For the fraternal order of knuckleballers, the National League Cy Young Award race is R.A. Dickey or bust.
The premiere of "Knuckleball!" a documentary following Tim Wakefield and Dickey's 2011 season, is set for Thursday night in New York City. The film already opened this week in Boston, though Dickey, of course, couldn't be present. But even without him, the assembly of knuckleballers was a rare sight.
Almost as rare as a Cy Young Award for a knuckleballer, which has never happened.
Not for Phil Niekro, who won 318 games and finished second in the voting for the 1969 NL Cy Young Award. Not for Wakefield, who won a pair of World Series and finished in third place in the 1995 American League Cy Young Award voting. Not for Charlie Hough, who deserves a lot of credit for the pitcher Dickey has become, and not to Wilbur Wood.
Those four watched the film Tuesday a couple minutes' walk away from Fenway Park. Afterward, Hough, Niekro and Wakefield told MLB.com why another's man Cy Young Award would mean so much to them.
"Absolutely, I think [Dickey] deserves to win it if he's got the numbers to," Wakefield said. "When you talk about the mystique of the knuckleball, people don't trust it. It's something that I'm proud that he's defending. He's authenticizing the pitch and he's carrying the torch like we all did at one point in our careers, and I'm very proud of him."
Dickey's next scheduled start is Sunday, against the Marlins. He's 18-6 with a 2.67 ERA and 205 strikeouts. That puts him in the top three for all three pitching Triple Crown categories entering Thursday, a distinction unique to him across both leagues. Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto and Washington's Gio Gonzalez are his leading NL competitors, with 17 and 19 wins, respectively.
Niekro doesn't think Dickey's won it just yet -- "It's not where you been, it's where you're going" -- but knows how important it would be for anyone with a floater.
The makers of the film spent considerable time focusing on the doubt knuckleballers constantly face. The Cy Young Award, then, would add some legitimacy.
"I think it would be meaningful to every knuckleball pitcher to ever pitch in the game with a knuckleball," Niekro said. "Yeah, no one's ever done it before and I'm just hoping he can have a couple good games before the season's over. I think he has three starts left maybe. Hopefully he can have two good starts [and then] I think he'll win it, no question."
Dickey, who famously has no ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow, made the conversion to knuckleballer after a meeting with Hough at the end of the 2005 season. In the film, Dickey visits Hough again last season, and they talk about changing speeds. Of course, afterward, Dickey goes out and turns in a fantastic outing.
Hough made clear, though, a Cy Young Award for Dickey would be about R.A. and the game, first and foremost.
"I think it means more to baseball than any one person, you know, other than R.A.," Hough said. "It would mean a lot to baseball -- the story, not the pitcher, but the story of the bad arm, 37 years old, making the big leagues [permanently] at 35, 36. ... A story of a guy with a family who, in a sense, has hit a jackpot. He has spun that big wheel in Las Vegas and hit it, all the dreams and stuff."
There was a perception that Dickey was snubbed earlier in the year when he did not start the All-Star Game for the NL. Hough's been to a Midsummer Classic and knows that the situation with an unfamiliar catcher can get a little tricky.
Hough is confident the Baseball Writers' Association of America will have the right take when it votes for the NL Cy Young Award.
"I pitched in the All-Star Game, I got taken out after my third strikeout in the eighth inning," Hough said. "It's tough for the catcher, it really is.
"The Cy Young Award is numbers, and his numbers compare with anybody. So it's gonna come down to this last couple weeks, [to] three starts. Two, three good ones, he could win it. Gonzalez is right there with him."
If Gonzalez does win it, though, there will be some unhappy campers besides Mets fans.
"I think, yeah, 'disappointed' would be the right word for us as a brotherhood for [Dickey] not to win it, and we all know he deserves to," Wakefield said. "Not discrediting Gio Gonzalez or Cueto."