ST. LOUIS -- You could search for years to find someone who could honestly tell Rick Ankiel, "I know what you've been through. I've been there." But Matt Morris knows some of it. Morris was there, a teammate on the 2000 and 2001 Cardinals, when Ankiel's control mysteriously and suddenly deserted him. He was there in 2002 and 2003 when Ankiel tried to come back in Spring Training. And Ankiel's latest challenge is something that Morris himself has faced -- Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery.
And he hopes to help Ankiel get back to where he was, as one of the most dynamic, electric starters in the National League. The two pitchers are neighbors in Jupiter, Fla., near where the Cardinals hold Spring Training. And Morris is serving as a sounding board for Ankiel as the lefty recovers from his operation last July.
"I see him every day," Morris said recently. "He just started throwing. And before that, from being in the situation before, the whole four or five months when you're not doing anything but trying to strengthen, you start to get a lull and you don't think anything about baseball. But that first time you throw... His eyes were wide open and he's been smiling ever since.
"I think he thinks he's gonna come back and make the starting rotation this year. You try to tell him to be patient, but he feels so good right now that he wants to pitch. But he's on his way back. I think after this year, if he gets some work in towards the end of the year in the bullpen, in the minor leagues or wherever they're gonna have him, I think he'll be ready for next year."
When Morris had his surgery, it happened in the spring, and he came back to pitch almost a full season in relief in 2000. That's the tentative plan, more or less, for Ankiel. The team hopes he'll be able to pitch in one way or another sometime around midseason. But it could be somewhat more complicated, because Ankiel is out of options. If he's ineffective, he can't be sent to the minors without being exposed to waivers.
But that's a long way off. For now, Ankiel is just trying to get back to pitching at all, and Morris is trying to help.
"I saw (Ankiel) down in Florida," said general manager Walt Jocketty. "He looks good. I think he's right on schedule. It was really tough trying to get him to not throw. He was champing at the bit to get going.
"Morris and (Chris) Carpenter are two guys that have really been good (for him)."
Morris has a hunch about how much good he can do. He said it might have helped him put up with the frustration of rehabilitation if he'd had someone to do the same for him.
"It always helps," Morris said. "He'll call me up with little things. 'Hey, it's a little achy today because of this.' I said, 'It's gonna be achy. You're gonna have good days, and then you're gonna step back some days.'
"That's the hardest, when you feel like you moved up and then you go the next day to throw again and you're sore. I don't even think he's at that stage yet, but there's gonna be hurdles where he's gonna have questions. I'm glad he comes to me.
"We live real close to each other and like I said, he's throwing now so he's starting to think more about baseball instead of his life, his career, things like that. It's gonna be a long time for him, it's gonna be a while to get back, but he's definitely in the right frame of mind."
Thanks to some help from a guy who has been there before.