R.A. Dickey casts unique shadow at Toronto Blue Jays camp
Knuckleballer an interesting study on and off field
After throwing live batting practice, R.A. Dickey makes a point of shaking the hand of not only his catcher but the batters he faced.
The 38-year-old Cy Young Award winner knows the knuckleball is no fun to hit, especially at the beginning of spring training when hitters are only beginning to find their groove. It's a little thing, but speaks volumes about a pitcher who joins the Jays with a stellar reputation on and off the field.
"He's a special guy," said Toronto manager John Gibbons.
"R.A is one of a kind. He's a great guy and a great pitcher," said infielder Mark DeRosa.
"He's a first-class citizen," said catcher J.P. Arencibia.
Opposition hitters will notice a different Dickey, however.
"You'll see. He's a different cat when he's out there pitching," said catcher John Thole.
"He's a very nice guy. But he's ultra-competitive as well," echoed catcher Mike Nickeas. "Don't let him fool you when he's in here. The guy's super-competitive and he wants to win."
Dickey makes his spring training debut Monday against the visiting Boston Red Sox.
Reminded by a reporter that he has been dubbed "baseball's most improbable star," Dickey begs to differ.
"Well the star part I would probably argue with. Improbable I certainly would agree with. My career arc, I don't know if there's been one quite like it. And that's certainly interesting probably for a lot of people but at the same time I've always had a big imagination. And so this has never been something completely outside my scope.
"I've always held onto the hope that I could produce a trustworthy product on the field consistently and hopefully will be able to reap the fruits of that for years to come."
It is vintage Dickey. Modest, sincere and a little wordy.
The Nashville native is easy to spot in spring training. He wears his socks high and his beard neatly trimmed. When he works out, he usually wears a white or blue bandana.
He moves with a certain elegance.
Dickey is unfailingly gracious with his time, be it a local beat reporter or Japanese TV crew. As a former Met, he is used to being pulled in many directions. And he is savvy enough to know that he is the current flavour of the month at Toronto's camp and that the media interest will eventually subside somewhat.
But maybe not. When he speaks, chances are he will say something interesting.
Off the field, Dickey's bucket list already has a lot of ticks but is constantly growing.
Climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Toured Indian slums to help a charity that combats human trafficking. Written his autobiography, working on children's book. The list goes on.
"I feel a conviction and a very real responsibility to use whatever celebrity or platform or whatever you want to call it to do things that might transcend the game, I do," he said. "And I can't live outside of that. Or I wouldn't be me. Because I feel like that's the responsibility that God's laid on the heart."
Dickey's baseball story is well-documented. Adopting the knuckleball in 2006, he has reinvented himself.
Out of 10 pitches, Dickey may throw the knuckleball eight times. His other pitchers are a sinker, cutter and change-up with the sinker the favourite when looking to offer the hitter a different look.
What makes him unique is he throws the knuckleball harder than others have.
ESPN says Dickey's knuckleball averages 78.4 m.p.h. with two strikes, and 76.5 m.p.h. in all other counts.
"I don't know if you ever master a knuckleball," Dickey said. "Charlie Hough told me the first day he ever met me, he said 'It took me one day to learn how to throw a knuckleball and a lifetime to throw it for strikes.' I'm still learning, I still feel like I have things to unpack with it."
Dickey admits he can be surprised where the ball ends up.
"Yeah, sure. It's fun to throw a ball and see it do things that seemingly defy science. To see a ball break multiple directions or at least appear to break multiple directions is a pretty fascinating thing to see."
In many ways, Dickey is like Sisyphus — doomed to repeat an impossible task. But unlike the Greek mythological figure who rolled a boulder up a hill only to see it constantly come down again, Dickey's mission is to be consistent with a pitch whose sole purpose is to be inconsistent.
"One of the things about the knuckleball, it's very hard to repeat it," he said.
Dickey savours his journey, however.
His bottom line? He can throw it in the strike zone consistently at pace and is learning to tweak it.
"On a great day, like on a perfect day, I can feel it a little bit," he said. "But you're talking about a pitch where the whole intent is to subtract spin. It's too hard.
"That's part of the beauty of the pitch, is if I don't know where it's going, the hitter for sure doesn't. And I say that in the sense that in the strike zone I have a pretty good feel for it, but where in the strike zone, how low, how high, which direction, that's up to the ball and the way the seams rotate and the wind resistance and all the physics that I know nothing of.
"The thing I can do is I can change speeds with it, I can control that, and I can also control from time to time the height, so if I want to run a knuckleball up, that stays on one plane, I have discovered a way to do that and I'm working on that some."
