Keeping Score

Q&A: New York Mets Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey

Just this year Dickey, 37, released a memoir, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and starred in a documentary. Oh yeah, he's also 5-1 for the surprising Mets. A candid conversation with a cerebral guy who throws a funky pitch

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Tim Shaffer / Reuters

R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets delivers a pitch to the Philadelphia Phillies during the first inning of their game in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 13, 2012.

The career of New York Mets knuckleballer RA Dickey, 37, has enjoyed quite a resurgence. Before the 2010 season, Dickey had bounced around the minors for about 15 years and largely pitched ineffectively when he was called up to the majors. A missing ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm hindered in progress, and in 2006, Dickey committed to the knuckleball full-time in a last-ditch effort to extend his career. In 2010, Dickey became a full-time starting pitcher for the Mets and he finished the last two seasons with E.R.A.s of 2.84 and 3.28, respectively. This season, Dickey is off to an All-Star caliber start for the surprising Mets, who are near the top of the N.L. East standings: Dickey is 5-1, with a 3.65 ERA.

Dickey has received attention for more than just his pitching. During the off-season, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, even though the Mets did not want him to. Kilimanjaro has fascinated Dickey, an English literature major at the University of Tennessee, since he read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” in high school. Plus, through the publicity for the trip, Dickey was able to raise $100,000 for a non-profit that assists victims of sex trafficking.

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Dickey also stars in a new documentary film, Knuckleball!, which chronicles the history of the oddball pitch and was well received at the Tribeca Film Festival. And his book – Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, written with Wayne Coffey of the New York Daily News – was released in late March. In the book, Dickey revealed that he was sexually abused by a female babysitter when he was 8 years old.  He was also abused by a 17-year-old boy on another occasion.

Keeping Score spoke to Dickey late last week:

Not much was expected of the New York Mets this season. And yet, the team is near the top of the NL East standings here in the early going. What’s been the key?

It helps that we have really fantastic chemistry in our clubhouse. The culture of the clubhouse really does permeate onto the field. There are a lot of guys on the team where things haven’t necessarily come easy for them. So now that they’re here, they are equipped with how to be resilient, how to survive. We have a clubhouse full of blue-collar players. That helps.

The Mets finished last season 77-85, lost best hitter Jose Reyes to free agency, and did not make any big signings this offseason. Do you understand the doomsday feeling among fans?

As a player you’re so close to it, it’s hard. Look, I’m from Nashville, I’m a Titans fan. So I can’t empathize with a Met fan’s plight. But at the same time, it’s just one of those things that, as a player, you don’t necessarily subscribe, good or bad, to what the fan base says. Or the media pundits. You’ve got to find your own identity as a team.

With the release of your book and the movie, Knuckleball!, to positive reviews, are you enjoying your pitch’s sudden fame?

Yes, I am enjoying the fact that the pitch is starting to get a little traction. It’s a very respectable pitch. For years and years and years, it’s come with this mysticism around it, that it’s untameable, it’s so chaotic you can’t trust it. What the movie reveals, and hopefully what good seasons by knuckleballers reveals, is that you can depend on it. It is trustworthy. And hopefully, that will lay some foundation for the powers that be, whether it’s general managers, scouting directors, or player personnel people to give that pitch a shot. Those are the guys that make or break you.

You started throwing a knuckleball because of injury. Are you glad you backed into the pitch, or do you think you could have been more successful throwing more “normal” pitches?

Now that I’m in it, I felt like there couldn’t have been any other way. I think in metaphors so much, and the pitch has been such an incredible metaphor for my life. It’s so appropriate that it has come together like this, in the way that it has.  I can appreciate the poetry in that.

How has the pitch been a metaphor?

Just in the ups and the downs, and the roller coaster that emulates the flight of the knuckleball. It’s risky. To stand on a big league mound and throw a pitch 65, 75 miles per hour to the best hitters in the world is a risk. It’s hard to do. I’ve had to take similar risks in my life, as well. There are just so many different veins to explore as far as the metaphor goes. It’s very appropriate that my career has kind of paralleled the pitch.

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You are one of the more cerebral players in the game. Does the knuckleball, which involves an element of psyching out batters, fit with your way of thinking? It’s not like you can just wind up and throw as hard as you can, which on the surface doesn’t seem to involve much thinking.

It’s almost the opposite. The more intellectual a person is, usually, the more in control that person wants to be. With a knuckleball, you have to completely let go. You have to completely surrender to the fact that you’re not in control. You have to mechanically be in a place where you can produce a pitch that doesn’t spin. But once it leaves your hand, it’s up to so many different things as to what it does. I may throw the same knuckleball 10 straight times, and it may break a different way every time, which is remarkable. You have to let go of the control of that. Whereas a fastball pitcher, mechanically, if you let it go a certain way, it’s going to go to the outside corner every time. Or the inside corner, or up, or down.

I have had to learn that. I want to know the guts of things. I like knowledge. I like wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom can be two different things. Wisdom, in this case, is learning how to surrender and being ok with whatever happens. With that pitch, you have to be able to do that.

You would think that having a degree in English literature doesn’t have much application to being a major league baseball player. But has your degree somehow helped your game, or your life within the game?

