In order to become one of the best pitchers in baseball, R.A. Dickey had to experience life as one of the worst.
Years of failure, disappointment and worry were necessary for him to find the success he's had this season, success which enables him to step to the mound Thursday with a shot to win his 20th game.
“Ninety-eight percent of the time you almost have to come to the end of yourself to be a knuckleballer,” Dickey said during a question-and-answer session with journalism students from Rutgers and NYU on Sept. 19.
“It requires quite a bit of humility. It's one of the things that's kind of counter cultural to what I do in the baseball and athletic world in that it sets itself apart from people with ego. And in the sports realm there's a lot of ego, a lot of testosterone, a lot of bravado. So in order to learn the pitch I had to get to the end of myself. I had to be in the place where I was self aware enough to know that I did not have anything else to offer. If I wanted to stay at the big league level what I had wasn't gonna cut it, and I had to come up with something else. So I had to make that realization. And if you let your ego get in the way of that, you'll never take the next step. You'll never risk it. 'Cause you think you've got it figured out. And I didn't have it figured out.”
Through the first four seasons of his career, all with Texas, Dickey was a spare part, a swingman with a 16-18 record and 5.55 ERA from 2001-2005. But 2005 was also his turning point, even if the stats don't show it. During the summer he first began fooling around with the knuckleball, and he got serious about it that September after he had a meeting with legendary knuckleball pitcher Charlie Hough.
The results were not immediately inspiring. Dickey gave up seven runs (all earned) in just 3.1 innings during his lone appearance with Texas in 2006, and he didn't pitch again until 2008 with the Mariners. He showed glimpses of things to come then, including throwing seven shutout innings against the Mets on June 24, a game which inspired a classic rant from radio host Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, during which he shouted in exasperation, “R. A. Dickey!”
But Dickey wouldn't be a punchline for long. He improved during a stint in the Mariners bullpen in 2009 (1-1, 4.62 ERA) before getting his shot—and finding sustained success—with the Mets. Heading into Thursday's start against the Pirates, Dickey is 19-6 with a 2.66 ERA and is a legitimate contender for the National League Cy Young Award. But that's not the end of the story for Dickey.
“I've been a knuckleballer now for six years really, and really kind of committed to it 100 percent for five of those six,” he said. “So I've still got a lot to learn. It's exciting coming to the park knowing that I can grow. That's exciting. And that's what's happened, too. I've become more comfortable in my own skin?off the field and on?and so that's helped freed me up to be who I feel I'm authentically called to be.”
Kevin Costner's character “Crash Davis” in the great baseball film “Bull Durham” famously labeled strikeouts as fascist, and Dickey's knuckleball could be considered the same. Though he will occasionally throw a fastball, the knuckleball dominates his pitch selection, he won't give spread the wealth around with a curveball or slider. Like Mariano Rivera and his cutter, it can appear that Dickey is getting it done with one pitch. But, to Dickey, the knuckleball is as temperamental as a bull and just as alive as one, too. Though the game log reads simply “knuckleball”, each time he winds up, he's throwing a new pitch.
“I think what serves me best as a knuckleballer is to think intellectually and apply things logically,” he said. “I have the capacity to break down mechanics and see beyond the surface of what things are. I really view my relationship with the knuckleball as exactly that, a relationship. It's a living thing for me. It's very organic. It's not a pitch I throw and I want it to spin this way. I fight against it, and it reminds me of things, and it's a metaphor for other things, and it's so much more than just a pitch to me. It makes for a very rich life for me, thankfully. It's nice that God has given me the capacity to see metaphor. I appreciate it. But I think what helps me more is the application of that element and how can I logically apply that. So if I make a discovery from an intellectual standpoint that I might not otherwise make, how do I apply that to my life to grow? And that for me is the fun and the hope.”
It's brought up to Dickey that winning 20 games these days seems to be much more about how other people want him to reach the number, and he chuckles and nods. He wants the milestone too; he just doesn't want to think about wanting it.
“Yea sure, who doesn't want to win 20 games? He said. “I've got three starts left, I want to win 21. certainly it's a goal that's out there now. How significantly I cling on to that is up to me. And honestly, because of past failures and my past experience, I feel like that takes away from my ability to achieve that. So I like to be much more engrossed in the moment.”