blue Jays, Orioles, Indians, Angels, Rangers, Phillies, Pirates, Dodgers, Diamondbacks. Problem is, the reliever free-agent market is terribly thin. "Virtually every team is looking for another left-hander," says one agent. "But essentially, the market is Rheal Cormier, John Franco, Dan Plesac and Mark Guthrie, and Jeff Fassero and Terry Mulholland as swingmen. And you know Franco is going to stay with the Mets." Fassero threw better out of the pen the last month than he threw as a starter, so he is a sleeper. "Everyone will be looking for the Graeme Lloyd deal," says the agent.

    The Royals are trying to re-sign Ricky Bottalico, Boston is trying to work out deals with Rod Beck and Tom Gordon without picking up their $4.5M options and Toronto is likely to pick up the option on Paul Quantrill. John Wetteland may be forced to retire because of back problems. So that leaves Rick Aguilera, who threw well this season, and middlemen like Turk Wendell, Jeff Nelson, Curtis Leskanic, Julian Tavarez, Hector Carrasco, Jose Mesa and Doug Henry.

    "When we see what Wendell, Nelson and Leskanic get on the open market," says one GM, "we're going to appreciate how smart the Mets and A's were to go get Rick White and Jim Mecir at the trading deadline. Teams with low-cost relievers available can make some interesting prospect deals, as Tampa Bay did acquiring Paul Wilson, Jason Tyner and Jesus Colome for White and Mecir, or how the Brewers got Richie Sexson from the Indians for pitching depth."

    Final thoughts

  • When Paul O'Neill came to bat in the sixth inning of Game 2 in the ALCS, he received a standing ovation, prompting several media people to ask if the crowd was acknowledging that it might be his last at-bat as a Yankee in The Stadium. Each day there is open discussion of which Yankees won't be back, of how O'Neill might be replaced by Ramirez or if the Yanks will try to trade reliable -- and playoff hero -- Tino Martinez for Mo Vaughn, a deal the Angels might make to free themselves of almost $45 million.

    "People say there'll be a lot of turnover and that this is a critical offseason," says GM Brian Cashman. "But we've had turnover like this and decisions like this almost every offseason. If you think back to what's happened since 1996, there were decisions on Jimmy Key, John Wetteland, David Cone, Joe Girardi. A lot of guys. We've added Roger Clemens, Chuck Knoblauch, Mike Stanton, Scott Brosius and others of importance. This offseason won't be any different than any other. Even if you're in the playoffs, you have to lay the groundwork for moves."

    Which is why the Mets and Yanks both are calling on Mussina as well as other free agents. As for Ramirez, three baseball people I deeply respect have called Manny "the best hitter I've ever seen" and he's probably a better pure hitter than people recognize. Years ago, Mariners players called Edgar Martinez "Cellophane Man," because, as Jay Buhner says, "He was one of the best hitters in the league and no one knew it. Now we're calling him 'Cellophane Man' again because he knocked in 147 runs and hardly anyone notices."

  • When someone suggested that Mark McGwire might play in the field in the Mets series, Mark McLemore scoffed. "Not with patella tendinitis," says McLemore. "I know. I had it for two years and it killed me. Often doctors can't find it. They operated on me twice and found nothing until the third time the doctor in Texas found it. I'm moving better now than I have in four years. But until Mac gets it fixed, he isn't going to be moving around or playing in the field. He's got to be in incredible pain."

  • There have been rumblings out of Cincinnati that Jim Bowden could be in some trouble, and that his future as GM is in doubt. That brought a lot of quizzical comments from Bowden's peers, the most poignant from Cashman. "Some big-market team will then hire Jim and he'll make them into an instant power," says the Yankees GM. "Jim is tireless and very smart."

    Bowden asked for permission to talk to Ted Simmons for his vacant managerial job, a creative choice, but Simmons declined interest to focus on his job running the Padres development system.

  • It seems awfully strange that the Pads would be able to re-sign John Roskos as a minor-league free agent. He is born to be an American League DH, a guy who can rake but has no real position except in emergencies. ... Speaking of emergency catchers, when Tony La Russa ended up using McGwire as ball four fodder in Game 2 because he didn't want to use up his third catcher, Rick Wilkins, it prompted a media person to ask Joe Torre if he'd ever had to use his emergency catcher, be it Luis Sojo or someone he had in St. Louis, Atlanta or Queens. "No," replied Torre. "Never happened."

  • It has been well-documented how Seattle's Dan Wilson has broken down the last couple of years. His throwing to second base has gone from 1.85 to 2.25. But he still has the personal and catching attributes to make him the next Mike Matheny, and could be an interesting trade possibility for someone like the Blue Jays looking for a catcher. Toronto's priority is to try to get Alex Gonzalez signed, because he could be very attractive to the Braves, White Sox and, if they lose A-Rod, Mariners.

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