When Life Turns Out Differently Than You Had Expected

Parshat Tazria-Metzora
April 29, 2017—3 Iyar 5777

I want to talk to you this morning about a baseball player whose story is at one and the same time an utterly unique baseball story, applicable to no one else in this sanctuary, and an utterly universal human story, applicable in a different way to everyone here this morning.  His name is Rick Ankiel, and he broke into the majors in 1999 as a 20 year old star pitcher.  No triple A. No minor league. Not only straight to the majors, but straight to the majors as a superstar.

Rick Ankiel just published an autobiography called The Phenomenon, and he was interviewed on Fresh Air this week by Dave Davies.  Davies shares the following review by a professional baseball writer in the year 1999 about this new pitcher, Rick Ankiel:

Of all my years watching baseball, I never felt more acutely that some people were just touched, struck by Zeus’ thunderbolt, than when I first watched Rick Ankiel pitch.  He’d just turned 20, but it was obvious there was no one like him.

Broadcasters compared him to Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax. He made you feel you were watching history. 

Given his youth, and his talent, Ankiel dreamed that he would be one of the greatest pitchers in major league baseball history with a long and illustrious career.  It did not turn out that way.

On October 3, 2000, his team, the St. Louis Cardinals, was hosting the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs.  It was game one, and the Cardinals turned to their young star.  With the eyes of the baseball world on him, his moment had come.  This is what he lived for.   Unfortunately he experienced a nightmare, not a dream.

For reasons he did not understand at the time, did not understand in the weeks, months and years that followed, does not understand even now, this great young pitcher suddenly could no longer throw a strike.  Rather, he threw a series of increasingly wild pitches, pitches so wild that the catcher could not even catch them.  Here is how he describes the moment in his book:

Huh, I though. I just threw a wild pitch
I exhaled, composed myself, decided to move on, and threw another pitch to the backstop. Then a walk. Another wild pitch. A wild pitch for a walk. Another wild pitch.  Uh-oh, I thought. This isn’t going away…Braves kept coming to the plate, and I kept coming undone.  Spiked curveballs, fastballs to the screen, …I was going to pieces out there..

The tally for the third inning: thirty-five pitches, two hits, two runs, four walks, five wild pitches, and, it turned out, one psyche forever hobbled.

What happened to him in that third inning?  Why did he throw five wild pitches?

He tried to get to the bottom of it.  He met with psychologists and psychiatrists.  He had a very hard father, a father who was an alcoholic and an abusive husband and small time criminal who was arrested numerous times and served time.  But that couldn’t be it because he had been able to pitch brilliantly for years even with that challenged father.

He went to the minor leagues where there was less pressure, but that did not clarify.

He tried pitching somewhat drunk.  He would put vodka in his water bottle to loosen him up.  That worked the first time, but it turned out not to be a sustainable model. It did not work the second time.

He went to coaches and sports psychologists who watched his mechanics.  That created meaningful relationships with people he liked and trusted, but still did not teach him how to control his pitching.

He started having nightmares that the world was watching and waiting for him to throw a strike, but the one thing he could not do was throw a strike.

For four and a half years, he fights this fight.  Why do I throw wild pitches? How can I regain my control? Finally one day, he goes to the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, Tony LaRussa, and says I am done.  I can’t pitch anymore.  LaRussa says: take a day to think about it.  Ankiel says I don’t need a day.  I’m done.  And driving home from the stadium that day, for the first time he knows peace now that he no longer has to struggle with this enigma of why this great pitcher lost his pitching.  The cost of his peace was the death of his dream.

At one level Rick Ankiel’s story is obviously a baseball story. Zeus lost his thunderbolt. The man who dreamt of being a pitcher for the ages is famous for throwing wild pitches.

But at another level, his story points to something universal.  We all have a sense of how our life is going to pan out. Or how the lives of our children are going to pan out.  We have dreams.  Our own dreams. Dreams for our loved ones.  Only to find the truth of that sober Yiddish maxim: Man plans, God laughs.  Or to channel the poet Robert Burns:  The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

What happens when that happens?  When our life does not turn out the way we had expected?

