R.A. Dickey refuses to tiptoe around the truth

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First aired on Q (04/15/13)

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In baseball, there's no pitch quite as unique as the knuckleball. It's a pitch that -- rather counterintuitively -- succeeds without spin or speed. It's a pitch as difficult to hit as it is to master, and few pitchers these days attempt it. One of those pitchers is R.A. Dickey (his initials stand for Robert Allen), who is the new starting ace pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays. Like the knuckleball, Dickey himself is a bit of an enigma: equal parts pitcher and philosopher. He spent most of his career as a journeyman, but last year, at the age of 38, he won the Cy Young Award, becoming the first knuckleballer in history to do so. But it's Dickey's life off the field that makes him such a compelling figure. His memoir, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity, and the Perfect Knuckleball, tells Dickey's inspiring and often difficult story, which includes suffering sexual abuse, struggles with depression, and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. In short, R.A. Dickey is no ordinary baseball player, and he spoke with Jian Ghomeshi on Q recently about life both on and off the diamond.

In Toronto, there hasn't been this much hype for a baseball team in 20 years, when the Blue Jays last won the World Series. The season's opening game two weeks ago was hotly anticipated, in large part due to Dickey's presence. (And anyone following the team will know that Dickey's first two appearances were far from impressive.) But how does that pressure affect him as a player? "It sets up some expectations that may be initially a little bit unfair," he said. "I think people think we should go 162 and 0, that's kind of tough to do...we have a really good team but over the course of 162 games you're going to have some periods where you're just not as good as you could be."

That last line could be a metaphor for life. Early in Dickey's book, he describes his first game as a knuckleballer, a game where he certainly was not as good as he could be. In fact, he calls it "The Worst Night I Ever Had." But he doesn't take losses quite so hard any more. "I think for the longest time, my identity was completely wrapped up in the sport," he said. "Over time and my journey as a human being, I've found [that] I'm not my performance, and that certainly helps keep things in perspective. I don't mean I don't want to win badly, because there's not a person on the field that wants to win more than I do, but at the same time it helps me not take it home with me as much as I used to."

Dickey has also been brave enough to break the taboos against talking about sexual abuse and mental health. He was sexually abused by a babysitter as a child, and he doesn't shy away from the subject matter in his memoir. "I felt a real calling that if I was going to share my story, I needed to share the darkest parts of it," he said. "As a reader I can certainly detect when someone's tiptoeing around the truth, and that in some way destroys the credibility of what could otherwise be a fantastic book."

He also writes about how he found strength in Christianity. "You're constantly having to balance the brokenness of this world, and the pain of it, with the beauty and the joy of it," he said. "So for me, it was about trying to find a way to hold both of those things and take a step forward, and I found that in Christianity."

He certainly doesn't shy away from the dark times of his life, including an incident in 2006 when he came very close to attempting suicide. But he doesn't like to think of himself as a "survivor" any more. "For the longest time I really took a lot of pride in being a survivor, like you couldn't keep me down," he said. "But I came to the place ultimately that that was the wrong way to think... I just felt like there's more to life than just surviving."

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