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R.A. Dickey and the Zen of the knuckleball

By Brandon Griggs, CNN
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Sun July 8, 2012
Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets pitching a shutout against the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 29.
Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets pitching a shutout against the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 29.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey is an All-Star for the first time at 37, an age when most players are retired
  • A 16-year veteran of pro baseball, Dickey is the only knuckleball pitcher in the majors
  • Dickey overcame abuse as a child and pondered suicide as recently as six years ago
  • Dickey: "My story is such that I'm always kind of waiting for the next trauma around the corner"

Tune in to CNN Newsroom this Monday, July 9, for a new segment on the remarkable life and season of R.A. Dickey.

(CNN) -- When baseball's All-Star Game gets under way Tuesday in Kansas City, there may be no more unlikely player on the field than R.A. Dickey.

The New York Mets pitcher is an All-Star for the first time at 37, an age when most players are easing into retirement. His right elbow is missing its ulnar collateral ligament -- the joint's key stabilizing element -- a condition that has baffled doctors and almost torpedoed his career.

And his hallmark is an unimposing pitch that flutters toward the batter like a drunken moth.

A journeyman in a sport that celebrates stars, Dickey is a knuckleballer, the only one in the majors. Instead of overpowering batters with fastballs, he baffles them with a freaky pitch that few players can hit and even fewer can throw with confidence.

So far in 2012, Dickey has thrown it brilliantly. As of this writing his 12 wins lead the majors, his 2.40 ERA is the sixth-best in baseball and he is second in the league with 123 strikeouts. Last month, he pitched back-to-back one-hitters and held a streak of 44 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run.

Charlie Hough, R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield and Jim Bouton, from left, attend the April premiere of of \'Knuckleball!\' at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Charlie Hough, R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield and Jim Bouton, from left, attend the April premiere of of 'Knuckleball!' at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Dickey is having arguably the greatest half-season ever for a knuckleball pitcher, and is a leading candidate to start the All-Star Game for the National League. He co-stars in "Knuckleball," a documentary film hitting theaters and the Web this September. And like the Knicks' Jeremy Lin last winter, his seemingly out-of-nowhere success has captivated the New York media and the nation.

But that doesn't begin to explain the remarkable journey of the bearded man with the sad eyes, the deep Christian faith and the fickle pitch.

Six years ago, Dickey was about as far from the bright lights of the All-Star Game as an active big-leaguer can be. Profoundly depressed, he lay alone in the dark in an empty house and took inventory of his tortured past, his crumbling marriage and his career spent mostly scuffling in baseball's minor leagues.

R.A. Dickey: What you don't know
* As a high-schooler in Tennessee, he took first place in a regional poetry contest.

* He won a bronze medal pitching for the U.S. team at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

* He briefly played winter ball in Venezuela until civil unrest shut down the season.

* He almost drowned in 2007 trying unsuccessfully on a whim to swim across the Missouri River.

* He turned down a $300,000 offer after the 2007 season to pitch in South Korea.

* In 2010 he gave England's Prince Harry advice on throwing a knuckleball.

"I was contemplating suicide," he told CNN this week in his soft Tennessee drawl. "I'd really wrecked my marriage. I'd torn my family apart. I'd reached a dead end in my career. The identity I had as a baseball player was being ripped away. I'd come to the end of myself."

In his candid new autobiography, "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball," Dickey reveals he was sexually abused as a boy -- first by a babysitter and later by a neighborhood teen. The shame of it crippled his self-esteem and his intimacy with his wife. Not until he unburdened himself for the first time in counseling after the 2006 season did he begin to cleanse his old wounds and find some peace.

Not coincidentally, he also became a better pitcher.

"I was uncomfortable in my own skin for a long time," he said in an interview on a sunny afternoon at the Mets' Citi Field. An English literature major in college, Dickey has a thoughtfulness and vulnerability rarely seen in the macho, canned-answer climate of pro sports.

"Once I embraced a different way of living, things started to really become" better, he said. "I really try to ... be honest and be more self-aware -- things I never really had the equipment before to do. It makes for a much richer life."

A beautiful, cursed pitch

It's been said that the most difficult thing in sports is hitting a major league pitch, but that may be wrong. The most difficult thing might be throwing a knuckleball consistently into a narrow strike zone from 60 feet, six inches away.

The late baseball great Willie Stargell once said, "Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox."

Mets pitcher risks career for cause

Unlike other pitches, a knuckler doesn't approach home plate on a consistent trajectory -- it weaves and waffles, and even Dickey doesn't usually know where the ball is going.

"The hitter can't anticipate where it's going to end up, which is my weapon. A lot of the time I don't know, either," he said. "There's a beauty about it and a curse about it."

Any bruised catcher will tell you that catching the pitch is no picnic, either. Broadcaster Bob Uecker, who once caught for knuckleballer Phil Niekro, used to joke, "the way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up."

The leading knuckleballer of the past decade, Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox, was a converted first baseman who adopted the pitch as a last-ditch effort to save his career. After almost a decade of marginal seasons as a conventional hard-throwing pitcher, Dickey did the same thing in 2005 when he realized his arm was spent.

