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Pitcher R.A. Dickey's Tale Is As Wild As A Knuckleball

New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey delivers his signature pitch, with its unusual grip, against the Arizona Diamondbacks on May 6. He's the only knuckleballer in the major leagues, and the pitch has earned him a 12-1 record so far this season.
Kathy Willens
New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey delivers his signature pitch, with its unusual grip, against the Arizona Diamondbacks on May 6. He's the only knuckleballer in the major leagues, and the pitch has earned him a 12-1 record so far this season.

R.A. Dickey's career as a major league pitcher has been as unpredictable as his signature pitch, the knuckleball.

And on Tuesday night, the New York Mets' 37-year-old phenomenon will hit a new pinnacle: the pitching mound at baseball's All-Star Game.

He won't be starting for the National League — manager Tony La Russa chose Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants for that honor. But the manager says says Dickey will pitch.

This guy isn't the best story in baseball because he's the best pitcher in the National League. If anything, Dickey is the pitcher he is because of his story. He believes there is a direct line between the pitches he throws and the person he is, which is the only time you'll ever hear his fluttering knuckleball compared to a "direct line."

Back in 1996, Robert Allen Dickey was a first-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers as a conventional flamethrower. He was 21 years old and about to be paid more than $800,000 to play the sport he loved.

"[I] flew down to Texas to sign my contract, throw out the first pitch ... do all the things that I dreamed about doing my whole life as a baseball player. The first thing I had to do when I landed was head over to the doctor's office to get a physical, and it was there that they kind of were alarmed at what they saw," Dickey says.

What they saw, or more accurately didn't see, was a UCL — an ulnar collateral ligament. Dickey was born without that ligament in his throwing elbow. Doctors said he should be in excruciating pain just turning a doorknob, and yet he had no problem reaching 95 miles an hour on the radar gun.

But past performance didn't matter to his new club. He was damaged goods, and 90 percent of his signing bonus was revoked.

It was a serious setback in the one area of Dickey's life that was supposed to be a refuge. Dickey's parents had divorced when he was a child. His father was distant as R.A. grew older, and his mother was loving but a drinker. He was, while still a boy, sexually abused by a baby sitter and a teenager from his neighborhood.

Even as Dickey entered his 20s, he struggled.

"I began to really hate who I was, and, you know, I was having suicidal thoughts and just all kinds of terrible things running through my mind. You know, I was using the unhealthy ways to escape pain," Dickey says.

Eventually, Dickey found a few things that helped: his mind, his wife, his faith, and a pitch that's impossible to own. But if you're dedicated, it can be leased to great effect.

Learning To Throw Like 'The Jedi'

A knuckleball is confounding, both going and coming, because it's thrown with almost no rotation. The baseball's laces interact with the air, turning it into a Godard jump-cut of pitches.

Currently, Dickey is the only regular knuckleballer in the major leagues. It's a hard pitch to learn, but there is a fraternity of knuckleballers who can offer advice.

"The people that poured into me and lent me their wisdom and acumen were Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro," Dickey says. "And so speaking from that experience I can tell you that there's nobody on this Earth that knows more about it than they do."

Dickey calls those former major leaguers "The Jedi Council." In addition to throwing a quirky pitch, he loves Star Wars and The Lord Of The Rings. He names his bats after swords in Beowulf, and the music he has cued up over the stadium PA when he walks up to bat is the theme to Game Of Thrones.

There's also Dickey's literary side. His revelatory memoir, Wherever I Wind Up, is clearly written by a lover of language who entertained thoughts of becoming an English professor.

And then there's the side of Dickey that wants to teach others his recondite skill. Though Cy Young award winner Frank Viola is the pitching coach of the Savannah Sand Gnats, the knuckleball is as baffling to him as string theory. But Dickey eagerly passed along what he knew to minor leaguer Frank Viola III.

"He's amazing," the elder Viola says. "R.A. invited him to the games he pitched, invited him to his side sessions to watch; they planned on having Frankie tape a couple workouts and then sending it to New York and having R.A. look at it to critique it and get back to him. I mean he just shared his wealth with Frankie."

Speaking of wealth, Dickey is in line to be rewarded with the first truly huge contract of his career. Last off-season, Dickey scaled Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for exploited women in Mumbai, then published his memoir. In it, he dwells on the interplay between his psyche and the knuckleball.

"Oftentimes the more cerebral you are about pitching, the more apt you are to make small changes that might take you out of where you really need to be," he says. "So for me, there's a fine balance between being self-aware and really believing in what you can produce on the field organically."

So far, Dickey has produced back-to-back one-hitters, 10 straight wins, a 12-1 record and his first All-Star invite.

For opponents he's produced befuddlement; for the Mets, he's helped produce a winning record. And every fifth night he produces the only extant link in the chain of a confounding and fascinating pitch.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.