If you were a professional athlete in the 1950s or early 1960s and woke up to find yourself the subject of a column by New York sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, you had to know the end was near. Cannon’s famous Hemingway-influenced lead style was invariably something like this: “You’re Robin Roberts, and you’re 35, and you have the body of a 25-year-old but the arm of a 40-year-old. You’re throwing harder than ever, but the ball isn’t going nearly as fast as it once did. And by now it must be dawning on you that the old fastball isn’t ever coming back.”
If Cannon had been around to write about R.A. Dickey, say, three years ago, it might have read, “You’re Robert Allen Dickey, and you’re 35. You’re a former All-America at Tennessee and Olympic star and Texas Rangers bonus baby. But you lost your fastball to arm trouble, as so many bonus babies do, and now you’re with your 12th professional club—eight of them minor-league teams—and you’re hanging on by throwing a knuckle ball, which is the last refuge of a pitcher who can no longer throw a fastball. And by now it must be dawning on you that this is your last shot, the last cup of coffee you’re ever going to get that a baseball team pays for.”
But Jimmy Cannon didn’t live to write about R.A. Dickey, and if he had three years ago, he would have to do an update this week. That might go: “You’re R.A. Dickey, and against all odds you’re the baseball story of 2012. You’re leading or close to leading National League in victories, earned run average, strikeouts, and just about every other pitching stat except wild pitches, which you’re supposed to be leading the league in because you throw the knuckle ball. No one knows how you’re doing it, and there must be mornings when even you wake up wondering how you’re doing it.”
The last line actually comes from Robert Allen Dickey himself. Thursday afternoon at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Little Falls, N.J., where he was signing copies of his bestselling memoir, Wherever I Wind Up, I asked him how he has mastered the pitch that no other man has succeeded in mastering. He smiled, shook his shaggy head, and said, “Believe me, there are days when I ask myself that same question.”
If he ever comes up with an answer, it will probably be worth a second book. The knuckle ball, which really has nothing to do with the knuckles and is actually gripped with the fingertips, is, when thrown correctly, virtually unhittable, floating toward home plate slower than a Mitt Romney response on immigration. It hardly rotates at all until, as Yogi Berra once said of the knuckle ball thrown by the great Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm, “it drops like it fell off the kitchen table.”
The problem is that even when it’s thrown perfectly—sometimes because it is thrown perfectly—the knuckle ball is difficult to even impossible to catch. Ball Four author Jim Bouton, who parlayed the knuckle ball into a second career after blowing out his arm in the mid-1960s, described it this way: “It’s like trying to catch a feather in a wind tunnel.” But Dickey’s knuckle ball is different. Not only does he pile up the strikeouts (he is currently second in the league with 103), he doesn’t throw wild pitches and rarely walks batters—fewer than two per nine innings. And Dickey’s knuckle ball, which he throws at various speeds from 10 to 20 miles per hour faster than other pitchers have thrown it, generally splats safely into his catcher’s glove.
But those who are saying that Dickey is having the greatest season of any knuckle-ball pitcher ever are not giving him nearly enough credit. Dickey, whose record is 11-1 and whose ERA is 2.00, isn’t competing with great knuckle-ballers of the past like Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. His statistics are more like those of the great power pitchers of the 1960s and 1970s—Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, and the Mets’ own Tom Seaver.
He isn’t merely the leading candidate for the Cy Young Award as best pitcher. He has been, so far, the most valuable player in the National League, and his spectacular pitching, which includes back-to-back one-hit shutouts in his last two starts, has kept the surprising New York Mets in contention for the top of the NL East.
Tonight at Citi Field, he faces off against the Yankees’ hard-throwing left-handed ace C.C. Sabathia in ESPN’s Sunday-night broadcast in what will probably be the highest-rated game of the regular season. Tickets are being scalped as if it were a playoff or even the World Series. Expect diehard Mets fan Jon Stewart to be in attendance; bet that Mets new part owner Bill Maher will show up as well.
Maher couldn’t have picked a better time to buy a piece of the Mets, but his star pitcher might have a few disagreements on the subject of his vociferously atheist boss on the subject of religion. Dickey’s book, all the more interesting because it was written before this year’s superstar-like surge, tells horrific tales of a nightmare childhood with an alcoholic mother and sexual abuse by a 13-year-old babysitter and her friends when he was just 8.
He is candid about his failings as a husband and father and credits his turnaround to his conversion to Christianity. Such confessions have become practically de rigueur among professional athletes these days, but few make you feel the process by which they arrived at their faith more than Dickey.
Another theme in Wherever I Wind Up, one that you don’t find in many pro athletes, is his love of reading and passion for American literature. I asked him about this at the Yogi museum. His favorites are Hemingway and Faulkner. Why Hemingway? “I guess because he epitomizes the idea of taking hold of your life, for taking responsibility for what you make of it.” And Faulkner? “Well, he was our greatest novelist, and, you know, I’ve kind of lived a bit of the Southern Gothic thing he wrote about.”
And, like Faulkner’s view of man, R.A. Dickey has not merely endured but prevailed.