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.
This is an article from the April 2, 2012 issue
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.
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."