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09/22/10 10:00 AM ET

Dickey writes his own story of redemption

Introspection pays off in emergence as successful knuckleballer

Re ∙ demp ∙ tion


-- noun

1. an act of redeeming or the state of being redeemed

2. deliverance; rescue

Redemption. It is a subject that hits R.A Dickey at the core.

The 10-letter noun is the theme of Dickey's own story, you see. In it lives his past and present, the two connected by a most circuitous path. It strikes at the idea of starting flawed and emerging whole.

That is Dickey's story.

He knows about stories, too, having immersed himself in literature as long as he can remember. An English major at the University of Tennessee, Dickey is drawn to the written word. For years he has examined literary characters and analyzed motifs, intuitively drawing comparisons to his own existence.

Dickey is a connoisseur of language, a geek for obscure vocabulary words.

Most know him because he is a Major League pitcher -- and not to mention, one of the brightest spots in the Mets' tumultuous season. But he makes sure to begin a recent interview by making a crucial distinction.

"I'm much more than this world," he says, gesturing around the Mets clubhouse, one day after tossing a complete game against the Pirates. "This is what I do and not what I am. And it's important for me to have it that way."

"I think everyone has their own story. It's how self-aware they are in their own story that makes their life rich."
-- R.A. Dickey

Yes, Dickey is a pitcher. He is also a father. A Christian. An academic. A husband.

He is a 35-year-old man whose career appears on the way up after 14 years of it being up, down and all over. He is a knuckleballer who houses a dictionary and thesaurus among other books in his clubhouse stall. He is a medical anomaly defying doctor's expectations by even taking a mound to begin with.

"I think we all are given a story," he says. "You. Me. I think everyone has their own story. It's how self-aware they are in their own story that makes their life rich."

Redemption. That is Dickey's story.

Maybe it's because he is admittedly drawn to literature illustrating a redemptive theme -- "That theme really appeals to the human heart," he opines -- that he is so acutely aware of his own story. Nevertheless, there are chapters in it that Dickey is especially forthcoming to recount.

About how he gave his life to Christ at the age of 13 and continues confirming that faith through outreach service. About how the discovery that he was missing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow shaved the Rangers' signing-bonus offer from $810,000 to $75,000 after he was drafted in 1996. About how he toiled through his first six seasons in the Majors only to intertwine demotions and promotions with a 5.43 big-league ERA.

Then there is this 2010 season, a chapter all its own. With an 11-7 record, Dickey has two more wins than he's ever had in a season. His 2.92 ERA is 10th best in the National League.

Like any story, though, it is part of a greater body of work.

"I think it's grown and been a real evolution that started in 2005," he says in an effort to explain what seems like sudden success. "Well, even before that. I think the genesis of it started when I was drafted and the whole signing-bonus thing happened. Those things teach you things that you can't learn otherwise. And those things that I have learned along the way might not be the things that have gotten me here, but they are the things that I feel like are going to help me stay here."

Redemption. That is Dickey's story.

It took a cast of knuckleball pitchers -- a select and tight fraternity -- to put Dickey on the precipice of a breakout season. Charlie Hough mentored the right-hander first, doing so when Dickey was still in the Rangers organization. Tim Wakefield came next. Phil Niekro invited Dickey to Atlanta after the 2008 season, which he'd spent in Seattle and Tacoma.

Together, they all helped Dickey perfect the knuckleball, which, quite frankly, was his last resort. The right-hander knew he would be nothing more than an average pitcher -- at best -- without it.

"I had access to their acumen," Dickey recalls. "I could talk to them, and they had walked a mile in my shoes. I don't think it was one 'ah-ha!' moment, but it was perpetually, I was getting these 'ah-ha!' moments."

If there was such a moment, it came through self-realization.

One thing that must be understand about Dickey is that while he is analytical to a point -- what English major isn't? -- he craves depth. When he seeks answers, he digs. He passes by the superficial, hopeful that he can unearth the root.

Dickey has observed how such a motif plays out in literature. How tackling the source instead of dealing with the symptoms offers a better chance at solving the problem.

In mastering the knuckleball, that root issue initially lay with Dickey trying to be someone he wasn't. Dickey slowly realized that he didn't have to emulate Wakefield. That meant ending his attempts to slow down his knuckleball to Wakefield-like speeds and quitting efforts to mirror Wakefield's mechanics.

With that came the freedom to be himself. With that, came redemption.

"When I embraced that," he begins, "things started to turn a little bit, both as a human being and as a baseball player. Mastering this pitch has always been something that I wanted and that I feel like I had been given the guts to do so."

That is part of Dickey's story. The part that has gotten him here.

An aspiring author, Dickey plans on penning his narrative one day, likely in a book of non-fiction essays. He keeps a journal to preserve his baseball memories and admits that he has "a lot of ideas floating around up there."

"This is my 15th year in baseball," he says. "So I have a lot of things that I've written and thought about and cogitated over that I think would be interesting."

The thing is, Dickey's collection of baseball anecdotes doesn't appear to be complete. He has plenty of tales about the journey but not yet enough about the destination, which seems to be what he has finally reached in 2010.

As Dickey confidently explains, "I don't feel like I'm at the zenith on my way down, let's put it that way."

Consider the late success of the knuckleballers who have come before him. Hough collected 147 of his 216 wins after he turned 35. Wakefield has tallied 102 victories since his 35th birthday. Joe and Phil Niekro combined for 313 wins after reaching that age.

Dickey turned 35 last October and did so with only 22 career wins to his name since making his Major League debut in 2001. He has already tallied half that number this year, still with two starts left to make.

On the surface, Dickey's career seems laced much more with failure than achievement. Dickey would disagree. And he would argue that this is the only way his story was ever supposed to be told.

"I could never have done what I'm doing now as a 25-year-old," he says. "I think there's something to throwing this pitch well that you need a level of maturity. For me, there's a real correlation between being older and dealing with what this pitch requires that you deal with."

Starting flawed. Emerging whole.


And don't think for a moment that Dickey misses how it all works together: "I really feel like that anything that you sincerely believe, ardently desire and enthusiastically act upon has a good chance of coming to pass."

That is Dickey's story.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.