Yes. We’ve already spoken about the metaphors. Second, it’s made for a very rich experience. I’m able to enjoy my journey. I can really appreciate story and narrative. And I certainly can appreciate the track of having to start one way, and ending up totally different.

My appreciation for literature has certainly galvanized my appreciation for what I do for a living.

Why did you decide to go public with the fact that you were sexually abused as a child?

The decision to write the hard stuff in the book is really, I would say, twofold. I think at the foundational level I always hoped that my story would lend itself to impacting someone in a positive way.

Another reason, and no less important, is I wanted to produce a good piece of literature. And I couldn’t do that and not talk about the hardest things. As a reader, it’s hard for me to appreciate someone who tiptoes around the things that are hard. The author loses some credibility. So I did not want to do that. I wanted to write something that was true, and honest, and let readers come to whatever conclusions they were going to come to based on that story. I did not want to manipulate that. In an effort to do that I tried to write it as raw as I could without being too gratuitous.

What has the reaction been like?

Thankfully, by God’s grace, I have been given the gift of people who have related to the story in a way that’s been encouraging. I’ve had countless people now write to me, or email me or try to get to me through the publisher or the Mets wanting to share similar experiences. That’s very encouraging. The risks that you took were worth it.

There are people out there who have made the comment to me, for instance, ‘How can you complain about being sexually abused by a 14-year-old girl when you’re an 8-year-old boy? That’s every boy’s dream.’ You get those people that just don’t contextually know what damage that can do.

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You climbed Mount Kilimanjaro this offseason, despite the objections of the Mets – they warned that they could void your contract if you got hurt on the trip. Achieving this success has taken a long time for you. And as a knuckleballer, you might have many more years ahead of you. You risked serious injury – and a lot of income. Why did you roll the dice?

A year and a half ago, I stated planning the trip, not knowing it was going to ruffle the Mets’ feathers. But then we got to a place where it was going to happen. The Mets said, ‘We don’t want you to do it.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve weighed the risks, and I think it’s a risk worth taking.’ Look, I want to make sure I’m clear about this. I harbor no ill will toward the Mets. They weren’t throwing up their arms that I was going. They were simply protecting their investment. I can completely respect that. And I am also thankful that they respected my decision as a man, to do something that might not have been by the book.

The reason I wanted to do it, I had partnered with a charity, the Bombay Teen Challenge, which rescues young girls from sex trafficking and sex slavery in India.

It struck a chord in my heart. I have two daughters, who are 10 and 8. The thought of them being subjected to that stuff  – it almost felt criminal not to do something.

We were able to raise over $100,000 in an effort to help them, to rescue these girls from conditions that are just absolutely deplorable. And that was the real reason I continued to pursue it. If it was just something I wanted to do and the Mets came to me and said, ‘Please don’t do this,’ I probably wouldn’t have. But because we had become so intertwined with the charity, I felt obligated to keep going. And I’m glad I did.

What was it like getting to the top?

It was euphoric. To see the sun rise  – we got there at 5:30 in the morning  – after hiking seven-and-half hours through the night, in the freezing cold … there were points along the summit-day hike when you just didn’t know if you were going to make it. Oxygen was at a premium, you couldn’t breathe. The hardest thing is, you never knew when it was going to end. Because you don’t see the top. All of a sudden it just appears before you, and there you are. You go, ‘Oh my God.’

To see the sun rise over the eastern edge of Mount Kilimanjaro, above the clouds, well above the clouds, you almost felt like you were the only person on earth, for just a second. And it was just incredible. Ultimately we hiked for six days for 25 minutes at the peak, which sounds ludicrous. But those 25 minutes, I dare to say are life-changing.

The Washington Nationals have been atop the NL East, which is a bit of a surprise, too. Fans are excited about Bryce Harper, the team’s 19-year-old phenom outfielder. Do you think baseball can use a lighting rod like Harper, an unbelievable talent who some people might not like because he’s done some cocky things in the past? But someone who they will still want to watch?

I think it’s great that these kind of phenoms are rare. I think there is a level of confidence that is paramount at this level. But at the same time, are we breeding a game where people feel entitled? That’s the balance. Bryce Harper, I don’t know him as a human being. But one of the things I can anticipate him having to fight eventually is this sense of entitlement. And how does that manifest in the way that you are as a human being and as a baseball player? Because this game, and I speak about this in-depth in my book, treats you as if you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. The lifestyle is such that people tell you how good you are for a lot of your life.  And if you’re the guy that’s the guy, that’s the best of those guys, you’ve got to really fight that. You’re drawn into that. It’ll be interesting. As a guy who’s interested in narrative, as this story unfolds, it’ll be interesting to see how he handles it.

Any predictions for the NL East?

I’m willing to say that things, the way they are now, won’t wind up the way they are. You take that however you want it. But I can’t say the Mets are going to be two, the Nationals are going to be one. We’re so competitive right now, it would be ridiculous for me to make a judgment on that. I think that we’re going to be more competitive than people think. I think we have a lot of parity in our division, so it’s going to be a fight down to the wire. That’s my prediction.

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