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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ankiel is almost unique

By Rick Hummel
By now, nearly everyone can see that Cardinals outfielder Rick Ankiel has done something few other players have ever accomplished, i.e., moving from once successful big-league pitcher to even more promising big-league position player.

But, in essence, he is doing something that nobody has ever done, other than in wartime, in transferring from the mound to one of baseball's most challenging defensive positions — center field.

"In my 39 years, I've never seen anyone move to center field from pitching," said Gordon Lakey, a respected veteran scout for the Philadelphia Phillies. "He's played right field well, but center field probably will be easier because he will get better looks off the bat. He runs well enough. Now it's just a question of getting the experience and cutting down the angles."

Ankiel and the legendary Babe Ruth are the only ones to share the achievement of winning 10 or more games in a big-league season and also hitting 10 or more home runs in a season. Ankiel won 11 games as a Cardinals pitcher in 2000 and hit 12 homers last year, while Ruth accomplished the former four times and the latter 17 times. But Ruth was a right fielder and a left fielder, not a center fielder.
The only player who remotely qualifies with Ankiel on moving from the mound and winding up in center fielder is former New York Yankees knuckleballer Johnny Lindell.Lindell pitched 52 2/3 innings for the Yankees in 1942. Then, with the country at war and Joe DiMaggio in the service, Lindell moved to the outfield the next year, playing some games in center. Then he was more or less the full-time center fielder for the Yankees in 1944 when he batted .306 with 16 triples, 18 homers and 103 runs batted in.

But that was his last year as a regular center fielder, and those keeping the position warm for DiMaggio had to move elsewhere when Joltin' Joe returned in 1946. Lindell, who had a brief tour with the Cardinals in 1950, in fact, wound up his career as a knuckleball pitcher again, finishing with a 6-17 record for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in 1953.

Rube Bressler, a lefthanded thrower but righthanded hitter, was the first player of any substance to move from the mound to the outfield, where he played left and right but not center. Bressler's bests were 10 wins as a pitcher for the 1914 Philadelphia A's and nine home runs for Brooklyn in 1929.

Smoky Joe Wood was a remarkable 34-5 for the Boston Red Sox in 1912 — ironically he and Ruth were in the same Boston rotation in 1914-15 — but after hurting his arm, Wood became an outfielder. His best home run total was eight for the 1922 Cleveland Indians.

Ankiel is so good so fast now that you almost forget his previous baseball life.

"If you went into a park," Lakey said, "and saw him for the first time, you would not know he pitched until he lets go and throws one. Then you say, 'He's got a pretty good arm. I wonder if he ever pitched?'''

NEWS ITEM: Major League Baseball announced that 239 players on opening-day rosters and disabled lists, or 28 percent, were born outside the United States.

HUMMEL'S VIEW: Only 29 of those players, or barely 10 percent of those born outside the 50 U.S. states, were born in Puerto Rico, long a talent source for the majors, and only eight of those players were under 30 years old. With the Puerto Rican winter league having to suspend play last year, one wonders if the talent stream from Puerto Rico will be more of a trickle. As a comparison, the Dominican Republic had 88 players on opening-day rosters and disabled lists.

Cardinals coach Jose Oquendo, a native Puerto Rican who managed the Puerto Rican team in the last World Baseball Classic, said he had noticed the decline in Puerto Rican big leaguers, especially relative to the Dominicans.

"You can sign more people in the Dominican after the (June free-agent) draft as free agents. Puerto Rican players are in the draft," he said.

"And Puerto Rico is getting more like the United States. Kids lose interest (in baseball)."

But Oquendo is hopeful that there soon will be more young talent coming from Puerto Rico, and he did find one bright spot in the current Puerto Rican representation.

"We develop more catchers than the Dominican," he said. "It used to be that the Dominican developed more catchers."

Indeed, of the 29 Puerto Ricans on big-league rosters, nearly one-third (nine) are catchers, including the three Molina brothers, Pudge Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and young Geovany Soto of the Chicago Cubs. The Cardinals have two Puerto Rican products in Yadier Molina and pitcher Joel Pineiro.

NEWS ITEM: One week after signing a minor-league contract with the Atlanta Braves, Scott Spiezio pleaded guilty to misdemeanor drunken-driving and hit-and-run charges from a December incident in Newport Beach, Calif.

Spiezio, released by the Cardinals in February, was sentenced to three years probation and ordered to complete 80 hours of community service, complete an alcohol program and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

HUMMEL'S VIEW: Even Spiezio admitted last week to reporters in Richmond, Va., that the outpatient program for substance abuse in which he was enrolled last summer was not the right approach. He said he completed an in-patient program in January.

"It was night-and-day difference," Spiezio said. "It was a better facility. You learn why you do things, and it gets into some deep personal stuff. It helped a lot. It helps relationships with family and friends. I won't go into detail of everything, but yeah, my family has gotten closer."

NEWS ITEM: The Florida Marlins, who never have won a division title but have captured two World Series crowns, are in first place alone this late in a season for the first time since 2005, when they still led on May 25.

HUMMEL'S VIEW: The Marlins' payroll is just $21 million. Their fast start has been achieved mostly against fellow bottom-feeders Pittsburgh and Washington, against whom the Marlins are 5-1. And this may last for a while as the Marlins will continue to play under .500 teams (Houston, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Washington) for the next two weeks.

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