It was the first time Ankiel stepped foot in the new Busch Stadium, and he couldn't have been happier to be there.
"I'm sure it will be overwhelming," Ankiel said. "From everything I was reading, I thought it was going to be September. It was definitely a surprise to find out that it was yesterday. But, I'm excited and here we are."
Ankiel first appeared in the big leagues in 1999 as a pitcher with the Cards. After a promising start, his career took a dramatic turn for the worse in the 2000 playoffs.
Chosen as the Game 1 starter of the NLDS against the Braves, Ankiel walked six batters and threw five wild pitches. In another postseason appearance against the Mets, the young lefty threw four more wild pitches in 1 1/3 innings.
Ankiel then started six games for the Cards in 2001 before missing the 2002 season and a chunk of the 2003 and 2004 with left elbow problems that required Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.
The 28-year-old was last in the big leagues in 2004 when he made five relief appearances, posting a .540 ERA. After that season, Ankiel was planning on leaving the game of baseball, but was persuaded to come back as a hitter by Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty.
Ankiel started his comeback as a hitter in 2005 when he split time between Class A Quad Cities and Double-A Springfield. He missed the 2006 season after undergoing left knee surgery.
"You get what you deserve and he deserves some Major League at-bats," La Russa said. "This is the Major Leagues, so the better he does, the more he plays. We're going to try to win games, but the reason he's here is we think he's going to improve our chance to win."
La Russa said he started to give serious thought to Ankiel's arrival to the big leagues in late July, and thought a target date of the middle of August was fair. When Scott Spiezio was placed on Major League Baseball's restricted list, La Russa gave consideration to two other players, Brendan Ryan and Skip Schumaker, but ultimately decided to go with Ankiel.
The converted outfielder was still in Portland, Ore., where his team had just finished an eight-game road trip, when Memphis manager Chris Maloney gave Ankiel the good news. Ankiel flew with the Triple-A squad back to Memphis, before driving to St. Louis on Thursday morning.
"It's a weird feeling, it's been a long time and it's a goal that I set for myself and one that I've definitely reached," Ankiel said. "I'm looking forward to reaching my next goal, which is to stay here. It's new, I haven't been a hitter here before, so it's definitely like making a debut."
La Russa made it clear that he plans on giving Ankiel plenty of chances to play over the season's final month and a half. Ankiel was in right field on Thursday, but La Russa said he would play center field when Jim Edmonds gets a day off, and could also play some left field.
"I think it's significant because September is a decent time to have a young player or a young pitcher, but it's not as realistic as the first five months," La Russa said. "[In September] rosters are expanded, you have different situations, there's a different feeling for games, you may play games against some clubs that are experimenting. It's not like the first five [months]. This will be a better learning ground for him, better experience for him.
"This is not about taking care of Rick. If I didn't think -- and if the coaches didn't think -- that having him in the lineup gives us a better chance to win, he wouldn't be here."
Ankiel said he was sure he was going to have some nerves during his first game back, but was excited to get back on a big-league field.
"It's an exciting thing. I'm happy to be home and I can't wait," Ankiel said.