R.A. Dickey was 30 years old when he decided to become a full-time knuckleballer, so he was well aware his baseball mortality was riding on this wacky pitch.
When the knuckler danced like it should in bullpen sessions, he could see himself pitching well into his 40s as the next Tim Wakefield. But when the pitch was fat and flat, he was one step closer to exercising "my Plan B," which is teaching high school English in Nashville, Tenn.
Now in his fifth year as a full-fledged knuckleballer, Dickey's career has taken its most stunning twist yet. Called up last month to be a stopgap for the Mets' rotation, he has emerged as an unlikely staff savior.
Heading into his seventh start Wednesday night against the Tigers at Citi Field, Dickey is 5-0 with a 2.82 ERA. He credits his surprising success to finally embracing the notion that for his knuckleball to be successful, he has to throw it unlike any of his successful predecessors - with velocity.
"I realized that I had my own identity with the pitch," he said, "and I came to grips that it's OK that this is not the conventional 68-mph knuckleball."
When Dickey began the transition from conventional pitcher to knuckleballer in 2005, he reached out to the Red Sox's Wakefield to talk pitching. He flew to Charlie Hough's home in Southern California and drove to Phil Niekro's in Georgia to throw bullpen sessions in front of these knuckleballers and seek advice.
Admittedly, Dickey wanted to emulate them in every which way, most notably the slow speed in which they threw their knucklers. But it never worked.
In 2006 Dickey tied a major-league record by giving up six home runs in his only start for Texas - against tonight's opponent, the Tigers - and he never pitched again that season in the majors. After countless offseason sessions of throwing 200 pitches against a concrete wall inside a school gymnasium and still not getting it right, Dickey was at his wit's end.
He spent the next season playing for the Brewers' Triple-A team in his hometown of Nashville, which he called a turning point. Dickey said he started seeing a "life counselor" there, not to become a better pitcher but to be a better person. Yet as he learned to embrace his unique personality off the field, he gained the confidence to embrace his different type of knuckler, as well.
"I was afraid to step up and say, 'No, no, no, I need to do it this way,' to a coach," said Dickey, a literature major at the University of Tennessee. "And when I started to collect my own voice and share my own voice, I really started to have some success with the pitch. I also started to dive deeper into it, enjoy it more."
The increased confidence didn't immediately translate into success; Dickey had a 5.21 ERA in 112 1/3 innings with the Mariners in 2008 and posted a 4.62 ERA in 64 1/3 innings last season with the Twins. But the proof of Dickey's growth is best seen in how hard he threw his knuckler.
According to fangraphs.com, Dickey's knuckleball increased in velocity from 66.3 mph in 2006 to 73 mph in 2008 and 74.9 in 2009. This season, Dickey is up to 76.1 mph.
"The principles are all the same, it's just that everything is sped up for me," Dickey said. "When I started to understand that's OK, that I could throw my knuckleball as hard as I can and still take spin off it, that's when I started to have success."
Dickey still keeps in touch with Niekro, Hough and Wakefield and he considers them great sounding boards. But clearly the biggest difference now is that he believes and trusts wholeheartedly in his knuckler, a pitch that he said he has been messing around with since Little League.
He even used to throw it in the big leagues, back when he was a conventional pitcher with the Rangers early in his career. ESPN broadcaster Orel Hershiser, who was Dickey's pitching coach in Texas, said he used to refer to it as "The Thing" because he never wanted word to leak to opponents that it was a knuckler.
"He was very, very good at throwing it and getting outs with it but he had trouble throwing it for strikes," Hershiser said, "so we only used it when he was ahead in the count."
When Dickey returned from a back injury in 2005 and lost some velocity on his fastball, Hershiser suggested that he consider becoming a full-time knuckler. A few months later Dickey celebrated his debut as a knuckleballer in Triple-A by giving up 12 runs and 14 hits in 5 2/3 innings.
Later that season Hershiser arranged for Dickey to throw a bullpen session in front of Hough before a game in Anaheim, Calif. After the season Dickey flew to Hough's house and spent some time with him working on how he gripped the ball. "He wasn't bad," Hough said. "He needed to do a few things, but he wasn't bad at all."
By the time Dickey made the drive to Niekro's house two years ago, Dickey already was convinced that he needed to throw with more velocity than the conventional knuckleballers. But during their time together Niekro still sensed that Dickey wasn't completely comfortable with the pitch.
"I thought maybe he was a little confused about what he had and how good it was and how to use it and when to use it," Niekro said. "It was the mental [approach]. The physical was there, no doubt about it."
This year, though, it's finally all come together for Dickey. How long this run will continue is anyone's guess, but Hough and Niekro are proof that successful knuckleballers can have a long shelf life.
Niekro, a Hall of Famer, won 318 games and pitched until he was 48; Hough lasted until he was 46. Wakefield turns 44 in August. "There really is no age limit on a knuckleball pitcher," Niekro said.
Just the other day Hough said he sent Dickey a text message, congratulating him on yet another strong performance. And Niekro is hoping Dickey's turn in the rotation comes up the next time the Mets come to Atlanta. "I'll be behind home plate watching him, no question about that," he said.
That Dickey isn't your typical knuckleballer doesn't matter to those who came before him. With this run, he's quickly gaining entry into their exclusive club.