In the fable, the farm-boy phenom makes his way to the big city to amaze the world with his arm. At a stop at a fair on the train ride to Chicago, he strikes out the Babe Ruth of his time on three blazing pitches. Enter the Dark Lady. Before he can reach the stadium for his tryout, she shoots him and leaves him for dead.
It is 16 years later and Roy Hobbs returns, but now as a hitter and outfielder. (He can never pitch again because of the wound.) He leads his team to improbable glory, ending the tale with a titanic home run that, in the now-iconic movie image, explodes the stadium lights in a dazzling cascade of white.
In real life, the kid doesn’t look like Robert Redford, but he throws like Roy Hobbs: unhittable, unstoppable. In his rookie year, appropriately the millennial year 2000, he throws it by everyone. He pitches the St. Louis Cardinals to a division title, playing so well that his manager anoints him starter for the opening game of the playoffs, a position of honor and — for 21-year-old Rick Ankiel — fatal exposure.
His collapse is epic. He can’t find the plate. In the third inning he walks four batters and throws five wild pitches (something not seen since 1890) before Manager Tony La Russa mercifully takes him out of the game.
The kid is never the same. He never recovers his control. Five miserable years in the minors trying to come back. Injuries. Operations. In 2005, he gives up pitching forever.
Then last week, on Aug. 9, he is called up from Triple-A. Same team. Same manager. Rick Ankiel is introduced to a roaring Busch Stadium crowd as the Cardinals’ starting right fielder.
In the seventh inning, with two outs, he hits a three-run home run to seal the game for the Cardinals. Two days later, he hits two home runs and makes one of the great catches of the year — over the shoulder, back to the plate, full speed.
But the play is more than spectacular. It is poignant. It was an amateur’s catch. Ankiel ran a slightly incorrect route to the ball. A veteran outfielder would have seen the ball tailing to the right. But pitchers aren’t trained to track down screaming line drives over their heads. Ankiel was running away from home plate but slightly to his left. Realizing at the last second that he had run up the wrong prong of a Y, he veered sharply to the right, falling and sliding into the wall as he reached for the ball over the wrong shoulder.
He made the catch. The crowd, already delirious over the two home runs, came to its feet. If this had been a fable, Ankiel would have picked himself up and walked out of the stadium into the waiting arms of the lady in white — Glenn Close in a halo of light — never to return.
But this is real life. Ankiel is only 28 and will continue to play. The magic cannot continue. If he is lucky, he’ll have the career of an average right fielder. But it doesn’t matter. His return after seven years — if only three days long — is the stuff of legend. Made even more perfect by the timing: Just two days after Barry Bonds sets a synthetic home run record in San Francisco, the Natural returns to St. Louis.
Right after that first game, La Russa called Ankiel’s return the Cardinals’ greatest joy in baseball “short of winning the World Series.” This, from a manager (as chronicled in George Will’s classic Men at Work) not given to happy talk. La Russa is the ultimate baseball logician, driven by numbers and stats. He may be more machine than man, but he confessed at the postgame news conference: “I’m fighting my butt off to keep it together.”
Translation: I’m trying like hell to keep from bursting into tears at the resurrection of a young man who seven years ago dissolved in front of my eyes. La Russa was required to “keep it together” because, as codified most succinctly by Tom Hanks (in A League of Their Own), “There’s no crying in baseball.”
But there can be redemption. And a touch of glory.
Ronald Reagan, I was once told, said he liked The Natural except that he didn’t understand why the Dark Lady shoots Roy Hobbs. Reagan, the preternatural optimist, may have had difficulty fathoming tragedy, but no one knows why Hobbs is shot. It is fate, destiny, nemesis. Perhaps the dawning of knowledge, the coming of sin. Or more prosaically, the catastrophe that awaits everyone from a single false move, wrong turn, fatal encounter. Every life has such a moment. What distinguishes us is whether — and how — we ever come back.
© 2007, The Washington Post Writers Group