Newly hired life skills coordinator will pass on lessons of late sports psychologist
By Andrew Simon
WASHINGTON -- When Rick Ankiel encountered difficulties during his career, battling a severe bout of wildness as a pitcher and later converting to the outfield, his biggest source of help wasn't someone in a uniform.
Instead, Ankiel credits the work of the late sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, who wrote several books on the subject and worked for the A's, Marlins and agent Scott Boras -- who represented Ankiel -- before passing away in 2011. And it's Dorfman's legacy that Ankiel hopes to carry on as he begins his new job as the Nationals' life skills coordinator, which will involve him using his experience to mentor players in the organization's Minor League system.
"I'm really excited," Ankiel said in an interview Wednesday on MLB Network's Hot Stove show. "You know, for me, my guy was Harvey Dorfman, and Harvey really had the biggest impact on my career and my life. What better way to cherish his memory than to follow in his footsteps and be able to be a confidant and a resource for our young players as they move through the developmental process on and off the field."
Ankiel, 35, was the Cardinals' second-round pick in the 1997 First-Year Player Draft, and he debuted as a left-handed pitcher in '99. A year later, he finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year Award race by going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 175 innings, but his control suddenly vanished in the postseason as he walked 11 of the 26 batters he faced. Ankiel was never the same as a pitcher, fighting his control and injuries, and he made only 11 more big league appearances on the mound.
But Ankiel returned as an outfielder in 2007 and smacked 74 home runs over seven seasons, including 14 for Washington from 2011-12. After finishing his career with the Mets in '13, Ankiel said he wanted to spend a year at home with his family, but he is now eager to get back in the game. Before Dorfman died, the two had talked about him moving to this sort of role, and Ankiel and the Nats had engaged in "unofficial talks" about it.
Washington announced last Thursday that it had hired Ankiel as the organization's first life skills coordinator, with assistant general manager Doug Harris saying he "has the ability to help our kids during difficult times based on his experience and background."
Ankiel's plan is to visit each of the Nationals' Minor League affiliates every month and otherwise be available when necessary.
"I'll go where I'm needed," he said. "If there's somewhere I need to go to talk to someone or help a player out, I'll be there. And then when I'm not traveling, I'll be home and available by phone."
Ankiel said he is eager to work with top outfield prospectsMichael Taylor and Brian Goodwin, as well as Bryce Harper, his teammate in 2012 who is still only 22 years old. But Ankiel also believes his unique career path puts him in position to relate to pitchers such as Stephen Strasburg and top prospect Lucas Giolito, who "come up with the pressure and expectations of performing when you're the No. 1 guy."
On-field challenges are difficult enough, but Ankiel wants to focus on helping the Nats' Minor Leaguers navigate "the grind of baseball," riding out the inevitable ups and downs on the way to the big leagues. Then there are the off-field distractions that are always waiting to throw a wrench in the process.
"We all have choices, and they certainly do," Ankiel said. "They're a bunch of young guys living together and they're away from home, and certainly all of a sudden you make the wrong choice and bad stuff can happen. But it'll be exciting to get in there and get close to these guys and get back in the game."
Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.