What The Best Pitcher In Baseball Taught Me About Prep School, Socrates, And The Art Of Not Selling Out

At my old high school, Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, there is a large multi-purpose hall with high ceilings. The hall features large hanging glass panels that extend nearly from the ceiling to the floor, engraved with famous quotations and the image of the speaker. I remember two of the panels: one of Grantland Rice ("For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes—not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game."), who was a famous alumnus of the school, and one of Socrates ("The unexamined life is not worth living"), who was not.

Montgomery Bell Academy, MBA for short, is a prep school for boys dating back to the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, and it has a penchant for deifying its best alumni. It's a great school, but it's also a prestigious school, and how it treats its own is a function of that prestige. Sam Davis, "boy hero of the Confederacy," has his own life-size bronze statue. Dead Poets Society—loosely based on an MBA teacher who was, by his own admission, acting weird to amuse himself—has both a bronze statue and a small auditorium dedicated in its honor. The gym is named for the guy who founded the Air Force. It's a high school with its own alumni magazine, alumni newsletter, and alumni speaker series. If they like something you said, my alma mater will literally etch it into stone.

R.A. Dickey, class of 1993, Cy Young favorite for 2012, is memorialized by a framed jersey in the basement of the gym, next to the Pepsi machine. That's how I first encountered him: as an absence—a name I saw every day, but one that barely registered in my brain, like a familiar billboard on the highway. The jersey is from the 1996 Olympics, and it's accompanied by a quote: "Anything you vividly imagine, ardently desire, and enthusiastically act upon must absolutely come to pass." It's an unattributed paraphrase of Paul J. Meyer, one of those motivational speakers who are famous primarily for motivational speaking. And for most of R.A. Dickey's life after high school, the sentiment behind the quotation seemed as flimsy as the paper on which it was printed.

* * *

R.A. Dickey's name wasn't thrown around much when I was in school, and it's easy to understand why. I was a sophomore in 2007, and at that point his was still a dreary story. The Rangers' first-round pick out of the University of Tennessee, Dickey lost his signing bonus and his prospect status in one day, when an MRI showed he lacked an ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm. After 10 years of bouncing between the majors and minors, Dickey had spent the past season pitching for the Triple-A Nashville Sounds, a Brewers affiliate. It was the only offer he'd received. He'd pitched well, and for 32-year-old minor leaguer with a family, it seemed like a nice coda to an unremarkable career.

What The Best Pitcher In Baseball Taught Me About Prep School, Socrates, And The Art Of Not Selling Out

He didn't exactly distinguish himself in high school, either. If you've read R.A. Dickey's autobiography, you might remember that his many achievements in high school included a record 50 demerits in one year (1 demerit=30 minutes of detention). Unfortunately not even that much of his legacy remained in 2007. My time at MBA coincided with what you might call our demerit system's steroid era, with two of my classmates eclipsing the century mark.

All high schools are their own little world, with particular cultures and hierarchies. In a way, MBA is above all that, which is how you get R.A. Dickey, star quarterback and soft-spoken Star Wars nerd. In every sense, though, MBA holds itself at a remove from the rest of the world. The campus sits on a hill ("your time on the hill" remains the chummy euphemism of choice for your MBA tenure), and the school has an honor code, an alma mater song, a motto ("Gentleman, Scholar, Athlete"), and a logo that it loves to slap on anything that will hold still long enough. MBA doesn't let students wear facial hair, long hair, or any stylized haircut. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of that. But when your high school is so suffused with a sense of its own identity, you, as a teenager, are wont to define yourself with or against it.

More than anything, what endeared R.A. Dickey to me was his absence. Alums like Hunter Hillenmeyer would visit MBA to bathe in our perfunctory applause and sell us on the importance of our education and the tremendous opportunity we'd been given. Meanwhile, Dickey was getting jeered by smaller crowds in minor league cities, far from the comfort of home, in a pursuit of a dream that seemed long since dead.

From where I was sitting, anyone coming back to give a speech was a sellout. I didn't doubt how much MBA had helped them; I rejected the subtext of the speech. They let MBA subsume their success stories into its own and then project that back onto us. I remember when alumnus and distinguished author Madison Smartt Bell came back. Our headmaster fretted, somewhat jokingly, about how Bell didn't list MBA in any of his official bios.

The fundamental challenge of high school for me was managing the two most basic, contradictory teenage impulses—to rebel and to give myself to something bigger than myself. I felt like Don Mattingly in that one Simpsons episode: honored that Mr. Burns asked me to be on his softball team, but confused as to why he kept telling me to cut my sideburns.

