This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine in August, 2012.
R.A. Dickey sits in the last two stalls of the New York Mets clubhouse, next to the showers.
The location has made for an uncomfortable scene of late. Journalists pack into the area—cameras and microphones drawn—looking for a quote from the 37-year-old all-star, suddenly one of the best pitchers in baseball, the ultimate underdog. Players in towels try to avoid the throng around Dickey, clouded by rising steam that smells like Irish Spring. Dickey answers a few questions, but he looks bored and anxious to get away.
Later, I ask him if he’s tired of all the questions, all the attention. Jay, the Mets PR guy, has allotted a strict 15-minute limit for an interview.
Dickey sits on a grey chair in front of his stall, which is lined with books—a C.S. Lewis collection, a book called Understanding Philosophy and the short stories of Haruki Murakami.
There’s a Yoda doll, too. And there are two boxes of letters stacked beside his stall—autograph requests, letters of thanks, and people sharing their own personal, painful stories, because Dickey shared his own in his autobiography, Wherever I Wind Up.
"I get tired of people asking uninteresting questions," he says of the media attention. "But I never get tired of engaging people about my story."
That story begins at the bottom and rises up—then it dips and twists and turns like the knuckleball Dickey is famous for. In fact, the dips and twists of Dickey’s life are more like a series of wild pitches, way off the mark, heading straight for dust. He grew up surrounded by alcoholism, suffered sexual abuse, found God and a wife, and a life in baseball. Then, all of a sudden, his pro career seemed damned to mediocrity because of a defect in his throwing arm. The journey back took more dips—a seemingly endless road through the minors, infidelity and thoughts of suicide as he grappled with the dark secrets of his past.
And it took reinvention, embracing an outcast pitch, to will his way to the big leagues. The knuckleball, slow and unpredictable, became his second chance.
While a handful of his teammates on the other side of the clubhouse are laughing loudly, goofing off like boys in the ninth grade, Dickey explains the influence of Nietzsche’s philosophy of the "overman" on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned.
It was a topic of discussion in the 9 a.m. class he attended at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville during the off-season. Dickey majored in English literature when he was a star pitcher at the University of Tennessee in the mid-’90s.
He had a 3.35 GPA and was an Academic All-American. If he hadn’t made it as a pitcher—and many times it looked like that would be the case—Dickey would have become an English teacher.
"I’d hope I’d be like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society," he says. "I’d just really try to speak to the hearts of men."
And o captain, my captain, let’s consider that scene, one that could still come to pass once his career has wound down: Dickey in a prep school classroom, maybe two decades from now—in his late 50s, that beard flecked with grey, that wavy hair thinning. Mr. Dickey, in a shirt and tie, standing by the chalkboard next to an old pine desk, 20 years removed from the 2012 All-Star Game. There are Star Wars posters on the walls, for sure.
It’s the first story he fell in love with as a kid. The bookshelf near the window is lined with many of his favourite books, but it’s difficult to select the perfect syllabus for this class—The Essential Readings of R.A. Dickey—because so many have helped frame his life.
First up, Hemingway—the tales of war and hunting and other manly things. The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea—vessels of escape for a troubled, untrusting boy. By seventh grade, when he first cracked Hemingway, Dickey had watched alcoholism grip his loving mother and seen his once-close dad grow distant.
He was already hiding the horror of sexual abuse deep inside. He was repeatedly abused by a female babysitter when he was eight. A couple of years later, he was assaulted by a teenage boy behind a garage, where he had been playing catch against a wall. It took years to find the help he needed to deal with that pain and shame. He found God in Grade 7—a key part of that journey. His faith grew through his teens, as would his love for Anne Bartholomew—the sister of his best friend, Bo, and his future wife.
And that faith—that’s why there’s a well-used Bible on Mr. Dickey’s desk. He’s flipped through it every day since then. And it’s why C.S. Lewis, the Christian intellectual who wrote The Problem of Pain, is the next name on this reading list.
"I respect C.S. Lewis as more than just an author," Dickey says. "He was a good teacher."
