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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."