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Pitcher R.A. Dickey Tells Kids It's OK To Be Different


R. A. Dickey is a phenomenal pitcher. He's also a lone wolf.



UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: In the air. Strike three. Whoa. Back-to-back one-hitters for R. A. Dickey...

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: The phenomenon that is Robert Allen Dickey continues to get more and more unlikely.

GONYEA: He is the only pitcher currently working in the majors who throws a knuckleball as his main pitch. That alone might make him a certifiable nerd, but there's more. At game time, Dickey takes the mound to the "Imperial March" from "Star Wars." That's the Darth Vader theme.

When he comes up to bat, it's the theme music from "The Game Of Thrones." An English lit major in college, he can often be spotted in the dugout with his nose in a book. He is also an author.

His first book was an acclaimed memoir that was later adapted for young readers. And now he's written a children's book called "Knuckleball Ned." R. A. Dickey joins me from the CBC in Toronto. Welcome.

R. A. DICKEY: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

GONYEA: Can we start by having you introduce us to the main character in this book? He's Knuckleball Ned, but at the beginning of the book, he's just plain Ned.

DICKEY: Exactly. You know, he kind of arrives on the scene not really knowing exactly who he is. The book is really about his journey not only to discover what makes him unique, but also how he can use that discovery to impact other people.

GONYEA: And he kind of floats around his first day of school, not unlike a knuckleball floats through the air. I'd like you to describe that trajectory and how it applies to the pitch and how it applies to Ned.

DICKEY: Yeah, sure. So, you know, a knuckleball is a pitch that is thrown without spin, that often will dart to and fro very chaotically. So the character, Knuckleball Ned, has that as his innate attribute.

And so Ned is obviously different. He moves differently than all the other balls, and he has some friends that are different. They form their own little hero gang.

GONYEA: Give me just a quick description of some of the other characters in the book without giving too much away.

DICKEY: OK. He runs into a character named Sammy Softball. And Sammy Softball is basically a very large ball - much larger than the other balls. But he's very confident.

Then, Ned bumps into Connie Curveball. And obviously, Connie Curveball loves to spin and dance. And I guess the antagonists in the book are the Foul Ball Gang. And the Foul Ball Gang are kind of a rough-and-tumble bunch.

GONYEA: They're scuffed up.

DICKEY: Yeah, they are.

GONYEA: More than a little. So it's a story not just about, you know, teaching kids it's OK to be different, but embracing those differences and finding out how to use them, right?

DICKEY: Exactly. You know, I think the discovery of what makes us authentically us is one thing, but how we use that gift. So Ned makes some choices along the way that are hopefully definitive of who we all are called to be, and it goes OK for him.

GONYEA: Ultimately, he becomes Knuckleball Ned. Here's the thing, nobody wants a knuckleballer on their team, right? You've experienced that. No GM has ever said, well, you know, guys, what we really hoped to land this season is a good knuckleballer. Just doesn't happen.

DICKEY: No, that's a good insight. You know, there's no scout out there looking for the next Wilbur Wood. You know, they're all looking for the next Stephen Strasburg or Matt Harvery - some of these fireballers that come out of high school and college that can throw a hundred miles an hour.

A knuckleball is really a pitch about survival. I came up as a conventional pitcher throwing very hard. And then when I couldn't do that anymore, I had to come up with a weapon that was good enough to get big league hitters out. And the knuckleball was my ticket to do that.

GONYEA: I read about when you first pitched this book to your editor that they told you you had written way too much. How hard was it to pair this book down to the - to the very kind of minimalist language you have in a children's book?

DICKEY: It was unexpectedly difficult. You know, I'll tell you one really neat thing about this process was I have four kids myself, ages 12 down to 3. And for them to get to participate in this was a really blessing for me - to get to run pages by them and see their reaction to, you know, Sammy Softball getting stuck in a doorframe, for instance.

You know, it was neat to get the feedback from them. And I would know, you know, hey, this is a keeper page. Or they wouldn't understand it and get it at all. And I would rip that page up and start anew. So that was really something special for me in the process.

GONYEA: So you had an editor sitting in some office in a publishing house somewhere, but you also had these editors kind of running around your house, around your breakfast table and your dinner table and everywhere else.

DICKEY: Absolutely. And they - I think they got tired of Ned towards the end because I was reading so many drafts of it to them.

GONYEA: So you are a Major League Baseball player. Not as a Major League Baseball player, though, but a Cy Young Award winner. So there are countless kids out there who want nothing more than to grow up to be just like you - to play baseball, maybe even to pitch knuckleballs. Maybe fewer kids aspire to read and write as avidly as you do. What advice do you give to your young fans, and is reading part of it?

DICKEY: You know, if it weren't for reading - and this is the 100 percent honest truth. If it weren't for reading, I never would have become a knuckleballer. And the one thing that I would encourage young people to do when they're reading is try to dream out what the story is going to become as they're reading it. That's one thing that helped me.

You know, if it weren't for imagination, I would have never had the capacity to envision myself as a major league pitcher throwing a pitch 75 miles an hour to the best hitters in the world. It took a imagination for me to take the risk of becoming a knuckleballer. And that's what reading does. It inspires imagination.

GONYEA: R. A. Dickey, knuckleballer, English literature major and author. He joined me from the CBC studios in Toronto. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

DICKEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.