R.A. Dickey enjoying memorable ride
Righty says he's most proud of consistency with knuckleball
For every journeyman player who ever drifted from one organization to another and every marginal player who always seemed on the roster bubble about to be cut, bouncing back and forth between the Minors and the Majors, there is no greater incentive to keep trying than this: R.A. Dickey was an All-Star.
Dickey is 37 years old and in his 16th professional season. He has never been considered for the All-Star Game before, never won more than 11 games in a season. But for the first half of the 2012 season, there has been no better pitcher in baseball than this Renaissance man who has tamed the knuckleball and figured out how to make this unpredictable pitch predictable.
Dickey can discuss a literary icon like Ernest Hemingway or a knuckleball guru like Charley Hough in the same conversation. He once nearly drowned trying to swim the Missouri River. Undaunted and intrigued by a Hemingway novel, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
He was named Pitcher of the Month for June when he went 5-0 with a 0.93 ERA and pitched consecutive one-hitters against Tampa Bay and Baltimore, the first pitcher to do that since Dave Stieb in 1988. He struck out 10 or more batters in each one, the first pitcher in Major League history to do that. In 11 starts from April 25 through June 18, he was 9-0 with a 1.21 ERA. There also was a stretch of 44 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run.
Every fifth day, Dickey digs his two nails into the baseball and sends it wiggling and waggling toward the batter. The hitter is forced to guess where it is going. Dickey does not. He can throw it at 68 miles per hour and he can throw it at 86 miles per hour. He can throw it high in the zone and he can throw it low in the zone.
"My consistency with the pitch is the thing I'm proudest about," he said. "The knuckleball can be capricious and it can be fickle. You can't command the knuckleball, but maybe you can control it. That's what I try to do."
The trick to this trick pitch is to prevent the ball from rotating after it leaves Dickey's hand. That makes it unpredictable, preventing the hitter from preparing the way he would for any other pitcher. His arsenal contains no cutter, no changeup, no splitter. Dickey does none of that. He throws an occasional fastball, but almost exclusively sticks with the knuckleball, the last practitioner in the Major Leagues of that pitch.
Dickey was the quintessential journeyman pitcher, drifting through the Texas, Seattle, Milwaukee and Minnesota organizations with little success. One day, then-Rangers manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Orel Hershiser suggested he try the knuckleball and turned him over to Hough. The early results were not encouraging. In his only start with the Rangers in 2006, Dickey gave up eight hits and seven runs in 3 1/3 innings and tied a modern Major League record by allowing six home runs.
Dickey persisted with the pitch through stops with the Twins and Mariners, trying to refine its mysterious behavior. By 2010, he found himself in Spring Training with the Mets. He was the first roster cut, shipped to Triple-A Buffalo. It was there that he pitched an almost perfect game, allowing a leadoff single on an 0-2 pitch to Durham's Fernando Perez and retiring the next 27 hitters. Two weeks later, he was recalled by the Mets.
Two years later, he led the Majors with a dozen wins when he was selected for the National League All-Star team. Dickey sees that stage and his success this season as certification for his old friend, the knuckleball. He wants it viewed as a legitimate pitch, not some kind of carnival sideshow. And he wants it to endure much the way he has.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.