There’s a pile of Charles Dickens on that bookshelf too. Dickens brings back complicated memories. Dickey tore through A Tale of Two Cities during the 1996 Olympics in Athens. He was a power pitcher with a 94-mph fastball then. On the wall, near the desk, there’s a framed cover of Baseball America with the Team USA starters on the cover. Dickey is second from the left in a row that includes future major leaguers Kris Benson, Braden Looper, Seth Greisinger and Billy Koch.
In the photo, Dickey’s right arm bends at the elbow more than the other guys’. The Texas Rangers had just taken him 18th overall in the draft, and he was about to collect an $810,000 signing bonus. But a trainer for the team noticed the photo, and the bend at his elbow prompted the team to investigate further. An MRI revealed that there is no ulnar collateral ligament in Dickey’s elbow. Somehow, he was born without one. The Rangers wouldn’t invest in a defective pitcher, so they took back their offer—$810,000, gone. Big league dreams, slipping away.
It was back to school then. Dickey enrolled in his senior year at Tennessee. If he stepped into a classroom, he’d be committed to college and unable to sign with a pro team until the following year. The day before Dickey’s first class—19th century American Literature—Rangers GM Doug Melvin had a change of heart. They signed him to a minor league deal for $75,000.
That’s the lesson Mr. Dickey shares with us now—about persevering when it seems like the story is done. He toiled for six seasons in the minors. Along the way, he married Anne, and helped support their new life together by selling golf balls he collected from a pond and doing ultrasounds at a physical therapy clinic.
The couple picked up a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, but lost their first child to complications in pregnancy. That Bible was their only guide through those broken, tear-filled nights, he says. And that book, Expecting? It was put to good use. Check out that gorgeous family in the frame on his desk. Two daughters, two sons and his wife, as glowing and gorgeous as that day they met while he was in grade school.
The syllabus includes some poetry, too. Robert Frost, E.A. Robinson, Eudora Welty and oh, of course, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—"Go forth to meet the shadowy future, without fear, and with a manly heart"—right next to a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
"There’s something permanent about writing," Dickey says. "I think what it’s helped me do, not just over the course of my career, but my life, is to see metaphor."
In 2005, the Texas Rangers handed him the most important metaphor yet. In four scattered seasons in the bigs, Dickey had pitched in 72 games, with a 15-17 record and a 5.48 ERA. He had given up 293 hits in 239.6 innings. Management called him into the office, and he was sure he’d be sent packing for good. Instead, Orel Hershiser, the former Dodger great turned Rangers pitching coach, told him to become a knuckleballer.
Who are in those photographs framed on the wall, near the door, next to the Skywalker poster? Ah, that’s Dickey with Charlie Hough—the legendary knuckleballer who pitched 25 seasons in the big leagues and won 162 games after the age of 34. Hough spent day after day teaching Dickey the art of the knuckleball. He was his Obi-Wan Kenobi. The other one there, that’s him with Phil Niekro—the Hall of Famer who taught Dickey to pretend he’s pitching inside a door frame, keeping his limbs from flailing. Niekro was his Yoda.
But what about that third frame? It’s Stephen James, Dickey explains—the man who helped save his life.
Dickey was named the starter for the fourth game of the 2006 season for the Rangers against Detroit. He gave up six home runs. After the game, the Rangers sent him back to Oklahoma City. That was nearly the final blow. He posted an ERA over 7.00 in his first eight games. Anne was pregnant with their third child. He was constantly worried about money. And, worse, he had been unfaithful. Their marriage was breaking apart. Dickey had been on the road when their first two children were born. He was away for weeks on end while she dealt with the world of bills and plumbers and ear infections. He pushed her away, feeling guilty, frustrated and burdened. He’d retreat into books and into movie theatres, sitting at the back, escaping from a life he was failing at.
There was haunting shame and agony inside him—the abuse he’d told no one about, not even Anne. The violation that left him feeling worthless. It was then, as everything crashed together, that Dickey thought about suicide. Carbon monoxide would be best, he decided. At his lowest, he felt a tug towards hope, felt his faith pushing him forward. He found himself in the office of Stephen James, a counsellor and therapist. Through months of regular meetings, Dickey offered up the kind of boilerplate answers he usually gave the beat reporters.
