R.A. Dickey isn’t your typical pitcher. He was a bust with the Texas Rangers before reinventing himself in his mid-thirties, a time when most unsuccessful pitchers have hung up their cleats. Instead he soldiered on with his knuckleball, baseball’s most unorthodox of pitches, one that matched his unorthodox personality. When his knuckleball floated properly, Dickey became one of the best pitchers in the game, winning the Cy Young award as the National League’s best pitcher with the New York Mets. He was so successful that many were shocked when Dickey, 37, was traded to the Blue Jays for two of the club’s hottest tipped prospects. These days he’s followed by a crew from 60 Minutes. Clearly he’s not your ordinary pitcher who walks out to the mound once every five days.
Dickey’s route to big league success was extraordinary, but that wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed him in the last few years. He’s a pitcher who wrote an autobiography that revealed he’d been sexually abused as a child. He’s also a ballplayer who wears his heart on his sleeve – last year he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with two friends to raise $130,000 for the Bombay Teen Challenge, a charity that fights human trafficking.
He’s also the kind of player who wrote a column in the New York Daily News praising the fans in the city after he was traded to the Blue Jays. “I never expected to be writing a farewell ‘holiday card’ to Mets fans,” Dickey wrote. “I never expected to be doing anything but celebrating the joy of the season with my wife and kids and looking toward the spring, and the start of my fourth season with an organization that gave me maybe the greatest gift an athlete can get: A chance.”
Now with the Jays he’s already given himself a new nickname: “A Canuckelball pitcher.”
In an era of performance-enhanced cheats, athletes how beat up their spouses or flaunt their vast wealth in front of the fans who spend their coin to support them, Dickey is as fresh as the breeze off Lake Ontario on a cool spring day down by the old Ex. He recently took his two daughters, aged 9 and 11, to Mumbai to see the results of the money he raised through his mountain climbing.
“I want my daughters to share the experience not so much as a gratitude check, but to learn that each of us has a capacity to make a difference in this world, and to see that God’s grace makes that possible,” he wrote, detailing some of the horrors he witnessed on his trip.
It is clear Dickey is more than just an athlete, something that is not uncommon among knuckleball pitchers. Maybe it is the strangeness of a pitch that is thrown but can never truly be mastered. Whatever the case, those that have been attracted to it have almost always been a unique crew. Jim Bouton wrote about his dalliance with the pitch in the fabled Ball Four, one of the greatest baseball books ever written, and along the way demonstrated the former Yankee pitcher wasn’t your typical jock. Bouton had limited success with the knuckleball, but he was followed by a group that achieved impressive results with the quirky pitch, including Charlie Hough, Phil and Joe Niekro, and most recently Tim Wakefield. Almost all were characters on and off the field who happened to throw baseball’s strangest pitch. Dickey is the latest in a long line of oddballs who have flirted with the knuckleball, a pitch thrown with the finger tips to avoid any spin, thus leaving the ball at the whims of the wind.
It is an unconventional pitch that has an attraction for unconventional people, like Dickey. Toronto will see this summer whether Dickey’s unique ways can lead the team – on and off the field – beyond the regular season for the first time in two decades.