It tacks in inexplicable and unpredictable ways. It sometimes resists the desired path, no matter how much control you try to exert. When you think you've solved the mystery and discerned the secrets, it confounds you anew. When hope diminishes, it has a way of cooperating and breaking right.
Yes, life mirrors the knuckleball, just as the knuckleball mirrors life. R.A. Dickey is singularly well-suited to appreciate this. The Mets righthander is the lone knuckleballer in a major league rotation. He is the keeper of the flame carried by the Niekro brothers, Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield—inasmuch as there's anything flaming about a pitch that dips and dives and dances and usually travels slower than the speed of interstate traffic. Plus, at age 37, Dickey has done his share of living, his tortuous—and sometimes torturous—path to the majors marked by gratifying highs, and lows that had him pondering suicide.
Beyond that, Dickey is literate and literary in the extreme. His clubhouse locker doubles as a library, filled at any given moment with anything from C.S. Lewis to Tolkien to, as was the case last week at the Mets' camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned. He is the rare ballplayer whose interviews are parsed on the vocabulary.com blog, whose voice gets thick with emotion when he discusses his love of words. With a full beard and an unruly head of hair, Dickey even looks like an English professor. "Writing has enriched me in so many ways," Dickey says, "and one of those is that I really tend to think in metaphor."
Four years ago, Dickey was in the Mariners' organization and, in what had become a rite of spring, he failed to make the team. Then 33, he was dispatched to Triple A Tacoma, "a 4A player," as he puts it, too good for the minors but not quite good enough for the Show. He rented a house overlooking Puget Sound, furnished only with an inflatable air mattress from Walmart. One night, he opened a moleskin notebook and began to write down his story. "I'd always journaled, but now I had to get it in narrative form," he says. "I had to write what was true, even if it meant going to some dark places." After a few nights, the exercise became so painful that he put the project on hold. Dickey says he "didn't have the emotional vocabulary" to deal with the issues he was exploring.
By 2010 he was in a better place, physically and metaphorically. Living in New York after a midseason call-up by the Mets, Dickey revisited the manuscript, met with the prominent literary agent Esther Newberg, partnered with Wayne Coffey, a well-regarded sportswriter with the New York Daily News, and landed a deal with Blue Rider Press, a division of Penguin. It was somehow fitting that Dickey signed a guaranteed book contract 24 hours after he signed a guaranteed major league contract. Apart from becoming a stalwart starter—his 3.28 ERA ranked 13th in the National League last year, and only seven NL pitchers have a lower ERA than he does since the start of 2010—Dickey has spent the last two years ruminating, outlining, writing, rewriting and rewriting some more.
The result, Wherever I Wind Up, will be published this week. It's a gripping memoir, a brutally honest account of family woes, childhood abuse and his failures as a husband and father. But it's also a meditation on contemporary baseball that is insightful without throwing anyone under the bus, save the author himself. (And maybe Alex Rodriguez.) It might be the finest piece of nonfiction baseball writing since Ball Four. Perhaps above all, it's a classic epic quest, a flawed hero's unlikely odyssey to the major leagues and to discovering the mystical pitch that helped him get there. "You know what it is to me?" asks Dickey. "A vision I saw to fulfillment."
If a teetotaling, bibliophilic, deeply introspective knuckballer doesn't cut the figure of a conventional ballplayer, you'd never know it in the Mets' clubhouse. To a man, teammates assert that Dickey is well-liked, very much part of the team tapestry. It's not by accident. The eccentric figure with the eccentric pitch takes pains to be part of the team. "Guys have different kinds of relationships with him, but he's definitely respected in here," says Mets catcher Josh Thole. Then he smiles. "But none of us have read the book yet."
Robert Allen Dickey was raised in Nashville, and Wherever I Wind Up describes a childhood fit for a country music song. His parents married young and divorced young. His mother developed an addiction to alcohol. Money was tight enough that Dickey's family used silverware pilfered from the local Western Sizzlin and pinballed from address to address. In the summer of 1983, when Dickey was eight, he was sexually abused on multiple occasions by a female babysitter (sidebar, right) and, separately, by a male teenager in a nearby town where Dickey was visiting family. "There is no helping me or my shame," Dickey writes of his emotional state at the time. "It feels as though it is choking me to death." He banished the memory to some deep recess of his mind, leaving it unaddressed for more than two decades.
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.