|Dickey says his knuckleball is a 'living thing' that has taught him about himself. (US Presswire)|
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- What Robert Allen Dickey throws is what you would get if you crossed a knuckleball with a bee sting. Mama, get the ice. Stock up on the antihistamine. It is a hybrid pitch, poisonous and beautiful, special for so many reasons beyond the crazy and ethereal box score lines blowing like pollen through the summer's air.
It is dreamy and earthy, as if something concocted from the imagination of Huck Finn. Fact is, best place to digest Dickey's tall tale isn't even at the ballpark or in front of a flat-screen. It is from a tree house, or a river bed. On a porch swing late at night with wide eyes and full flashlight. Any place the imagination has miles to roam.
His is a wholly unique pitch.
His is a story like few that have ever landed in an All-Star Game.
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"It's a living thing," Dickey, the New York Mets' surprising ace, was saying during an extended conversation in a Dodger Stadium dugout the other afternoon. "It's not a static pitch. It's a very organic thing for me. I say that because of my relationship with it."
It floats. It flutters. It stings and aches. It cross-pollinates the beautiful and ugly truths of life with the vagaries of a baseball existence. Then it blows away in the wind and comes back again.
"It's taught me things," Dickey, 37, said. "It's helped me find out things, discover things about myself. The mere flight of the pitch is representative of my own life.
"There are so many metaphors you can draw. It seems like it's a pitch that was destined for me. Because of that, I'm still passionate about it."
It is an "angry knuckleball" -- his term -- that spits and hisses at speeds up to 80 mph. Nobody has ever thrown a knuckler that hard, not with success, let alone come as close to mastering its nuances as Dickey has in this season's first half. Not Charlie Hough, not Phil Niekro, not Tim Wakefield -- each of whom has a knuckle in this story. Dickey also can downshift it to 69, 70.
Sometimes, it's as if he's successfully walking a butterfly on a leash.
Even on those occasions, he will refuse to admit he has mastered the pitch.
"I would fight that," Dickey said. "I don't think the verb 'mastered' is the word because I don't think it can be mastered. I can control it, I can't command it. I haven't mastered it. I haven't perfected it.
"I'm glad for that, because that means there's a lot of room to grow. I'm still passionate about growth. I do feel there is a modicum of control I can exhibit with the pitch. That's probably a better descriptor. I have hopes I can get to a place where I can make it do what I want. But she will fight me on that until the end, I'm sure."
• • •
His words are coated in a soft, Tennessee drawl that belies the hardened look of an outdoorsman, the overgrowth of a full beard and a jagged life.
Condensed version: Boy's parents divorce early, and his mother spends much of his childhood saturated in alcohol. He is sexually molested several times by a 13-year-old female babysitter when he's only 8. Shortly afterward, it happens again when a teenage boy takes advantage of him.
He meets, at 12, the girl whom he will marry. He becomes a Christian while searching for meaning to chase away the doubt and self-loathing. So often is he on his own and feeling unloved during high school that he takes to breaking into vacant or unoccupied homes simply to upgrade his sleeping quarters for a night.
He endures emptiness, contemplates suicide, has his faith shaken so many times it should have come with a limited warranty and is unfaithful to his wife. He comes through the other side and today he and Anne -- happy ending, they made it -- have four children: Two girls, Mary (10) and Lila (9), and two boys, Elijah (5) and Van (1).
All of this is in his staggeringly honest, searing and inspirational book, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball.
Ingredients in the Perfect Knuckleball? Start with all of that. Because his is a pitch that emerges only from the depths, the residue of dusty battles and too many scars. Nobody starts out throwing it. It is the last stand of self-preservation.
Dickey's traces back to one of the most infamous magazine shots in baseball history, the 1996 Baseball America cover picturing five ace pitchers who would lead Team USA in the Olympics. Published right around the time the Rangers made Dickey their first-round pick.
