Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey has traveled a bumpy road on the way to becoming an All-Star.
KANSAS CITY, MO. - During baseball's annual All-Star Red Carpet Show on Tuesday, players will parade toward Kauffman Stadium in shiny pickup trucks and convertibles.
R.A. Dickey should coast in, riding a bike.
That's how the Mets knuckleball artist often traveled to the ballpark during his 14-year minor-league career. He rode a bicycle to Rangers Ballpark on April 6, 2006, the day he matched a major league record by giving up six home runs.
His journey -- from that season when he almost lost his marriage and contemplated suicide, through his truncated 2009 season with the Twins -- is quite a tale. Dickey, 37, who majored in English at Tennessee, details the highs and lows in his bestselling memoir, "Wherever I Wind Up."
If you're not into long-form reading, here's how Dickey sums himself up on his Twitter page (@RADickey43): "Father, Husband, Christian, Pitcher, Author, Adventurer, Star Wars Nerd, Reader, Ninja in Training & Cyclist."
Last winter, he successfully scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, reaching the 19,000-foot peak with former Twins teammate Kevin Slowey in a climb that raised $100,000 to help curtail human trafficking in India.
Dickey was the talk of baseball again Monday, when National League manager Tony La Russa picked Matt Cain to start the All-Star Game, even though Dickey is 12-1 with a 2.40 ERA.
"I'm not going to break down in tears over it," said Dickey, a first-time All-Star. "But at the same time, I'm a competitor. I want to pitch."
His entrance will be highly anticipated whenever it comes. Dickey is anything but conventional, and he's exactly what the All-Star Game needs. For so many, the passion has disappeared. Long gone are the days when Pete Rose would barrel over Ray Fosse to score the winning run.
Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement requires players to attend the event if they're selected. Nobody had to twist Dickey's arm. His wife, Anne, and their four children made the trip, too.
"They're all excited about the parade tomorrow and coming to the Home Run Derby," he said. "You know, they get it. And to play long enough where your kids get it, that's a big deal."
Dickey grew up poor, in Nashville, Tenn., where his parents divorced. He has vivid memories of riding in his mother's Chevy Vega, which "had a 50 percent chance of starting any given day," he writes in his book.
He felt like he'd won the lottery in 1996, when the Rangers made him a first-round draft pick out of Tennessee (No. 18 overall) and offered him a $810,000 signing bonus. Dickey was ready to sign, when the Rangers discovered that he didn't have an ulnar collateral ligament -- the ligament that is reconstructed during Tommy John surgery -- in his right elbow.
The team rescinded its initial offer and eventually signed him for $75,000. He never quit pinching pennies, sleeping in cheap hotels, biking to ballparks.
Long way down
After reaching the majors briefly in 2001, Dickey spent the next year in the minors and contemplated retirement, wondering if this was the best way to support his family.
By 2005, Dickey had posted a 5.47 ERA in 67 major league games, including 28 starts as a conventional pitcher. That's when the Rangers, led by then-manager Buck Showalter, convinced him to be a knuckleballer.
If it was that simple, every pitcher on the bubble would try mastering this tantalizing pitch. When thrown right, with two fingernails poking the horsehide, the ball emerges from the hand with no spin, veering way off course just before it reaches home plate.
Many pitchers play around with the knuckleball, but most find it nearly impossible to throw for strikes.
"It's almost like trying to make a righthanded hitter a switch hitter in the middle of his career," Dickey said.
Dickey poured himself into the project, making pilgrimages to see such knuckleball masters as Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield and Phil Niekro, and practicing by himself with thousands of pitches against concrete walls.
By 2006, after that six-homer debacle, Dickey's life reached a low point. Anne was eight month's pregnant with their third child, when she ordered him to come home from Class AAA Oklahoma. Dickey had been cheating on her.
"I am a hypocrite, a man who masquerades as a devout Christian who has betrayed his wife and God," Dickey writes in his book. "My self-esteem is so low, it doesn't even have a reading."
Dickey reluctantly began seeing a therapist and finally opened up about things he'd never told anyone, even his wife. When he was an 8-year-old boy, he was repeatedly molested by a 13-year-old female babysitter. That same summer, he was raped by an older boy. Therapy helped him unbottle those emotions. The more healing he did as a person, the more he gained mastery over his new pitch.
The road back
"We figured he was our ace in the hole because he could throw every day," Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "He could throw five innings tonight, five innings tomorrow because that's a pitch that doesn't take anything out of your arm."
But Dickey posted a 9.28 ERA in his final 13 appearances for the Twins. They sent him to Class AAA Rochester in early August to clear a 25-man roster spot for Carl Pavano. Weeks later, they designated Dickey for assignment, clearing room on the 40-man roster for lefthanded reliever Ron Mahay.
Those moves might look short-sighted now, but the Twins' starting pitching cupboard wasn't nearly as bare that year, as they returned to the postseason. In his book, Dickey writes that he hadn't done enough to gain the baseball establishment's trust, pitching "like Mr. Dependable one night and Lady Gaga the next."
He finally found stability with the Mets, going 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA in 2010 and earning a two-year, $7.8 million contract. That deal will expire this fall, setting him up to make tens of millions more.
What makes Dickey unique is how hard he throws the knuckleball, up to 80 miles per hour, which is about 5-mph harder than Wakefield and others have thrown it. Dickey can change speeds and location. The results have been stupefying. He had a 42-inning scoreless streak at one point and threw back-to-back one-hitters.
Cain is 9-3 with a 2.62 ERA and tossed a perfect game last month. La Russa said he wanted to pair him with starting catcher Buster Posey, his Giants teammate. La Russa hinted that Dickey would enter midgame, starting a fresh inning with backup catcher Carlos Ruiz, who'd have time to warm up with him in the bullpen.
Bob Uecker once said the best way to catch a knuckleball was to wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up. But Dickey, who carries an oversized mitt that he's happy to lend to any battery mate, believes the catcher comfort angle is "overwrought."
He points to his statistics. He's had one wild pitch all season. He has 26 walks and 123 strikeouts in 120 innings.
"Henry Blanco can roll out of bed and catch me with chopsticks," Dickey said. "It depends totally on the guy."
Twins catcher Joe Mauer admits it was challenging catching Dickey at times, especially when there were runners on base, but he respects the way Dickey worked to hone his craft.
"I'm really happy for him," Mauer said. "He's one guy I'm looking forward to seeing [at the All-Star Game]."
Legions of baseball fans feel the same way.
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