James kept pushing, and finally Dickey opened up—about everything.
"I had to learn what it was like to take risks," Dickey says now. "To have expectations, and for those expectations not to be met."
This is his Dead Poets moment. It’s all about taking chances, he says. About learning to tell the truth, to trust—even though it might cost something.
"When I learned how to take risks in a healthy way, and not a toxic way, I started to learn what it was like to take risks as a pitcher," he says. "How to become a knuckleballer—how to throw a pitch 68 miles an hour to the best hitters in the world and be okay with it."
And look around this classroom; look at the lessons learned, the lessons shared. There’s a stack of copies of his own book in the corner.
"I was petrified," he says of putting his life on paper. "The fear came from what other people might think—teammates, you know. What it would do to my career."
But then the letters poured in. And at book signings people leaned over the table to tell him their own secret of being sexually abused—secrets they’d told no one before. Because of his story, they were finally ready to find help.
"The risk was worth taking," he says, "a hundred times over."
Other books, postcards and photographs reveal the winding path of an underdog’s life. Like those copies of Life of Pi by Yann Martel and The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay—novels about journeys against impossible odds—that he ripped through during his rise as a knuckleballer while bouncing between Seattle in 2008 and the Minnesota Twins in 2009.
Those are on the reading list too, along with The Great Gatsby and Fahrenheit 451. And especially My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. "It’s about a boy figuring out who he is and having the courage to pursue it," Dickey says.
You can borrow them from the box beneath that photo of him and his mom, with whom he reconciled long ago. Those stories were essential to getting him on that poster of the 2010 New York Mets by the shelf over there. He started that season with the Buffalo Bisons, his eighth minor league team. He packed up his family and moved across the country yet again. He thought about quitting. He called Lipscomb University to ask about transferring his University of Tennessee credits so he could finish his degree.
Then the Mets called, and by May he was taking the No. 7 train to Citi Field. No one recognized him on the ride through Queens. He went 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA. A year later, in January 2011, Dickey signed a two-year contract with the Mets worth $7.5 million. That year, he and Anne had their fourth child, Van.
As you get up to grab books, be careful not to knock over the picture of Mr. Dickey on a mountain. That’s Mount Kilimanjaro—he climbed it in January 2012 to raise money for an organization that combats human trafficking in India. He and several companions trekked for days before reaching the top.
"I’ll never forget feeling so good about being so small," he says. He wore two bracelets on his wrist—pieces of blue, green and pink thread woven together by his two daughters. They were on his wrists as he started the 2012 season, and as he went on his run from May 22 until June 18, when he allowed just one run in six starts. He struck out 63 batters and walked just five during that stretch. There was a 10-foot photo of him, mid-pitch, across from section 418, near the Sno Cone stand.
And every time he stepped on the mound, the fans at Citi Field rose—"R-A Dick-ey! R-A Dick-ey!"—chanting louder than they had for anyone. He earned a spot in the All-Star Game, his first.
Right now there are parts of this far-away classroom that are difficult to see.
Is there a Cy Young Award on his desk? A World Series ring on his finger? Next to that photo of him and his mom, is there one of him with his dad—the reconciliation he hoped for after he penned his tell-all book?
"I still hold on to hope," he says.
It’s not time for those answers now. Fifteen minutes has stretched to an hour, and Jay, the Mets PR guy, is probably getting anxious. One more question: Where are we now in your story, R.A.? "This is the rising action," Dickey says. "I certainly don’t feel like I’ve arrived at anything."
But what if the next chapter is ugly? If that wobbly pitch fails you? "That’s what’s neat about the knuckleball," he says. "You have to hold what’s beautiful about it and what’s awful about it all at once."
OK, OK—it’s time to go. Did you take notes? Get up, grab your books. We have some reading to do. The clubhouse doors are closing. Class dismissed.