Nothing is left to chance.
Dickey likes to keep his nails a certain length, which he describes as "regular." A nail file is part of keeping that regimen.
His fellow pitchers with Toronto welcome his arrival. Relievers knows he can eat innings (more than 200 each of the last two years) and they will have a significant advantage following him because given the difference between their delivery and his knuckleball.
But even they are baffled by the knuckleball.
"I've tried, it's awful," closer Casey Janssen said. "He's got a gift, he's got a craft."
Dickey's bid for that consistency starts with his routine, be it during a practice session or in a game.
Throwing off the practice mound at camp, he simulates at-bats by having a bat-less coach stand in the box.
"I like that, I feel stable and safe in that place so I always return to it and it took me a while to discover what that routine was and how my body would react to it," he said. "I'm 38 and I've been doing it a long time and I feel like I've found something that I can rely on, that gets me prepared the way I need to be prepared."
Nothing to chance
Dickey leaves nothing to chance. On Thursday, for example, he grabbed a couple of coaches and went out for some extra fielding practice.
"He's a survivor, man," said Gibbons. "His career hasn't been easy. Now he takes nothing for granted. He wants to be the best."
Dickey would agree.
"It's been a difficult, arduous journey but at the same time it's been really rewarding. And certainly not without its adversities. But my hope is just to continue to grow in my craft and what I do. And hopefully I'll to be able to present that in a consistent way on the field time after time."
"He's a thinker," said pitching coach Pete Walker. "And he's a tremendous person, which is even more important, I think. So it's going to be fun to be around him all year."
As a knuckleballer, Dickey also knows there are limited resources he can go to. Usually they are other knuckleballers.
"Charlie Hough told me this also the first day I met him, he said 'You're going to have to be your own best coach.' And that's nothing against any pitching coach, it's just when you don't have the experience of the knuckleball mechanic, it's hard for you to be taught that from someone who doesn't really know it."
So Dickey provides his pitching coach with a checklist of things to monitor.
"And usually the guys are good enough to pick those things out if they're out of whack. Is your arm getting trapped behind your body, are your knuckles on the top of the baseball, are you staying back over the rubber? Like I have a checklist, very specific that he can look for. And if I'm struggling he can kind of go down that checklist and say 'OK, you're coming outside your door frame a little bit, you need to get back in it.' And then boom, I can do that.
"But a lot of time it's just abut communication. It's just about this is what I need you to tell me and he tells me."
While there has been much discussion at Jays camp on who will catch Dickey, one gets the sense that the pitcher doesn't much care. He just wants the one that can best hang onto the ball.
"Most of the time for a catcher, it's best if he just steps out of the equation," Dickey explained. "Because it's not about pitch-calling, it's not about sequencing, it's about just catching the ball.
"It's better for me if the catchers are able just to give me feedback. But there's not a lot of dialogue that goes on because I know what I'm throwing, the hitter knows what they're getting. It's just a matter of producing a good one."
Dickey did just that last year when he went 20-6.
"I learned how to change height with it. That was a big deal, I struck out a lot of guys last years simply because when I wanted to throw a knuckleball up, I could do that. And that was something that I learned last year about six or seven games into the season.
"Another thing I learned was how to subtract speed and still throw strikes with the pitch."
Such advances come organically, he says.
"I threw a pitch and I liked what it did and I thought 'Well, let me try that again.' And I did the same thing mechanically and it produced the same pitch and before you know it I could do it on demand and that ended up being a big deal."
Dickey struck out 230 last year, only four less than 2010 and '11 combined.
He is constantly thinking about his pitch and what affects it, which is pretty much everything.
"Dome, outside, wet, humid, not humid, wind blowing behind you, wind blowing in your face, crosswind right, crosswind left. One of the things that makes anybody good at what they do is how can you make mid-game adjustment so that things don't spiral out [of control]. And I've had to learn how to do that over time."
In Toronto, his preference will be to have the roof closed at Rogers Centre.
"A controlled climate's nice, sure," he said. "A dome offers you that but the one thing that's tough sometimes is if the dome has been open all day and then you close it just for the game. And all that humidity has had a chance to just come in and stick, [that] can make it kind of difficult. So if we close it, I'm hoping it's going to be closed all day and if it's open, just leave it open."
"And I think we may have some say in that," he added with a sly smile.
Dickey will make US$5.25 million this year and $29 million over the next two, with a $12-million option for the 2016 season.
He will fulfil that contract and then survey the landscape.
"I'm 38 now, that's like what 29 in knuckleball years, really," Dickey said.