Grange on Jays: Dickey right man for the job

R.A. Dickey will start the season opener for Blue Jays Tuesday.

The embarrassment of apparent riches that is the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff could have caused a moment of confusion when it came time to figure out who would take the ball on Opening Day (night, but whatever).

Do you go with Brandon Morrow, the lone incumbent candidate?

How about the power arm of Josh Johnson, who arrived by trade from the Miami Marlins, only two years removed from the National League ERA title?

Mark Buerhle doesn’t have the stats of a No. 1 pitcher, necessarily, but his track record of 12 straight seasons of at least 200 innings pitched is symbolic of what the Jays staff will need to be if they are going to reach their goals: just as important as being good may be the simple act of showing up every fifth day.

But R.A. Dickey, the man who will take the mound in the top of the first for the first season that really, really matters in Toronto since the 38-year-old was a fire-balling English literature major and not a knuckleballing tale of redemption, was the perfect choice.

And not just because he’s the defending Cy Young award winner, the credential that trumps all others he earned when he went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA with the New York Mets last year, although Dickey concedes it’s a nice ribbon to put on his near perfect season in 2012, particularly considering the company.

“Not that I’m better than those guys, just that the acknowledgement maybe, of last season,” he said of getting the nod against the Cleveland Indians Tuesday night. “That was real special for me.”

But Dickey on the mound to start a season more weighted with optimism than a favoured grandchild meant Dickey at the microphone Monday doing what he might do equally as well as make his signature pitch dance to the plate: articulate a thought that others don’t quite have the words to express.

For example:

The 2013 Blue Jays season is about hope and promise and optimism. There is no argument.

But somewhere underneath it all is the difficult-to-shake sense that even with Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ magical transformation of a roster that limped to a 73-89 record last year into one that is widely considered a favourite to win the World Series, this is still Toronto.

This is still a franchise 20 years removed from giddiness in a city that has known nothing but competitive misery for a decade from all of its professional teams.

Roger Clemens won Cy Young awards here and nothing else. Roy Halladay pitched the best a pitcher can pitch and won nothing. Vernon Wells had great seasons here and won nothing. Carlos Delgado? Same thing.

And now in comes a 38-year-old former major league bust just three years into establishing himself as an ace thanks to a slow, tumbling, gimmick pitch that even he doesn’t really know where it will end up once it leaves his well-manicured fingers.

The knuckleball, thrown well, requires a leap of faith, which is exactly what Jays fans have taken this past off-season.

So Dickey, he’s a man who can relate to a fan base that wants only the best but has been programmed to expect something other than that.

You get the sense that Dickey gets us.

He got the standard, ‘what about the cold weather’ question as the native of Nashville came to work on a frigid April day with the wind howling off Lake Ontario, and he pointed out that it wasn’t so long ago that he was pitching in triple-A Buffalo, which was colder. He gets points for that.

He joked about wearing a Blue Jays uniform one season while playing Little League, and wondered if it might be some foreshadowing given those Jays won the championship back in his hometown.

And he remembered what it was like here when the real Blue Jays really mattered, even though he was at home and watching on television at the time.

“The thing I’m most aware of is the response to those teams,” says Dickey. “I remember watching live on TV as it happened and what a special moment it was and what a special moment it was for baseball in general — a Canadian team winning in what is perceived to be an American sport.

“The hope of that, not only for this year but for a few years to come, that’s exciting to be a part of,” he said. “That’s the reason I’m here. I’m here because I want a world championship. That’s the reason I made the choice to come here, I feel like they got the pieces.

“I remember what it was like to watch the fans celebrate such an incredible moment. The thought of being part of that, it energizes you to come to the field and bring all that you can bring.”

Really, that’s what he said.

For that alone, Jays fans should be grateful that Dickey was the choice to start a season so bursting with hope that it’s useless to try and put a damper on it. It’s a runaway train, at this point.

And they should be glad that his career numbers in domed parks are lights out. And they should be glad that when he threw off the mound at Rogers Centre Sunday, his knuckler felt especially good.

“I was really encouraged, that’s all I’ll say. I was really encouraged. It felt good coming out of my hand, that’s a good sign.”

But even with all that optimism, there’s still twenty years of history to shed. Pasts are tough to come to grips with, and the Jays have dark places in their recent history. Dickey, having worked through his personal and professional doubts and demons over the past few years, can relate.

Does he feel like a Cy Young winner, or is there still a small part of you — he was asked — that feels like the guy who was career minor leaguer until he figured out the knuckler?

“Being honest? Of course,” he said. “It’s the same thoughts I had when I signed my first contract. It’s the same thoughts I had when I had some success with the knuckleball in 2010. Can I do it again? Is this who you really are? It’s the same demons we all battle in our lives.

“In this particular sense I feel like I’ve grown into the place where I know what to expect out of myself. I feel like the seasons that I’ve had the past three years are the expectations that I have for myself on the baseball field. And that’s nice. That hasn’t always been the case. I’ve had to grow into that with a lot of hard work.

“I’m not going to try to be a Cy Young award winner every time out. That’s the worst thing I could do. I just want to do the same thing I’ve always done and that’s put up quality starts for 34 starts,” he said. “Some are better and some are worse, but at the end of the year you look back and hope you had a season like I did last year. But the rest seems to take care of itself if your focus is how can I make the most out of this particular pitch.”

Which, for Jays fans on the eve of a season that they can’t help thinking will be so different than what has come before, are words to live by.

Live for the moment and hope the future takes care of itself.

Easier said than done, of course, but worth a try. Give this man the ball, and let the season begin.

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