"No one grows up wanting to be a knuckleball pitcher," said Ricki Stern, co-director of 'Knuckleball,' which follows Dickey and Wakefield throughout the 2011 season. "It's a last-resort kind of pitch."

It's also a slow pitch. While some pitchers overwhelm hitters with 96-mph fastballs, most knuckleballs float towards home plate at about 65 miles per hour -- one reason why the speed- and power-obsessed world of pro baseball has typically viewed the quirky pitch with skepticism.

My story is such that I'm always kind of waiting for the next trauma around the corner. I'm not real good at celebration
R.A. Dickey

Traditional pitchers rely on grip and spin to make the ball slice through the air. They use their wrist and fingers to snap the ball and give it rotation that helps it break out of the heart of the strike zone.

A perfect knuckleball, however, has almost no spin. It's not actually thrown with the knuckles -- instead, the pitcher grips the ball with his fingernails and, keeping his wrist stiff, sort of pushes it towards home plate. Without the gyroscopic effect of spinning, the ball's movement is unstable. Its seams create an uneven flow of air over the surface of the ball, pushing it in random directions, said Porter Johnson, professor emeritus of physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Because the pitch moves relatively slow, there's little margin for error. "If a knuckleball doesn't move, it's basically a home run," Johnson said.

This high-wire act is another reason few pitchers become successful knuckleballers, said Stern, the filmmaker, who believes many lack the mental toughness to throw such an unforgiving pitch.

"It's a streaky kind of thing. When you lose it, you lose it really bad," she said. "There's no in-between with this pitch. That's why you really have to trust it and commit to it."

Not a fluke?

Until recently, Dickey's baseball career was a series of setbacks. A former first-round draft choice of the Texas Rangers in 1996, he saw his signing bonus reduced from $810,000 to $75,000 after doctors discovered his missing elbow ligament. He made his major-league debut in 2001 but was demoted the following year and spent much of the next five seasons kicking around the minors, nearly broke.

By 2005 the velocity on his fastball was declining, and the Rangers told Dickey his only chance of prolonging his career was switching to the knuckleball. They assigned him a mentor, former knuckleballer Charlie Hough.

R.A. Dickey won a bronze medal pitching for the U.S. Olympic team in 1996.
R.A. Dickey won a bronze medal pitching for the U.S. Olympic team in 1996.

"I needed some weaponry to be able to get big-league hitters out," he said. "It was painful, because I was admitting I wasn't good enough."

In his first game as a knuckleball pitcher in April 2006, Dickey gave up six home runs. But he kept at it, and he gradually improved. Instead of the floater used by most knuckleballers, Dickey began to throw the pitch harder, up to 83 mph, which made it more effective.

He's also learned to embrace its unpredictability -- "surrendering to the pitch," he calls it -- a Zen-like approach that dovetails with his hard-won determination to live in the moment.

Dickey bounced between the Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins before catching on with the Mets in 2010. He had glimmers of success late last season, but nothing that suggested he could be as good as he is now.

He insists it's not a fluke.

"A lot of people would like to say that the success I've experienced is due to some magic thing. The truth of the matter is, there's really no replacement for hard work," said Dickey, who now throws the knuckleball more than 85% of the time. "There's been no grand epiphany for me. It's just growth, and it's been very organic.

"There's been a lot of times in my career ... when I wanted to quit."

An All-Star at last

For someone who spent much of his career struggling to support his family, Dickey did an uncommon thing this past off-season. In January he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest free-standing mountain on the planet, to help raise money for a charity that fights human trafficking in India.

In doing so, he risked more than $4.5 million in guaranteed money remaining on his two-year contract with the Mets. The team warned him they could void the remaining year on his contract if he was injured. For Dickey, who lives in Nashville with wife Anne and four kids, it was a personal quest.

"I have two daughters, 9 and 8, and the thought of my own daughters being exposed to the atrocities in Mumbai, in the brothels ... was heartbreaking," he told CNN upon his return.

Six months later, some bloggers have wondered whether summitting Kilimanjaro gave Dickey a new level of confidence this season. His humility and feel-good story have made him a fan favorite in greater New York, where a book-signing event last month drew long lines of fans despite near-100-degree heat.

"The connection that I share with the fans here in New York is a very special connection," said Dickey when asked about his newfound popularity. "I throw a working man's pitch. Every dad that comes to a game thinks he can go in the backyard and make his buddy miss his knuckleball."

Many fans and sportwriters are clamoring for Dickey to be named a starter for this week's All-Star Game, a decision that rests with National League manager Tony LaRussa. Dickey says he won't allow himself to think much about the possibility, although he admits "it would be an incredible honor."

It's not lost on Dickey that the knuckleball, in a way, is a metaphor for his life and worldview. To throw it, he had to relinquish control and give in to the laws of physics and the whims of the elements. He had to unlearn most of what he knew before. He had to have faith.

Maybe, in his 17th professional season, Robert Allen Dickey is finally learning to enjoy his success.

"My story is such that I'm always kind of waiting for the next trauma around the corner. I'm not real good at celebration. I've never done it well. And I wish it was different," he said. "I've been on the other side of the coin. And I can really hold this (success) in a place of appreciation.

"But I have not arrived at anything. I'm constantly growing, and I'm thankful for that. There's [still] a lot to learn about myself, about the world, about humanity."

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