Much more to Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey than the knuckleball (cont.)
Salvation came from maneuvering both words and baseballs. At 13, Dickey was lucky enough to get a full scholarship to a prominent all-boys private school in Nashville, where teachers nurtured his writing and artistic talent and introduced him to literature. When he wasn't winning a regionwide poetry contest, he was a hard-throwing pitcher good enough to land a scholarship at Tennessee. Both an All-America and an Academic All-America as an English lit major in college, he was a starter on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team.
That same summer, Dickey was drafted by the Rangers in the first round and appeared on the cover of Baseball America. Someone in the Texas organization saw the photo and noticed that Dickey's arm bent at a funny angle. A test revealed that he had no ulnar collateral ligament. While marveling that Dickey could turn a screwdriver, much less hurl 95-mph thunderbolts without pain, Texas reduced the $810,000 signing bonus Dickey had been offered -- to $75,000.
Those prone to thinking in metaphor might note that Dickey suffered from an absence of connective tissue figuratively as well. After signing the cut-rate deal with Texas, he spent more than a decade bouncing around baseball's backwaters, with just enough big league cups of coffee to keep him from giving up his Texas-sized dreams. Giving new zest to the term journeyman, Dickey moved more than 30 times in 10 years. In 1997, he married Anne Bartholomew, his longtime girlfriend. The marriage buckled under the weight of his uncertain career and, Dickey writes, his emotional distance and infidelity. Money was tight, especially as the Dickey brood expanded. (He and Anne have four children, ages one to 10.) He was unhappy, sometimes profoundly so. "It is a life that can make you a perennial adolescent," he writes of being a professional ballplayer, "where your needs and whims are catered to, and narcissism is as prevalent as sunflower seeds, a life that is about as un-family-friendly as you can imagine."
In 2005, with Dickey's career on life support, the Rangers' brass suggested he become a full-time knuckleballer. Dickey had messed around with the pitch on the side for years and soon got the hang of it. He made the Rangers' Opening Day roster in 2006 -- and, in his first start, gave up six home runs, tying a modern-era single-game record. (Another pitcher to "achieve" this? Wakefield, also, of course, a knuckleballer.) Dickey was immediately demoted to the minors. In one outing his pitches would baffle hitters, resembling Wiffle balls in wind tunnels. The next outing, he might as well have been throwing batting practice. "Therein lies the rub of the knuckleball," he says, with an audible sigh. "You're trying to be reliable with an unreliable pitch."
The few men who dedicate themselves to the knuckler share a bond that transcends the ties of city or team -- and the fraternity doubles as support group when the pitch (inevitably) threatens the sanity of its practitioners. Dickey conferred with his forebears -- Wakefield, Tom Candiotti, Phil Niekro and especially Hough. He grew to accept that every pitch has its own personality. After the 2006 season the Rangers released him; brief stints in the Brewers' and the Twins' organizations followed before he was traded to Seattle during spring training in '08. He hadn't pitched in the majors in two years. But gradually the results were coming, the good outings far outnumbering the bad.
That lonely night in Tacoma when Dickey first began writing his story? He was called up to the Mariners a few weeks later, and he's barely been in the minors since. At the same time, through heavy-duty doses of therapy and faith, he's come to grips with the abuse he suffered and the emotional damage it caused. He's repaired his relationships with his mother (now sober) and his wife, the twin heroines of his book. Dickey confesses he's nervous how Wherever I Wind Up will be received, inside the clubhouse and beyond. But cutting back on the honesty he displays on the page was never an option. "I couldn't share my story and not share the most difficult parts of it," says Dickey, who while writing sought advice from J.R. Moehringer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who co-authored Andre Agassi's bracing 2009 memoir, Open. "As a reader, I can tell when someone is skating around the truth."
The Dickey clan is based in Nashville but lives on Long Island during the season. He signed a two-year contract to stay with the Mets in January 2011 and will make $4.25 million this season -- roughly equal to his entire baseball earnings to date. Standing in the clubhouse last week, Dickey reflected on how far he's come, and for the first time in an hour, words failed him. "Yeah," he said in a hickory-smoked drawl. "Things are good."
Dickey is barely middle-aged in the dog years of knuckleballing. Hough and Phil Niekro pitched with AARP cards in their back pockets (Dickey's line), and Wakefield retired last month at age 45. At an age when most pitchers are considering retirement, Dickey may just be getting started. That's not all that makes him baseball's ultimate outlier. He's still reading as much as ever, dropping words like "autodidact" into casual conversation. During the off-season, he joined Mets bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello and Indians pitcher Kevin Slowey and ascended 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro. (Dickey being Dickey, he blogged about it for The New York Times.) He had wanted to make the climb since reading Hemingway's description of the place years ago. He also did it to raise awareness of international human sex trafficking and the Bombay Teen Challenge, a charity for which the group raised over $100,000.
In a sport that has shown disdain for curtain-pulling authors from Jim Bouton to Michael Lewis to Jose Canseco, his autobiography threatens to differentiate Dickey further from his teammates. Will it be a distraction? he wonders. When should he let his kids read it? Soon he's pondering other swirling uncertainties. Will his knuckler obey him or betray him? Can the Mets, who are struggling on the field and financially, get back on track? Dickey sighs and then smiles. "This is what I like about spring in general," says the metaphor man. "There are questions, but there's also so much promise and hope."
Read an exclusive excerpt from R.A. Dickey's new book here.
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