You have to wonder if R.A. Dickey found the knuckleball, or the knuckleball found him.
Watching the intelligent, thoughtful, erudite right hander sail with serenity through his first live press conference as a Toronto Blue Jay on Tuesday afternoon, you could easily imagine the game’s most ethereal pitch wandering in the wilderness looking for another friend to play with and finding this man from Tennessee.
He seems a perfect combination of Zen’s direct insight, a desire for perfection and the deep understanding that all glory is fleeting, especially if you try to force a pitch that is as much transcendence as it is trajectory.
Force it, and the ball will clip a few whiskers on your chin as it zips by the other way for a triple off the wall.
He’s a winner, this Robert Allen Dickey, as his 20-6 record and National League Cy Young Award last season with the Metropolitans of New York shows.
To be a knuckleballer, says Jim Bouton, takes an awful lot of mental toughness.
That's because "when it’s hit, it’s killed." Or, it might just kill someone as it goes by the other way.
The knuckler is really thrown, or better yet launched, with your fingertips on top and the thumb underneath.
It takes courage and fortitude as each pitch might leave a hitter struck out and lying prostate on the ground, or it might dance right by the catcher to the backstop and allow the winning run to score, or it could be a souvineer for someone back there in the bleachers.
"If it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do … it’s a home run, it’s a triple off the wall. It’s frightening," Bouton says.
What it’s supposed to do is not rotate. At all. Not even a half turn. If it does, the ball straightens out and all you’re throwing is batting practice.
But if it doesn’t rotate, you have something magical, playing with the laws of nature, reacting uniquely to different temperatures and humidity, night or day, perhaps to just the flutter of wings as those two pigeons who live permanently under the closed roof of the Rogers Centre sail by.
It dips, drops, corkscrews, plunges and plummets, leaving hitters bewitched, bothered and bewildered.
"[For pitchers] It is a humbling pitch," says Bouton, who like most practitioners was a regular guy with a fastball and curve before his arm went in the mid-1960s and he had to find something else. "You come to be humble about yourself, I think."
You must always remember one thing about the magic in the pitch, however, he says.
"A good knuckleball is unhittable. A poor one is extremely hittable."
But he’s also a survivor, in baseball and in life, thanks to a well-know battle with the demons of child sexual abuse (highlighted in his 2011 biography), and his Johnny Cash-like journey through everywhere to find the key to the knuckleball.
Dickey has been hard by your Oklahoma, Frisco, Nashville, Tacoma, Rochester and Buffalo in the minors, with stops at Texas, Seattle, Minnesota, New York and now Toronto in the majors.
It was with the Rangers in 2005, already 31 years old and getting desperate to hang on, that he first turned to the fingernail pitch (for that’s what a knuckleball really is). And where he fleetingly found the feel.
"I remember the sensation I felt when I threw my first really good knuckleball, as a pro in the big leagues with the Rangers in 2005. September. To Raul Ibanez — I remember the batter," he told a room full of media types who seemed enthralled by the realization they get to interview this guy all summer.
"It came out of my hand, it didn’t rotate a smidgen, he swung and his helmet fell off and he went down on his back knee and I remember thinking ‘this is kind of fun.’
"Of course, the next pitch went right over the fence."
Such is the life of a fledgling knuckleballer — 10,000 times you throw it before realization arrives. Dickey kept at it, had some moments of clarity, some in a fog.
There was a great finish with Rochester in 2009, after being sent down by the Twins, and then a near perfect day with Buffalo after signing with the Mets that saw him give up a hit to the first batter and then retire the next 27 straight.
"That’s where I really felt like I can do this."
Up to the Mets, a good year, a down year, and then last year. That beautiful, wonderful, incredible year that included a run from June 2 against St. Louis to June 24 against the Yankees where he went 44 1/3 innings without giving up an earned run.
He threw two consecutive one-hitters (Jays’ fans could tell you the last big leaguer to do that was Dave Stieb in 1988) in there, by the way.
Dickey and his knuckleball were as one.
A tiny fraternity
If R.A. Dickey had never existed, Jim Bouton might have invented him.
The latter is not the best knuckleballer ever (Phil Niekro wound up in the Hall of Fame after going 318-274 in 24 seasons), but he is the most renowned thanks to his famous 1970 book Ball Four, a diary that tore the cover off Major League Baseball by telling what really went on in the clubhouse and on the road.
That multi-million-selling tome forever changed the way sports books were written.
Fingernail pitchers are a tiny fraternity, one that was brought together last fall in a documentary called Knuckleball (natch!) and it was at the film’s opening where Bouton met Dickey for the first time and they immediately connected.
Also there were Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield, two guys who, with Niekro, helped Dickey master his pitch and he refers to as his Jedi Council.
"It’s so much fun to see someone throwing that pitch, but R.A. Dickey took it to a new level," said Bouton, chatting on the phone from his home in the Berkshires, over by western Massachusetts.
That level is a "variety of speeds," says the former Yankees, Seattle Pilots, Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves hurler. Dickey can toss it up there a slow 70 or a hardly breakneck but still remarkable 80.
And there’s a nice changeup. More weapons when needed.
What most impresses him is Dickey’s intelligence, his depth, his willingness to embrace this thing that is the knuckleball for what it is — a belief system.
"We realize there’s some magic to it," says Bouton. "You can’t make it do anything. It’s contrary to western thinking [of power and control]. It’s Eastern philosophy — letting go. You release the ball and something else takes over."
Dickey is into it. Asked about that at the press conference you could see he’s spent time thinking on the subject.
"I like to think that gradually, western culture is slowly embracing some eastern philosophy," said the pitcher, who was an English literature major at the University of Tennessee (where he was an academic All American), can reportedly recite parts of Beowulf from memory and adores Hemingway.
"I would say that, for me, it does have something to do with being able to engage the process and let the result be what the result can be."
Don’t mistake realist for fatalist, however.
"The worst thing I can do for the Toronto Blue Jays is try to win another Cy Young — that’s the worst thing I can do. The best thing I can do is engross myself in every moment I have in being a big league baseball player."
That means tight focus on bullpen sessions, fielding practice in spring training, preparation where "I will captivate myself and allow myself to be able to repeat my mechanics in such a way that I can be consistent, then the results will take care of themselves."
Dickey points out that’s 120 pitches a game, or "120 separate commitments each and of themselves. And how can I repeat my mechanics [in a way] that produces a good knuckleball 120 times over the course of a game."
For the record, 120 times over 30 starts is 3,600 commitments to a pitch that, if it’s working correctly, the deliverer really has no idea what it’s going to do. In effect, 3,600 leaps of faith.
Yoda, the greatest Jedi, once admonished Luke Skywalker by saying "Do, or do not, there is no try."
R.A. Dickey has been doing well enough lately.