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R.A. Dickey's pitch rare, but worthy of respect

R.A. Dickey #43 of the New York Mets

R.A. Dickey #43 of the New York Mets Credit: R.A. Dickey #43 of the New York Mets (Getty Images)

R.A. Dickey knows many believe the knuckleball is something out of a freak show, and he wants that to change.

"What I try to do is dispel the notion that this is some circus, freak pitch," the Mets pitcher said. "I take it very seriously."

Maybe it's time everyone else came around, with Dickey's 18-6 record, 2.67 ERA and 205 strikeouts placing him on a short list of NL Cy Young Award favorites.

And while those on the outside may still have their doubts about what a knuckleball is capable of, National League hitters have learned to respect the pitch.

"I think, depending on who you talk to, most of the people who've faced a knuckleballer will tell you that it's a difficult thing to do," Dickey said.
For those who aren't major league ballplayers, a new documentary opening Thursday at the IFC Center called "Knuckleball!" sheds more light on the pitch, and the men like Dickey who throw it for a living.

Only a few can call themselves knuckleballers. Ex-ballplayers such as Tim Wakefield, Phil and Joe Niekro and Charlie Hough are part of that small fraternity.

"I'm trying to do something that's very, very difficult to do and there's really only a handful of people who've ever walked the earth who've done it," Dickey said. "There's ... an instant bond and a relationship with someone who's walked a mile in your shoes. And those men have walked multiple miles."

Those miles can be a humbling experience. While Phil Niekro, "the anomaly of the anomalies," according to Dickey, was the only one to come up through the system as a knuckleball pitcher, all the others began as conventional pitchers and hitters who turned to the flutterball as a last resort.

"I know this will sound peculiar, but you have to have a lot of practice failing," Dickey said. "A lot of knuckleballing is mental. ... It's being able to handle how capricious the pitch can be, how fickle it can be."

Dickey, a 1996 first-round pick by the Texas Rangers, has come a long way since making the switch to the knuckleball in the spring of 2005.

Though he learned the pitch from his grandfather as a child, a powerful right arm meant he had little need for it until given an ultimatum: Switch to the knuckleball full-time or kiss the majors goodbye. Obviously, he took door No. 1, but he had a long road before he could command the pitch.

"When I started, I was probably [throwing] two or three [good knuckleballs] out of 10, whereas now I'm probably seven or eight out of 10," Dickey said. "And there's a lot of time that it's taken me to be able to do that."

With increased command of the pitch, Dickey rarely uses his conventional stuff anymore. He estimates that 85% to 90% of his pitches are knuckleballs. The other 10% to 15% is comprised of the occasional sinker, changeup or cutter. But Dickey also points out that the knuckleball isn't just one pitch.

"A knuckleball, a lot of times, can be five or six different pitches in one because of the movement, so erratic," he said.

Because of the unpredictable nature of the pitch, catching his knuckleball is different from catching any other pitch. Dickey brings knuckleball mitts with him to spring training. The mitts are bigger, thinner and break in easier.

But there's more to catching the pitch than equipment. Patience is key.

"You can't go out and get [the pitch] because when you try to commit to go out and get it, it'll move and you'll miss it," he said. "Not every one is a great knuckleball, so you might get away with it once or twice."

Dickey hopes to help create a generation of knuckleballers. The pitch transcends baseball, though.

"I think there's a lot of kids out there who, when they come to the parks with their dad, they see a knuckleballer throwing and having success and being unique and it being OK that they're unique," Dickey said. "I think that's going to speak to a lot of people. Kids and teenagers alike."

***

R.A. wants to be part of Mets' solution

Like his knuckleball, R.A. Dickey's immediate future is a bit hard to predict. He's been stuck on 18 wins since Sept. 5, but has three starts left to become the first Met in 22 years to become a 20-game winner. He'll face the cellar-dwelling Marlins twice before the season wraps.

The Mets aren't far from the NL East basement themselves, but Dickey believes the team is heading in the right direction.

"'The night is always darkest before the dawn,' and that's something to remember," he said. "As ugly as it might look now, we certainly hope for better.
There is a vision and a plan, and we're at the beginning of that plan."

Dickey has a team option for next year and wants to be around when the Mets turn it around.

"I'm invested and feel rooted here in a lot of ways," he said. "I want to see the blossoms.

"I want to win with the Mets."

Dickey believes he could pitch five or six more years, but prefers not to look that far ahead.

"Mentally, I don't know if I wanna do it for that long. But I may," Dickey said. "I try to be engaged in the moment as much as possible."

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