Dickey aims to scale Kilimanjaro for cause
Mets hurler dedicates offseasons to charitable work around globe
NEW YORK -- It was almost immediately upon meeting in the summer of 1994 that R.A. Dickey and Jonathan Johnson, two future first-round Draft picks of the Rangers, struck up a friendship. Roommates while touring the country with Team USA's collegiate team, Dickey and Johnson spoke often that summer of their futures in professional baseball.
Both, also, were religious men, prompting them to make a pact. Once Dickey and Johnson broke into pro ball, they told each other, they would use their new salaries and statuses to establish a nonprofit ministry.
"We weren't sure really of the vision of it," said Johnson, now a minister in South Carolina following a brief Major League career. "We were just going to do something and allow God to dictate where it went."
To discover where it went is to understand the crux of why baseball matters this and every Thanksgiving. That "something" developed from a series of hospital visits and charitable events to the current incarnation of Honoring The Father, a nonprofit specializing in church construction and sports ministry throughout Latin America.
Due to the constraints of baseball and family, Dickey's more recent personal involvement has been limited to a handful of visits to Cuba, Venezuela and other countries, all with the aim of furthering the mission's causes. But Johnson, his father and other volunteers have helped expand Honoring the Father into an organization with roots throughout the Caribbean.
For Dickey, those roots reflect a charitable life that continues today. Later this offseason, Dickey, former Twins teammate Kevin Slowey and two Mets employees will attempt to summit Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro to benefit Bombay Teen Challenge's Red Light District Outreach Mumbai program, which aims to rescue young women in India from human trafficking. It is an expedition that Dickey has been yearning to tackle for some time; the ability to intersect it with a charitable cause has made it all the more rewarding.
"I have two daughters," Dickey said, explaining his involvement with a program based halfway around the world. "The thought of one of them being subjected to the nightmarish happenings and experiences that these young girls in Mumbai had to experience -- it almost incapacitates you."
If any ballplayer can consider such efforts part of a typical offseason, it is Dickey, who often spends his winters eschewing rest and decadence in favor of charity. Such efforts date back to his early days as a professional, when Dickey and Johnson -- remembering their pact from the summer of 1994 -- began visiting children's hospitals to sign balls, snap photos and make whatever impact they could as two anonymous young pitching prospects.
Still searching for their niche, the pair found it when Johnson's father met Osmani Sosa, a Cuban baseball player committed to mission work in his own country. Working alongside Sosa, the Johnsons and Dickey began traveling to Cuba on religious visas and distributing baseball equipment to players willing to commit to Christianity. At first, Cuban officials were resistant to their efforts, but the program has since become known and respected throughout the island.
As a result, Honoring the Father has expanded to include the construction of churches, the feeding of impoverished children and the providing of medical supplies throughout Cuba, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela.
"Anywhere that baseball's influenced, we've stuck our toe in it," Johnson said.
Once it gained traction, Honoring the Father began to attract additional support from Major League players such as J.D. Drew, Braden Looper, John Wasdin, Marty McLeary and Gabe Gross, all of whom donated time, money or equipment. Various teams began chipping in, as well.
"Not one person can do these things," Johnson said. "It takes a group of guys, a whole village of brothers who are willing to stand shoulder to shoulder and go out and give back."
Nearly every player involved in that first wave of support has since retired from baseball -- "R.A.'s kind of our last soldier standing," Johnson said -- forcing the program to rely on small, individual donations more now than ever. But the framework that Johnson and Dickey helped establish has allowed Honoring the Father to become something of a self-sustaining mission.
Its success, meanwhile, has freed one of its founders to pursue other challenges.
Stemming from Dickey's personal fascination with the mountain, the idea of summiting Kilimanjaro gained traction last winter thanks in part to the pitcher's financial windfall -- Dickey signed the first significant multi-year contract of his career with the Mets last January, a $7.5 million deal to stay in New York following his breakout season. Intersecting that trip with charity, for Dickey, became inevitable.
"Some people go play golf," Dickey said. "Some people like to travel or snorkel or scuba dive. I happen to like to do things like this.
"It's not that it helps me sleep at night or it makes me some kind of saint. I'm not looking for any kind of accolades. It's just something that's very intimate and personal to me, and I enjoy doing it."
How those interests evolve after his trek up Africa's highest peak remains to be seen. Often since his rise to prominence with the Mets, Dickey has insisted that baseball represents just one of many interests in his life.
This Thanksgiving, it seems important to acknowledge one of the others.
"There isn't a lot of good in the world, and it excites me to see R.A. and those guys continually do well" Johnson said. "I know that with the money they're making, something good is going to happen."