For 82/3 innings, R.A. Dickey thought about nothing but his next pitch.
He refused to look up at his wife in the stands at Citi Field. He refused to look back at his life and all the ups and downs that led him to this moment. He refused to pull away and admire the beauty of it all, to admire how the mastery of this wildly unpredictable pitch had taken his wildly unpredictable career to yet another new height.
Instead, for most of Monday's 5-0 win over the Orioles, the knuckleballer stuck with mechanics, digging the nails of his index and middle fingers into the leather just beneath the horseshoe and throwing strikes. It wasn't until Dickey had thrown 79 of them -- when he had only two more strikes to go to secure his second straight one-hitter -- that he did something he rarely lets himself do.
"I let myself take it all in," Dickey said. "I let my eyes wander to where I knew my family was sitting. It was pretty phenomenal with everybody screaming and yelling. My knees were shaking and there was an adrenaline rush. It was rich, simply because I've been on the other side of the coin, too."
Dickey, who Monday night became the first pitcher since Toronto's Dave Stieb in 1988 to throw back-to-back one-hitters, has spent most of his career on that "other side of the coin," bouncing back and forth between the minor leagues and the bullpen of various major-league clubs before breaking into the Mets' starting rotation in May 2010. Now, at 37, an age when most players already have retired, Dickey not only is having the best year of his career but the best year of any pitcher in baseball.
Dickey (11-1, 2.00 ERA, third in MLB with 103 strikeouts) enters Sunday night's game against CC Sabathia and the Yankees with the best record and is tied with Atlanta's Brandon Beachy for the lowest ERA.
Dickey hasn't given up an earned run in five consecutive starts and 422/3 innings, which is the second-longest streak in club history behind Dwight Gooden's 49 straight innings in 1985. Dickey has done it all by primarily throwing one pitch, the mysterious and misunderstood knuckleball, a fact that has left Mets manager Terry Collins in awe.
"When you think about the Koufaxes and the Seavers and the greats, 97-mph fastball and great curveballs . . . This guy is just amazing with that pitch," Collins said. "How he commands it is unbelievable."
When a properly thrown knuckleball leaves a pitcher's hand, it doesn't rotate. This results in a wildly unpredictable pitch that can take a dive or sharp turn at the last moment and leave batters lurching around the plate like actors in a Three Stooges movie.
One big thing that separates Dickey, the only knuckleballer in today's game, from practitioners of the past is how hard he can throw the pitch. According to fangraphs.com, Dickey's knuckleball has averaged 77 mph this season. His slowest knuckler has been 66.6 and his hardest clocked 81.7.
"I would have loved to have thrown it that hard," said Charlie Hough, who was 216-216 in a 25-year career with the Dodgers, Rangers, White Sox and Marlins and was one of Dickey's earliest mentors. "He's pitching as good as anybody ever. What he's done is just amazing, especially when you know his story and where he came from. It's an incredible feat."
No one knows more about where Dickey has come from than his wife, Anne, whom he met in Nashville in seventh grade. When R.A. Dickey thinks about where he is standing today -- when he lets himself think about how he emerged from obscurity to become the hottest player in baseball -- he credits the knuckleball, God, a good therapist and Anne, not necessarily in that order.
It was Anne who graduated at the top of her class at the University of Tennessee but took a series of menial jobs in a series of small minor-league towns so her husband could chase his baseball dream.
It was Anne who, despite having moved more than two dozen times, encouraged her husband to stay in baseball in 2007 when he was thinking about hanging it up and pursuing a career in sales or teaching.
And it was Anne who supported Dickey in writing his recently published memoir, "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for the Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball," even though it included some painfully personal passages about his sexual abuse as a child and his period of infidelity that nearly wrecked their marriage and caused him to consider suicide.
"It was hard, but it was also freeing because it's nice to walk in the truth and not have any pretenses," Anne said of the book. "I liked that he shared the hard stuff. Because the details and the pain of what we had to go through are a big part of the story. I'm thankful for our story."
A complicated guy
The Dickeys and their four children live part of the year in Nashville and part of the year in Manhasset, where they rent a house. All of them were there Monday night to watch R.A. pitch a one-hitter against a team managed by Buck Showalter, the manager who convinced Dickey to take up the knuckleball seven years ago when both were with the Texas Rangers.
"If there's ever a prototype for a guy that could do the knuckleball, he's it," Showalter said. "He has no ego, and he understood the work it would take."
Dickey also has an appreciation for the unconventional and an interest in challenging himself. Before this season, Dickey climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa to raise money for a charity. He nearly drowned while trying to swim across the Missouri River. It's no wonder, then, that he was intrigued by a quirky pitch like the knuckleball.
Knuckleballers are a small, tight community so devoted to their craft that they are almost evangelistic in their willingness to share tips and information about the pitch. Dickey, over the years, has sought advice from a number of notable knuckleballers, including Tim Wakefield, Phil Niekro and, most of all, Hough.
The Rangers asked Hough to briefly throw with Dickey in 2005 to assess his potential as a knuckleballer. The two forged such a connection, however, that Dickey twice flew to Hough's home in Southern California to work with him in the offseason. The first thing Hough did was adjust Dickey's grip, suggesting he move his fingernails from the runway, the part of the ball where the seams come closest together, to just underneath the horseshoe. The second thing he did was tell Dickey to imagine standing just inside a door frame to cut down on any unneeded movement that might cause unwanted spin.
"The first time I ever saw him throw it, he had a good feel," Hough remembered. "You could see he could be pretty good with it. He kept working on it, he worked with a few of the other guys and then he got his own style."
The long and winding road
The style, of course, took years to develop. It's hard to find someone who wants to try to catch a hard, unpredictable knuckleball, so Dickey took to throwing thousands of them against the cinder-block wall of a gym in Nashville. He drove around with a baseball in his car, fingering it with his right hand and driving with his left. And he ran through four organizations in four years -- Texas, Milwaukee, Seattle and Minnesota -- before coming to the Mets before the 2010 season.
There were moments, more than one, when Dickey considered hanging up his cleats and finding a job that could support his family. When the Rangers made him a first-round pick in 1996 out of the University of Tennessee, he never expected to be bouncing around minor-league towns. But every time he thought about quitting, his wife stopped him.
"I didn't think that was worth giving up on his dream," Anne said. "I didn't want him to wake up 10 years from now and say what if. I thought we could put off life being easy a little longer."
Life may have gotten easier financially, but it still is every bit as crazy. Though Dickey was effective in his first two seasons as a Met -- going 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA in 2010 and 8-13 with a 3.28 ERA last season -- no one could have predicted the All-Star season he is having.
Dickey, with his tell-all book and confuse-almost-all pitch, suddenly has become a celebrity. People are starting to stop him on the street and ask for autographs -- a man nearly ran his truck off the road the other day when he saw him walking down the street with his family in Manhasset -- and reporters are lining up in front of his locker to talk to him, even when he isn't pitching.
It's a moment that Dickey, whose full name is Robert Alan but has gone by R.A. since he was in middle school, clearly is enjoying. "With all the ups and down and the adversities, it shapes your perspective as a human being," he said. "When you get to a place like this, you can hold it in perspective. I think it hopefully will elongate whatever is going on."
Dickey smiled as if he had an idea why it all is coming together for him now, 16 years into his professional baseball career. "I may know why and I think that I do. But it's just not worth explaining," he said with a laugh. "It's just so much better just to enjoy it and let the mystery permeate through the U.S."
Just like the unexplainable way his knuckleball permeates the strike zone, confusing batter after batter.