Praise the Lord! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for He is gracious, and a song of praise is seemly. The Lord builds up Jerusalem; He gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars, He gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; His understanding is beyond measure. The Lord lifts up the downtrodden, He casts the wicked to the ground.
On a crisp October afternoon in 2000, twenty-one-year-old pitcher Rick Ankiel of the St. Louis Cardinals stood on the pitcher’s mound against the Atlanta Braves in game one of the League Championship Series. He had not allowed a run in the first two innings of the game. He had debuted the year before at age 20, the second youngest pitcher in Major League Baseball. And before that, he had shined at every level of baseball he’d ever played. Major League scouts said that he was a once-in-a-generation talent, had a Hall of Fame caliber pitching arm. He was a phenomenon. A couldn’t miss star.
Except in the third inning of that game in October 2000, the “couldn’t miss” star unexplainably couldn’t throw a strike, something he had done successfully hundreds of thousands of times, something he did better than almost anyone else on the planet.
The meteoric rise of Rick Ankiel was followed by a swift and precipitous fall. He only pitched in a handful of games before sent to the minor leagues and didn’t ever recover his pitching form. Someone who had never had trouble throwing strikes could suddenly no longer throw them.
Thankfully, the story of Rick Ankiel didn’t end in failure. He switched positions. He stopped pitching and started playing the outfield. He stopped throwing and started hitting. And he worked his way all the way back to the Major Leagues as a home run hitting outfielder. He eventually hit 76 major league home runs and played 11 seasons in the major leagues. Only a small percentage of baseball players will ever make it to the major leagues. And only a fraction of players will ever make it at more than one position.
Rick Ankiel authored a book entitled “The Phenomenon.” (co-authored with Tim Brown, published by PublicAffairs, NY, 2017) It tells the story of his life as an abused child, chronicles his career as a phenomenal pitcher, describes in painful detail his meteoric fall, and gives an account of his impressive return, and his now very solid life. Currently married with two children, Rick Ankiel presently works as a sport analyst.
There are three sentences in his book that really stand out:
See, there is the life you want.
There is the life you get.
There is what you do with that.
(Phenomenon, p. 4)
Most of us won’t succeed to the degree Rick Ankiel did. Most of us won’t be sports stars, or famous, or wealthy. And most of us won’t fail on national TV, or have our fall documented and dissected publicly. However, all of us will have successes and failures, and gaps between the two.
There will be the marriage we want and the marriage we get; or the job we want and the job we get; or the health, success of our children, income, travel and any number of other goals that we want, and the actual things we get. We will all have successes, failures and gaps.
Our character, and our overall success in life will depend in large part on how we react and respond to the gap between our successes and failures, between the life we want and the life we get.
The story of Rick Ankiel is inspiring and encouraging, which is why it is included in this study. It’s inspiring because he didn’t let his failure define him. His dream of playing major league baseball took a major detour but he made it back and fulfilled his dream. It’s inspiring because at a moment when he could have just stopped and faded away, he didn’t. He kept fighting. He kept trying.
Encouragement certainly plays a role in this story. Because the day that Rick Ankiel decided to change his focus from being a pitcher to being a hitter, the St. Louis Cardinals organization didn’t tell him “no”. They encouraged him, stayed patient with him, and stuck with him, until he worked his way all the way back to contribute to the team as an outfielder.
There will be many times when we will have to refine or redefine our goals and dreams. Especially at these times, it will be important that we stay focused and positive. And it will be necessary that we have people around us to encourage us as we work to fill our gaps between what we hoped for and what end up with, so that we define our gaps, rather than letting our gaps define us.
We will meet countless people like Rick Ankiel in our lives, people who have a gap between what they wanted and what they have. We will have opportunities to make those gaps wider or narrower. Our choice to encourage can and will certainly make a difference.
Lord, thank You for what I have. There are many things that I want and don’t have. However, help me to be thankful for what I have, and to use what I have to the best of my ability. Fill my gaps with patience and reassurance, with focus and with the encouragement of others. Help me to see others who are struggling between what they hoped for and what they have and allow me to be an encourager especially to those who are struggling to fill their gaps. Amen.
There is the life you want. There is the life you get. There is what you do with that. May we each have the strength to do good with that, and to encourage others to do the same.