Life as Unpredictable as the Knuckleball

This is a review of once-beloved, then-beleaguered, now-famous knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. It comes from Mockingbird […]

Mockingbird / 4.10.12

This is a review of once-beloved, then-beleaguered, now-famous knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. It comes from Mockingbird friend and baseball fan Brooks Tate.

The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
– Song of Solomon 2:12

Take heart baseball fans, spring is here, and opening day has arrived. This spring also includes the release of Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest For Truth, Authenticity And The Perfect Knuckleball, the not-so-pretty life narrative of R.A. Dickey. His story is not rags-to-riches nor is it the culmination of hard work. This first person account is a testament to the dead ends that we take in life, the kindness that intersects our fruitless paths, and the goodness that grows when the kernel of wheat dies.

“The Mag” is a $12 K-Mart brown synthetic glove. Not leather. Synthetic. The Mag is even less sympathetic to the ground balls that spit out of it than the hand that goes into it, but it is the Mag or nothing for R.A. Dickey, child of an unplanned teenage pregnancy. Teenage pregnancies rarely come with trust funds, and so is money always tight in the Dickey family. Their expenses eat up whatever they bring in, and the all-you-can-eat Western Sizzlin is the nice meal out. Like life, R.A.’s story isn’t linearly tough or happy; it’s a cloudy mix of the two and the following excerpt occurs as R.A. begins playing baseball for a prestigious all boys high school, where he has received financial assistance. He, his coach and his family decide that the childhood Mag needs replacement:

It’s probably time I get an upgrade on the Mag. Grandaddy takes me down to Poe’s, off Highway 100, west of Nashville. There’s a wall of beautiful gloves, and the whole place smells like leather. I could stay there and smell it all day. I try out a few gloves, and then come upon a Wilson A2000. It’s black and has a beautiful, deep pocket. It’s the nicest glove I’ve ever seen. I want it desperately. I look at the price tag.

Oh, jeez. One hundred dollars. No way we can afford a $100 glove.

I put the glove back and keep looking. Mr. Poe comes over and says, That A2000 is a beauty, isn’t it?

Yeah, it is, but we can’t afford it.

He pulls the glove off the shelf and puts it back in my hands. I’m not sure what he’s doing; I just finished telling him we couldn’t spend that much.

Mr. Poe says: The cost of the glove has been taken care of, young man. Now go and play some ball with it (67).

The price has been paid for you. Grace upon grace is the story of R.A.’s high school and college years. The kindness of the people around him overwhelms. In the loving community that his tormented life has found, R.A. shines as a top recruit, an athlete with a hard fastball, an All-American at the University of Tennessee, record holder in UT’s pitching stats and in 1996, a first round draft pick of the Texas Rangers with an $810K signing bonus. Things couldn’t look better. What follows triumph is death after death in Dickey’s pitching career. The signing bonus was contingent upon a medical evaluation, which later revealed a ligament missing from his pitching elbow. The doctor is amazed that Dickey has any control of his arm and not in terrible pain. The contract retracted, Dickey’s pursuit of his major league dream is made sure neither to be quick or comfortable. Beginning to sound more like the story of Job than Jeter. He earns the label of a 4A player. That is one who displays enough talent for call ups to the big leagues but not enough success to remain there. Dickey plays in the minor leagues for 14 years, and most of that time is at a level below, at 3A. He again sets pitching records at this level, “a dubious honor” says Crash Davis in Bull Durham. The phenom has deteriorated into the margins, a fringe player.”

You become a knuckleball pitcher when you hit a dead end” says Dickey.┬áDead ends are the roads that he has frequented. Over a decade of work has left him weighed and wanting. Still in pursuit of his major league dream, Dickey decides to reinvent himself as a knuckleball pitcher, a remnant mystery in the world of sports. The knuckleball is effective because no one understands it. No one knows where it is going. Catchers don’t. Hitters don’t. Not even the pitcher who throws the knuckleball knows where his pitch will end up. The knuckler is an art practiced by few, and understood by fewer. This is the road that R.A. now travels as dead ends have met him at every other turn. With a growing experience of failure, Dickey shares this wisdom that is applicable not only to baseball but also to living, living under the law compared to living outside the Law:

One of the supreme paradoxes of baseball, and all sports, is that the harder you try to throw a pitch or hit a ball or accomplish something, the smaller your chances are for success. You get the best results not when you apply superhuman effort but when you just are(225).

Dickey tried for fourteen years with only a poor performance for show. His career as a conventional pitcher died, and what rose from the ashes was a new career as the most unconventional pitcher one can be, “the baseball equivalent of a carnival act.” 2012 will be Dickey’s second of a two year $7.8M contract with the New York Mets. He hopes to build on his strong 2011 performance, where his ERA landed him in the top-25 of all MLB pitchers. Only the season will unfold to tell the spectator if this is a year of death or life for Dickey’s pitching career. Mbird followers interested in reading more of R.A. Dickey’s story of death upon death and grace upon grace can check out the recently released Wherever I Wind Up, a chilling account of not only baseball, but also addiction, infidelity, faith, family, suicide, sexual abuse and, of course, the paradoxical knuckleball.


subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *