Twins reliever R.A. Dickey thought he needed a ligament he didn't have. Now he's all knuckles.
The picture should have represented a career highlight and a positive omen. R.A. Dickey appeared on the cover of Baseball America magazine in 1996, standing second from the left in a row of starting pitchers for the U.S. Olympic baseball team that would compete in Atlanta.
The photographer posed the pitchers to show off their valuable right arms. In doing so, he cost Dickey a lot of money and rerouted his career, sending him on a circuitous journey that has led to him, this summer, becoming an unexpectedly important member of the Twins bullpen.
"You can imagine winning the lottery,'' Dickey said, "and losing the ticket. That led me down an interesting path.''
The Texas Rangers had drafted Dickey, a hard-throwing starter for the University of Tennessee. They had offered him a signing bonus of $810,000. When a team doctor saw Dickey's right arm hanging at an oblique angle, the Rangers examined his arm and found him to be missing his ulnar collateral ligament, the ligament that is repaired by Tommy John surgery.
The Rangers dropped their offer to $75,000. Dickey, feeling his prospects would get no better if he returned to Tennessee without a UCL, signed and tried to reinvent himself.
He's become a pitching version of a mad scientist ever since. During his 10 years of bouncing between the minors and majors in the Rangers organization, then-Rangers pitching coach Orel Hershiser told him the knuckleball he fiddled with could someday prolong his career. Hershiser was right. The knuckler has intrigued the Brewers, Mariners and Twins, and this season, for the first prolonged stretch in the big leagues, it has bamboozled opposing hitters.
"You see how valuable he can be,'' pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "What we'll probably start doing is using him later in the game. You know what's neat about him? He's a knuckleballer, but he's got enough fastball to get people out, or use when he's behind in the count. He threw a changeup to strike a guy out the other night. He has weapons.''
His main "weapon'' -- the knuckler -- wouldn't bruise a peach.
"I started throwing it like most guys who grew up playing baseball in the backyard,'' Dickey said. "I was trying to hit my buddies in the foot with a pitch that comes in like a knuckleball. I always remember having a pretty good one. At that point, it was just something I had fun with.
"As I got older, I incorporated it into my normal arsenal of pitches, and might throw five or six a game. Then in '05, Orel was our pitching coach in Texas, and he said if I wanted to prolong my career, I could throw one, like Charlie Hough or Phil Niekro.''
That season Dickey's fastball lost velocity, and he remembered Hershiser's advice. He also sought out Hough, Niekro and anybody else who knew how to master baseball's least obedient pitch.
"I started the journey that year,'' Dickey said. "They sent me down to the minors and I worked on it exclusively that year, and I got called back up and worked with Charlie, and went to instructional league to reinvent myself.''
Dickey throws his knuckler harder than most, and he said that despite perception throwing the knuckler requires great skill, not a reliance on air currents and luck.
"Charlie was my original mentor,'' Dickey said. "I went to LA twice to work and stay with him. Tim Wakefield and Phil Niekro have both been generous with their counsel. I've been able to add to that foundation and slowly add my own personality to pitch. My grip is identical to Charlie and Tim's. Success has to do with the release point. If your release point can be consistent, then you can impart the right amount of spin.
"Now if you throw a pitch with absolutely zero spin -- and that happens once or twice a game -- then it is luck. The part that requires skill is being able to impart maybe a quarter of revolution of spin from the time it leaves your hand to the time it reaches home plate. If you can do that, you have a real good idea where it's going, how it's going to break and where to start it.
"You can stay behind it a little longer, to make it go down and in to righties. You can get on the side of it a little bit to sweep it away to righties. There's lots you can do with the pitch, once you throw it awhile and get a good feel for it.''
The trick is convincing a big-league employer to carry you on the roster. Employing a knuckleballer means tolerating wild pitches, passed balls, stolen bases and the occasional day when the knuckler just doesn't knuckle, making it the world's most hittable pitch.
The Twins have always liked the idea of having a knuckler work in the Metrodome, where the still air allows for greater control of the pitch. In Dickey, they've found a workhorse who, because of the lack of strain the knuckler causes and the fact that Dickey has no UCL to damage, can pitch virtually every day.
Strangely, outfielders Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Gomez lack UCLs, and they have two of the strongest arms on the team. Also, Scott Erickson pitched without a UCL.
Dickey said some doctors have suggested that his UCL disintegrated, but he thinks he would have felt that. He assumes he was born without one. "Dickey is a freak of nature,'' Anderson said.
Dickey doesn't disagree. "I don't know how this works, and I don't try to figure it out,'' he said. "I'm real thankful to be able to do what I can do when a lot of people said I shouldn't be able to do it. It's really miraculous, by a lot of different accounts, and I feel it's been a real blessing to not have to worry about having a surgery that keeps a lot of other guys out. It's made me pretty durable and really resilient.
"I like the fact that I'm flying under the radar. If I can stay in this place, I could have a really nice career.''
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. firstname.lastname@example.org