November 20, 2012

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. Please vote for your Inspiring Performer, Photo of The Year, and Moment of The Year on our Facebook page.

In sports, quantitative rarity occurs like the full moon. It's not a daily or weekly thing, but if you watch long enough you're bound to see it: Pablo Sandoval becomes only the fourth player to slug three dingers in a World Series game; Miguel Cabrera wins the first Triple Crown since the year the Super Bowl was invented. (If that doesn't sound far enough in the past, consider that the Chiefs were in it.)

It's qualitative difference, though, that is truly rare -- like the way Barry Sanders ran. On paper, Sanders had quantitative peers, and even a few superiors. But has anyone who ever watched him seen anything like it? With his ducks and contortions, his left shoulder going in the opposite direction of his right knee, Sanders was doing something qualitatively different than playing running back the way we've come to understand it. If that I Am Legend virus had hit and humanity could be saved by a package that had to cross state lines, Barry Sanders in his NFL glory would have been the only guy we'd entrust to run with it through the zombie hordes.

In 2012, there was only one athlete at the highest quantitative level who also did something qualitatively unique: Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey, with his "angry knuckleball."

As if that floating, wobbling marshmallow of a pitch wasn't difficult and weird enough, Dickey wielded it in an historically unprecedented manner. Whereas Tim Wakefield, the previous knuckler king, threw his consistently about 60 miles per hour, Dickey's ranged from the mid-50s to the low 80s, with the majority of them in the 70s. And because he generally threw harder than Wakefield -- who even knew that a knuckleball could be angry? -- his version didn't have as much movement, but it had a heck of a lot more control. Wakefield averaged over three walks-per-nine-innings almost every year of his career. Dickey was at 2.1 in 2012.

But never mind the knuckler for a moment. In the world of professional athletes, Dickey himself is qualitatively different. This is a guy who laments the declining number of brick and mortar bookstores and will text a reporter to ask for reading recommendations when he has a road trip coming up. He's a guy who co-authored the book -- Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball -- before the season in which he became a household name.

It's fitting that the knuckleball is the last part of the subtitle, because this isn't just another athlete's 10-ways-to-start-a-business-and-throw-a-strike handbook. Dickey recounts the first time he saw signs of drug use in a Major League clubhouse as well as his summer as a fourth grader when he was repeatedly sexually abused by the 13-year-old girl who was babysitting him. Not long after that, he was manhandled and abused by a teenage boy. "I have been stained and it can never be cleaned up," Dickey writes of his feelings at the time.

In the context of his own failings as a husband and father, including his infidelity, Dickey writes: "[Pro ball] is a life that can make you a perennial adolescent, 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 many ways, it's an afterthought that Dickey has no ulnar collateral ligament and that he picked up the knuckleball at age 30 in an attempt to salvage a career that had never been good and was rapidly vanishing.

Sure, Dickey has accomplished all sorts of quantitatively amazing things. He won 20 games. He threw back-to-back one-hitters. He won the Cy Young Award at age 38, the third-oldest first-time winner in history. But it's how he did it, and what it looked and felt like, that makes R.A. Dickey my SI Sportsman of the Year.

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