We had wanted to be at a certain point economically, but we’re not there yet.  And it looks like we may never get there.

We had wanted to attain a certain degree of professional impact, but our career is stymied.  We are stalled out.

We had wanted to fall in love and get married and start a family, but no mazal in that department yet.

We had wanted to grow old together, but were robbed of the on golden pond years that we had looked forward to.

We have visions of our adult children thriving.  And yes, they thrive in many ways, but they also struggle in other ways, and what makes parenthood so painful is that we care so much and we control so little.  When their plans go awry, we feel it, and we cannot fix it.

What does Judaism have to say to us when it is not only the best laid plans of mice and men that go awry, but our best laid plans go awry?

There is a creative tension between two Jewish value concepts.  There is a time and place for each, and wisdom is knowing that time and place.

One Jewish value concept is called hachna’ah, which means surrender.  We surrender to things we cannot control. Indeed, that we cannot even understand.  In the story of Rick Ankiel, what I find particularly powerful is not only that he could not control his wild pitches, even after years of trying, going to the minors, pitching while drinking, getting all kinds of coaching.  Even more, he could not understand why it happened. He had to accept two things, not one.  He had to accept his wild pitching.  He had to accept the mystery that its source remains elusive.

So too, when our life does not turn out the way we had hoped, there is a time for a double hachna’ah, a double acceptance, a double surrender.  We have to accept that what happened happened.  It is what it is.  And we have to accept that why it happened may well remain a mystery.  We may never know why.

After all, is this double hachna’ah, this double surrender, not precisely the condition of the skin afflicted metzora in our reading this morning?  This unfortunate skin afflicted Israelite has an awful, itchy, scratchy, uncomfortable, stigmatizing skin disease.  He has it.  He has to accept it.  He does not know why he has it.  It’s a mystery.  He has to accept that too.

And yet hachna’ah, acceptance of what is, and acceptance of what we don’t understand, is only part of the story.   Is he entirely powerless?  What might he do to help himself?  The other Jewish value concept at play here is peilut, activism in the service of bettering our own life.  What can I do now to make my life better and stronger?  That is the question of peilut. The skin-afflicted Israelite has a responsibility to let people know that he is sick.  He is to let people know that he is suffering.  He mobilizes the resources of his community.  I need you. Please help me. Yes he has to accept what he has and that there is no good fair reason why he has it. But that does not mean he cannot fight for his own health and life and strength.

When our life is not quite turning out the way we had wanted, we need to do a delicate dance.  Hachana’ah here.  I am going to accept some hard realities, even if I don’t understand why it happened.  And peilut there. I am going to mobilize, summon, catalyze new energy to create new healing and to inspire new dreaming.  I am going to get help. I am going to reach out. Some old dreams died. Fine. Now it is time to bring some new dreams into being.

Which leads us back to Rick Ankiel.  His dream of being a pitcher died.  But then somebody suggested a novel idea.  What about coming back to baseball, not as a pitcher, but as an outfielder and as a hitter.  That would be a very rare move.  Pitchers are not great hitters.  Pitchers do not become fielders.  But Ankiel made that move.  He studied up on how to become a slugger, how to become a fielder.  It’s an entirely different game.  He worked hard. He mastered it. He made the move.

Several years after his wild pitches, after retiring as a pitcher he makes his way back into the line-up of the St. Louis Cardinals, his old team, as a slugger.  It sounds too good to be true, but this moment is immortalized if you google Rick Ankiel.  You will see two vignettes. One is his five wild pitches.  The second vignette, in his first game back, he hits a three-run home run.  Here is how he describes running the bases and scoring after that first homer:

When it was done and I was in the dugout with my teammates again and the people out there wouldn’t stop chanting my name, and when I rose to the top step to say thank you to those who were kind enough to remember me, I felt no pain. What I felt was strength.  Power. Energy.  The game was good again.  And I was good at it again. p. 241.

We are not baseball players, but like Rick Ankiel, we are human beings with stories.  We had our own dreams, some of which had to die.  But that means we get to ask ourselves what new dreams get to live, and what will we do now to make them our reality in our next ever more resilient chapter?  Shabbat shalom.