If R.A. Dickey’s second half of the baseball season is as good as the first, he will have produced a season for the ages, with a record of 24-2, an ERA of 2.40, 246 strikeouts with only 52 walks, and a lustrous 9.23 strikeouts per nine innings. But even if Dickey doesn’t match his first-half success, he has already become the stuff of legend.
So far this year, he has back-to-back one-hitters, 10 straight wins, and a new Mets franchise record of 32 and 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. He recently joined two legends, Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan, as the only pitchers in MLB history to have two complete-game one-hitters with 12 or more strikeouts in one season. and he is the only pitcher to do it in back-to-back starts. When Dickey registers a win or loss, the Mets are 12-1. When he doesn’t, they are only 34-39.
And has done it all with baseball’s most unlikely pitch, the knuckleball, which is akin to throwing a butterfly and hoping it arrives somewhere close to the plate.
“Boy, I’ll tell you, he’s on fire,” said Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Radio. “He is the talk of baseball right now — the talk of sports. I’ve never seen a knuckleballer that has pitched as well as he has. I certainly haven’t done that, and I don’t know of any other knuckleball pitcher that I’ve seen has done that. Everybody in baseball is talking about this guy.”
Suddenly, Dickey seems to be the best knuckleballer in baseball history, at least for half a season. But he is hardly an overnight success. The former Montgomery Bell Academy ace just became an all-star for the first time at the not-so-tender age of 37, beating incredible odds in the process.
After starring at MBA, Dickey attended the University of Tennessee, where he majored in English literature, had a 3.35 GPA and was named Academic All-American. He was a first-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers in 1996, as a conventional flamethrower. He was 21 years old, seemingly a golden child, and in line to be paid more than $800,000 to play baseball for a living. Everything seemed to be going his way.
But since then Dickey’s career has been as unpredictable as his signature pitch.
Here is his story in his own words, “[I] flew down to Texas to sign my contract, throw out the first pitch ... [and] do all the things that I dreamed about doing my whole life as a baseball player. The first thing I had to do when I landed was head over to the doctor’s office to get a physical, and it was there that they kind of were alarmed at what they saw.”
What the doctor saw (or, more accurately, didn’t see) was an ulnar collateral ligament. It turns out that Dickey was born without a UCL in his throwing elbow. Even though Dickey had been throwing pitches at a scorching 95 miles per hour, he was damaged goods, and 90 percent of his signing bonus was rescinded.
Suddenly, Dickey was sailing in uncharted waters. Baseball had been the shining light of his life, which otherwise was troubled. Dickey’s father had become distant as his son grew older, and his mother was an alcoholic. Now a tough life had become even tougher.
In his own words again, “I began to really hate who I was, and, you know, I was having suicidal thoughts and just all kinds of terrible things running through my mind. You know, I was using the unhealthy ways to escape pain.”
Eventually, Dickey found redemption in his wife, his family life, his faith, and a pitch that’s impossible to hit when it’s thrown perfectly. But that’s a skill few pitchers have ever mastered, until Dickey’s magical 2012. As one sportswriter put it, with Dickey an “otherworldly pitch” has met its “Jedi master.”
A knuckleball can be confounding to pitcher, batter and catcher, because it’s thrown with virtually no rotation. It’s a difficult pitch to throw, much less to master, and currently Dickey is the only pitcher in the major leagues who is primarily a knuckleballer.
But Dickey did have help, from knuckleballers like Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro. Dickey calls them his “Jedi Council.” Now it seems his Luke Skywalker has mastered the Force and exceeded even the wisest of his Yodas.
Michael R. Burch is a Nashville-based editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry and other “things literary” at www.thehypertexts.com.