3/7/2013 6:19 P.M. ET
For Dickey, Classic is next step in flexuous journey
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
PHOENIX -- It has been a long journey for R.A. Dickey from the depths of the mighty Missouri River to a start on Friday night for Team USA against Mexico in the World Baseball Classic at Chase Field.
For Dickey, it has been a life of personal discovery from a near-death drowning experience to mastering the knuckleball and winning 20 games, plus the National League's Cy Young Award, while still playing for the Mets this past season. The 38-year-old right-hander subsequently was sent to the Blue Jays when the Mets determined that it was more advantageous to trade him for a group of prospects than sign him long term.
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Now, Dickey will be on the mound in a USA uniform for the first time since pitching for the 1996 Olympic baseball team that won a bronze medal in Atlanta, where he won two games.
"Well, I'm very humbled by it, because my life has been much about second chances, and not just second chances but third chances and fourth chances," Dickey said on Thursday before Team USA worked out at Chase Field. "And anything that I've done has been the product of people who loved me well. I'm not a self-made man by any stretch of the imagination.
"So I think the thing that makes it most rich for me is that I'm able to share it with those people, who have really helped contribute to a very redemptive narrative, if you will. And it's been great at every turn the last year or two. It's been very satisfying."
Dickey was once a private person, one who spent part of a lifetime trying to hide his feelings and foibles. That's all changed. Last year, he laid it all out there in an autobiography called, "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball." It's the most revealing and honest book by a player I've ever read.
Dickey's transformation from a has-been pitcher with a mediocre fastball to a premium knuckleballer is only a small part of his story. He admits to being sexually abused as a kid, and he almost ruined his marriage trying to hide those tawdry experiences. The book was evidently part of the therapeutic process in becoming a whole person.
During a 14-year career, Dickey spent much more time in the Minors than the big leagues. And on June 9, 2007, playing for his hometown Triple-A Nashville team, he looked out the window of the Ameristar Casino Hotel in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and decided that that was the day he was going to respond to his own personal dare and swim across the Missouri.
"I'm not sure why the Missouri has this pull on me, but it calls to me every time I stay at the Ameristar, almost taunting me to take it on," he wrote.
With his teammates in attendance and almost in full support, Dickey did try to take it on, but with nearly disastrous results. He had underestimated the current to such a degree that halfway across the murky, muddy river, Dickey felt spent and tried to turn back. It was almost too late.
"I am sinking fast now, well below the surface. I am ready to die," he wrote. "And as I spend the final moments of my life engulfed in sorrow and regret, I feel solid ground beneath my flip-flops. I have hit bottom. Literally."
Dickey bounced to the surface and when he struggled back to the shore, Grant Balfour, a teammate then and a member of the A's now, pulled him out.
"For the rest of the day and night, I reflect on my swim and thank God not just for sparing me, but for teaching me," he penned. "I began this crossing looking to be a hero, to use my strength and my will to forge some sort of epic transformation. I ended it as humbled as a man can be, nearly crushed in body and spirit on the banks of the mighty Missouri."
It was from there that Dickey sought serious therapy and began to put his life back together. Humbled beyond mere words, that man sat at a podium on Thursday next to Team USA manager Joe Torre. Dickey was asked if the pressures of playing in this type of tournament pale in comparison to such a life-altering event.
"Well, that certainly helped put things in perspective," he said. "It doesn't diminish how climactic an event like this is for me, though. I wouldn't say I don't necessarily feel pressure, because that's something that you put on yourself. I think this is an incredible privilege. And I take great joy in having a gift that allows me to be here. I want to do the best I can with that gift."
Later in the day, Torre noted that he hasn't read the book. "But it's on my wish list," he said, adding that he knows very well what kind of person Dickey has become.
"I saw him at the All-Star Game last year with his family," Torre said. "He's a guy with a lot of character. You heard what he said up there. Those are the kind of people we wanted on this team."
Dickey, who will toss his now trademark knuckler for around 65 pitches on Friday night, said there's only one reason to be here. He wants to win for the good, old US of A and vanquish the ghosts of 1996.
"Well, regretfully, I think the thing that stands out the most about [those Olympics) is coming up short," he said. "That was one of my motivations for wanting to be a part of this experience. It was an incredible honor standing on the podium. When I bent my neck down and had them place an Olympic medal over my head -- that was an experience I'll never forget.
"So in my eyes that's what I'm playing for -- a gold medal. I don't know what kind of trophy we get or a pendant or ring or whatever it is, but it's a gold medal for me."
Friday night will mark only the beginning of that quest, another segment of Dickey's long journey.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.