Dickey on 'books and life and all those things'
Veteran knuckleballer opens up about writing his own stories
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- R.A. Dickey's next ambition may have grown its roots in early 2010, some months before his life transformed forever. Frustrated by baseball and considering a leap into academics, Dickey attended classes in existentialism and modern American literature at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tenn.
The day after most lectures, Dickey drove to a local cafe, purchased sandwiches and headed to his professor's office, where the two discussed F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Beautiful and Damned" or John Gardner's "Grendel," as well as Dickey's own original poetry.
"The basis of our conversations was always the literature," Dickey's professor, Michael Karounos, recalled in an email.
"Books and life and all those things," Dickey said.
Weeks later, the Mets unceremoniously cut Dickey from big league camp, in a story that by now is well-known. His rise toward the echelon of baseball's most consistent pitchers began shortly thereafter, ultimately landing him a two-year contract and opening extracurricular opportunities beyond all expectation.
Dickey climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in January. His autobiography will land in stores later this month. He will star in a documentary slated for a spring release. All the while, he will continue pitching for the Mets under terms of the most lucrative contract of his life, as the most reliable starter in New York's rotation.
"I don't know what's next," Dickey said. "Honestly, I think that's what makes it fun."
Dickey has not merely broken the mold of a successful baseball pitcher; he has shattered it, stomped on it and strewn the pieces across the diamond. When he speaks, younger pitchers such as Mike Pelfrey and Jon Niese turn to listen. When Dickey throws, batters cuss and shake their heads and sometimes grin. Some of his teammates clamor to face him in live batting-practice sessions. Others steadfastly refuse.
Dickey is not the best pitcher in baseball, but he may well be the most interesting. And much of that has nothing to do with pitching.
"He's a really thoughtful, honest man who has been through a lot in his baseball career and personal life to be where he is today," said Ricki Stern, co-producer and director for Break-Thru Films.
Stern and her colleague, Annie Sundberg, spent the past year chronicling the lives and thoughts of Dickey and other living knuckleballers for a documentary that will debut this spring. What struck them immediately about Dickey were the layers of his personality.
"He's theatrical," Sundberg said. "R.A. has an ability to speak about the game and his role in it with a certain amount of poetry. A lot of athletes are very used to dealing with cameras and reporters, and they treat everything like a news outlet. R.A.'s really interesting -- he's able to describe the game and his role in it with more depth than we expected."
Part of that, Sundberg believes, stems from the fact that Dickey also spent 2011 writing his autobiography in collaboration with sportswriter Wayne Coffey. The book, "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball," is slated for release on March 29.
Dickey spent hours last summer writing blocks of prose that he would send to Coffey, who would review, edit and add to them until the two men agreed on a final draft. After the first advance copy arrived in Port St. Lucie last month, Dickey slid it out of a manila envelope to reveal the cover art: a picture of him standing on a swath of stadium grass, flipping a baseball to himself.
"I wanted to be responsible for writing my own story," he said.
The process was made more difficult by the fact that Dickey spent half a month in Africa in January climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, using the trek to raise money for Bombay Teen Challenge, a nonprofit aiming to combat human trafficking in India. Dickey's newfound wealth made the trip possible. His newfound celebrity made the fundraising successful. Such are the common threads of his extracurricular endeavors.
"I am not under the misconception that this has everything to do with me," Dickey said. "It's definitely a byproduct of being in New York and having some success and having a platform to be able to pursue these other things that I'm passionate about. I'll be the first one to admit that. And I'm incredibly thankful for it."
If he wants to pitch until he is 45 years old, Dickey fully believes that his body will allow it. Tim Wakefield retired last month at that exact age, and Dickey does feel some responsibility to continue stoking baseball's knuckleball tradition for as long as he is able.
But ability will not define his future any more than it determined his past. At some point, Dickey says, knuckleball or no knuckleball, winning or losing, he may simply retire.
"I think that I will know when it's time to stop, and be willing to lay it down without trying to hang on," said Dickey, whose contract includes a $5 million team option for 2013. "Now, I don't know how that will manifest, but I feel like that's how it will be."
Last May, upon the one-year anniversary of his callup to the Mets, Dickey shook off some early struggles to transform into one of the game's best pitchers. From that day forward, he ranked sixth in Major League ERA behind Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver and Roy Halladay. Two of those five pitchers won their leagues' respective Cy Young Awards. All five were All-Stars.
But for Dickey, such sudden successes carry with them implications. His age, performance and team-friendly contract could make sense for a playoff team this summer, should the Mets remain stuck in the pack of non-contenders. Dickey knows and understands that, but is not quite sure what to think about it.
"New York is special to me," Dickey said. "The fans are special to me. The team is special to me, because it's the place where I kind of resurrected a career that was otherwise lost. I feel a lot of loyalty toward that, the place that I did that. So in that regard, I don't want to go anywhere. I want to be part of the solution here."
When it is over, whenever that may be, Dickey will focus on being a husband and father, perhaps also an author or teacher -- English, not baseball. He may complete his college degree, which he never finished at the University of Tennessee. He may publish a book of fiction, including the short story he has written about a high school freshman, or the one about a married American soldier in Iraq.
For now, however, those discussions can wait.
"I know that in the immediate future, I still love what I do and I still feel that I've got more that I can learn," Dickey said. "Because of that, it's exciting to go to work. And as long as it's exciting to go to work and I enjoy what I do, I'm going to keep doing it."