That cover caught the attention of a Rangers doctor who did not like the way Dickey's right arm bent at an odd angle, compared with the other four. He ordered tests. Turned out, Dickey had no ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Because of that, the Rangers retracted their $810,000 offer. Then they signed him for $75,000. The first-round (18th overall) pick out of the University of Tennessee -- English major -- had no leverage left.
"He was throwing 92 all summer," veteran outfielder Mark Kotsay, a teammate of Dickey's on the '96 Olympic team, said. "Then, in one of his last starts before the Olympics, the gun read 86."
One photo. Cost him $735,000 and, maybe worse, his life spun from promise-filled optimism into the recycle bin practically before it had even started.
Turns out, Dickey's All-Star invite would take 16 seasons to arrive. During which he pitched in 12 different cities for four different organizations. Talk about Kansas City's barbecue joints, and slow cooking. ...
What Dickey didn't have in his elbow, he had in guts.
"He's a fighter, in a good sense," said Mets teammate Chris Young, who was in the Rangers organization with Dickey in 2004 and 2005. "He persevered. He's determined. He's got the intestinal fortitude and the willpower. It's awesome what he's been able to accomplish."
• • •
It was manager Buck Showalter and pitching gurus Orel Hershiser and Mark Connor in Texas who, with Dickey's career seemingly at the end of the line, suggested he take up the knuckleball full time in 2005. It was the usual: Son, you might want to try another approach ... or maybe go sell some insurance.
His initial response was to fight it. Isn't that most everyone's reaction when first told you do something? Well, I'll show you. Then came the transition period, followed by peaceful acceptance.
Well, some folks back home in Nashville might not agree with the "peaceful" part. Dickey threw so many knucklers against the cinder block gymnasium wall at his uncle's high school in the offseason he became part of the scenery. Determined, he threw the knuckler everywhere he could.
"When I first started the process, I would get there at spring training at 6:45, 7 a.m., and I'd go into the batting cage and take bucket of balls myself and throw from the mound to a target," Dickey said. "I'd do it every day just to try to get a feel in 2005, 2006. I threw so many I couldn't even begin to tell you how many. I wouldn't know how to quantify it.
"I threw so many that I almost feel like I've never done anything else."
This after a decade of life as a conventional pitcher.
Single-minded now, the quest for the Perfect Knuckleball continued. From Hough, he learned the best grip. From Wakefield, he learned to throw toward home plate as if throwing through the frame of a door. From Niekro, he learned to fire his hips toward the plate as a way of finishing the pitch.
The knuckleball went on tour. Dickey signed with the Mariners, then the Twins. It was the Mets' good fortune -- then-GM Omar Minaya signed him as a free agent before the 2010 season -- to be in the right place at the right time. Dickey now was inside the pitch as if, while at his uncle's high school, he had stopped by the biology laboratory to dissect it.
Now, Mets catcher Josh Thole says, when he wants to throw a high knuckleball, Dickey can do so "six out of 10 times, and maybe even more than that." Which, with this pitch, is borderline miraculous. Last week at Dodger Stadium, a scout was incredulous while watching Dickey's 116 pitches plus before-inning warmup tosses, noting that Thole only had to chase one ball -- one of those warmup pitches -- back to the screen all evening.
So many folks have congratulated him this year. Showalter, now managing the Orioles. Hershiser, now in ESPN's booth. Rangers GM Jon Daniels. Mark Connor, a special assistant with the Rangers. Dozens and dozens of teammates, and ex-teammates, and would-be teammates.
"But you know what?" said Dickey, in the second season of a two-year, $7.8 million deal with a $5 million club option for next season. "I think I've gotten more response from the book, which I'm so thankful for. Teammates, coaches, particular teammates that have stories similar to my own in similar ways.
"I'll never forget being at my first book signing and having three or four people reach across the table and whisper in my ear that they've been sexually abused and that I was the first person they ever told.
"And I'll tell you what, man. That means more to me than the other. Because you're talking about changing lives in some capacity by sharing your own story."
