The serious cases, the true thoroughbreds, can be counted on one hand: Mackey Sasser, Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch, Rick Ankiel, and the godfather of them all, Steve Blass. One speaks their names with a watchful reverence, the way one reads a tombstone, as though the curse might come to claim your short game next, turn a simple service toss into a leap of faith. They are all victims of the yips, or as Ankiel calls them in his tortured new book, The Phenomenon (with Tim Brown): “the monster.”
The monster came to Ankiel in a playoff game on October 3, 2000. He was 20 at the time, with a promising rookie season behind him. Ankiel had what scouts call a “generational arm,” meaning it was the best, and no one knew when they’d see one like it again. It was the third inning. His Cardinals were facing the Braves. One strike on Andruw Jones. “I threw a pitch, it staggered to the backstop, and everything changed,” Ankiel writes. “My body shut down. Panic thickened my throat. My career stumbled off with a single wayward pitch and took parts of my life with it.”
Ankiel describes that initial feeling as suddenly “forgetting” how to throw, and spends an agonized chapter here dispensing with competing theories and diagnoses. But from a practical standpoint, the yips seem to be an attack of acute consciousness triggered by the attempt to perform an internalized activity, like throwing or kicking a field goal. To get an idea, try reading this sentence while mouthing each word, and think of each word as distinct and individual, and of all the words’ inherent strangeness, of the almost arbitrary meanings we’ve vested them with. But that’s a very loose approximation. The particular torture of the yips is that you’re standing outside yourself as it happens, both saboteur and helpless witness.
To call this book an autobiography wouldn’t be quite right; instead, it’s a coming-to-grips that can never quite happen. Whether or not Ankiel’s abusive, alcoholic, and criminal father played a role in his disaster, he doesn’t quite know and doesn’t dwell on. The Phenomenon is much more about the way the ailment has manifested itself in him, and others throughout history.
The first very public case of the yips (originally, a golf term) was probably all-time PGA wins leader Sam Snead, who in the 1960s resorted to putting in the traditional style of croquet, swinging the club between his legs. The brilliant Pirates pitcher Steve Blass became the most famous victim after Roger Angell’s aptly titled profile, “Down the Drain,” appeared in the New Yorker in 1975. When Blass and Ankiel finally meet, two years after Ankiel retires, they both continue to circle their respective, indefinable moments. They sound like a couple of characters out of a Beckett play, forever shuffling the same cards, as if sense might suddenly break through. It doesn’t.
Once afflicted, the chances of recovery approach zero. The second baseman Steve Sax is one of the few players who appears to have done so, with the yips simply disappearing after several years, as mysteriously as they’d arrived. Some, like former third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, change position (it’s invariably the shorter, routine throws, when there’s time to think, that cause the problem). Others, like Cubs ace Jon Lester, try to avoid specific triggers on their own, which is why he once went 66 starts without a pickoff attempt. For his part, Ankiel tried psychotherapy and meditation. He began drinking before games — vodka, because odorless. He fought on for nearly five years, and then, when it became clear he couldn’t win the battle, he did two things. First, he quit. Next, at the insistence of agent Scott Boras, he tried what no one had successfully done before: He started over.
Always a fine hitter, Ankiel went down to the minors to remold himself as an outfielder. Over the next four years, he worked his way back—not just back, but into the Cardinals’ starting center fielder job. He hit 25 home runs one season, and was consistently among the top fielders in the game. He was particularly known for his arm, one of the strongest and most accurate around. His bat went cold, but he played another seven years, mostly as a backup, before retiring in 2013 at the age of 33. He justifiably compares himself to Roy Hobbs of The Natural — the “grittier” book version, he wants to make clear. There’s nothing feel-good about any of this.
If we are to believe him, Ankiel says his relationship with baseball is now “uncomplicated.” He works as a life skills coach for the Washington Nationals, helping the young guys in the system in whatever way he can. But the monster hasn’t gone away. A request to throw a ceremonial first pitch throws his mind into a tailspin. So does backyard Wiffle Ball. Of his sons, now age four and five, he writes: “I’ll throw them all the batting practice they want, as long as they promise to be patient and wear a helmet.” He says he wrote this book in the hopes that they could one day understand. But there's really only one way to understand. The yips are one of those lonesome things.