Sometimes, it feels as if he started this journey in a different lifetime. But as he's settled in and the knuckleball takes him to places he never dreamed he would go, an even more unexpected thing has happened.
The rugs underneath his feet, the ones baseball kept yanking out, have disappeared.
Finally, he has reached a point where he feels as if the ground beneath him is firm.
"I think the projection is that it is surreal and dream-like and do you ever pinch yourself," Dickey said. "The truth of the matter is: I feel very much on firm ground because I feel like I've grown into it.
"People use the words like 'overnight sensation.' I take a little bit of offense at that because it has not been overnight. It's been the furthest thing from overnight that you can get. It's been a real grind and it's taken a long time for me to understand the intricacies of the pitch and how to do it well. I've taken my lumps along the way.
"To say I've been an overnight success is to discredit all of the work I've put into it."
He is a late-bloomer even by late-bloomer standards. After being muted for so long, he now lives as best he can at full volume. After nearly drowning while swimming across the Missouri River in one life-defining moment in 2007, he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro last winter in part "to illuminate a charity that rescues young women from sex slavery and trafficking."
Next up, he would like to travel with his daughters to Mumbai -- home of that charity, Bombay Teen Challenge -- "not necessarily to expose them to the red-light district, but to serve, and to try to give them a heart for humanity."
• • •
Sometimes, there is no forward until you reach a point of understanding as to why the dots in a life connected the way they did. It is only then that you understand where you're supposed to go.
"I had always hoped, even in my darkest places, that there was a reason for the agony," Dickey said. "But there's a fine line between trusting that there is a reason, and not trusting that there is a reason. I think that's what most of humanity grapples with.
"In my own life and personal experiences, which is all I can speak of, I've been able to see certain things where even though they may be perceptively bad things, they gave me some equipment to handle what's going on now. There's reason in that. There's logic in that. But you've got to look for it.
"I think that's the biggest key. You've got to be looking for the reasons for the turmoil. Did you want it to happen? You certainly didn't. But what's come out of it? You've got to be observant. If not, you'll get real bitter real quick."
There was a time for bitterness. And there was a time to let it go. The perceptively bad things are what Dickey says brought him to the end of himself, that low point where only his faith and his family could help him regain his direction.
"People say, 'How can you say being sexually abused is a good thing?' " Dickey said. "Well, perceptively, it's not. It is horrible. I've developed a lot of things that were bad, behaviors that were bad, ways to escape pain, ways to compartmentalize in a very unhealthy way. I didn't want to be in the moment with anything. I didn't trust anyone. Those are all negatives that came out of that experience.
"One good thing is, it's made the story so much more powerful. The fact that I've been able to, with a lot of people who love me and with a lot of hard work, get to the other side of that. So you're able to communicate a very powerful narrative that otherwise wouldn't be there. And in communicating that, you're able to give people hope.
"There's a reason, for me, for why horrible things in my past have happened and also given me things that I can use in pitching. Part of my escape was to really dive into the sanctuary of sports and athletics -- maybe in an unhealthy way. But it also gave me the gift of being good at something. I retreated into baseball, basketball and football and for a long time in my life it was my identity. It's no longer that. But it certainly gave me the foundation to be a good baseball player."
At so many turns, it would have been so easy for Dickey to chuck the whole thing. Instead, this very thankful man who throws a very angry knuckleball Tuesday night will shine as brightly as the most brilliant star in the Kansas City sky.
A life that once fluttered now has traction thanks to the most unpredictable pitch of all. A teenager who once slept in vacant houses now even could live in Taylor Swift's neighborhood back home in Nashville.
The places a knuckleball can take you.
"I always try to live below my means," Dickey said, chuckling. "That's good to practice. It's provided me with security I had no right to expect. I'm thankful every day.
"I think Mark Twain said find out what you love and you'll never work a day in your life. Thankfully, God has allowed me to see what I love to do, whether it's writing or being a father or playing baseball. Or, being a knuckleballer."