What The Best Pitcher In Baseball Taught Me About Prep School, Socrates, And The Art Of Not Selling Out

And so, for one super-lazy teenage anti-authoritarian rebel, R.A. Dickey became a personal lodestar. He was from MBA but not of MBA. I could be proud that someone with whom I had this small, but unique shared experience was doing something amazing, without that something being reduced and packaged for me as a parable about turning in my homework on time.

No one ever told me I could grow up to be like R.A. Dickey, which is why I wanted to grow up to be like R.A. Dickey.

* * *

I risked demerits to sneak into the alumni-relations offices (yeah, we had those) and surreptitiously scan his high school yearbooks, in the off-chance that he became famous one day. When I played a text-based simulation game called Out of the Park Baseball—and I played OOTP a lot—I was always the Mets (my fandom is a vestige of my dad's Long Island upbringing); I always signed R.A. Dickey; and I always monkeyed with his ratings so he would get better with age.

In 2008, my junior year, he resurfaced in a Major League spring training camp, now a full-fledged knuckleball pitcher. The New York Times story on his reemergence begins:

By all rights, R. A. Dickey should be working a day job somewhere, cursing twisted fate. Or he should be coaching at some Tennessee high school, telling kids what he once was and lamenting what might have been.

This is how I read the story's lede:

By all rights, R.A. Dickey should be behind you in the lunch line, Sam Page, telling you to tuck your shirt tail in. He should be signaling "two demerits" with his mangled pitching fingers. Instead he's in Seattle, on the verge of making the Mariners' 25-man roster.

When R.A. Dickey debuted with the Rangers, he looked pretty much like he did in high school. By the time he made it to Triple-A Nashville, he had his signature beard. The next season with Seattle, he had a mop forming under his ballcap. You could measure his distance from high school by the length and volume of his hair.

Dickey describes those years, during which he completely surrendered to the knuckleball, in terms of ego death. He had to abandon the bravado that had gotten him so far, that had made him and many others successful at MBA.

It would have been easier for him than most to leave the world of professional baseball, which to that point had being undeniably cruel to him, for the world of MBA, which he will tell you "saved my life more than once." Both he and his wife had plenty of familial connections to the school. He would've had to cut his hair and—for the first time in his professional life—wear a shirt and tie, but otherwise he was MBA-ready.

What The Best Pitcher In Baseball Taught Me About Prep School, Socrates, And The Art Of Not Selling Out

Still, as hard as it is now to imagine Dickey without his beard, it was even harder for me then to imagine R.A. Dickey back at my high school. Dickey wasn't one of the many privileged scions of MBA. In his autobiography, he writes about being essentially homeless during periods of his junior and senior years, living in abandoned houses and hiding it from his friends. Many of his old teachers were still around, the ones who made him the Cy Young of demerits. One such teacher, hearing me talk about Dickey, shook his head and offered simply: "Second-class citizen."

Shortly after the Times story appeared, I filed my only contribution to the school paper, a 681-word update on MBA's forgotten son. It was a plea to take Dickey's comeback seriously. (When he signed a minor-league deal with the Mets, Chris "Mad Dog" Russo just read his name over and over and giggled, a second-grade comedy routine that kept me off WFAN for quite a while.) The piece closed with this quote from the varsity baseball coach, a friend and teammate of Dickey's at both MBA and the University of Tennessee:

Charlie Hough retired when he was 45, I believe, and Charlie Hough was a knuckleballer. So hopefully his career will be very long.

The day after the story came out, that same coach caught me in the lunch line with my shirt tail out. I miraculously avoided two demerits. A lifelong Mets fan, I said the first of what would be many silent prayers of gratitude to R.A. Dickey.

* * *

In 2010, I was a sophomore in college, living in the universe of my video-game simulations. R.A. Dickey had finished the season with a 2.84 ERA in 174.1 innings for the Mets. It was as if someone had monkeyed with his ratings. He finally spoke at my school during Thanksgiving break, but I wasn't home in time to make it. I emailed MBA's headmaster, and he put me in touch with Dickey. I called him during a UT football game.

"Hey, I'm some guy. I have a blog. Can I come over to your place and interview you?" (This is what the conversation feels like, not what I actually say.)

"OK," Dickey said. "Why don't we meet at my house after the game?"

R.A. Dickey's wife, Anne, greeted me at the door. They had some friends over, but they were supposedly leaving soon. Little kids were toddling all over the place. I tried to make conversation with Mrs. Dickey.

"We love your blog," she said.

"Huh?"

"R.A.'s mother likes the funny photoshopped pictures of R.A.'s pitching face."

"Huh?!"

As everyone else was leaving, Dickey descended the stairs. I felt as if I were meeting the Wizard of Oz. He wore sweatpants and a long-sleeve pullover with a cloth headband holding back his long hair. He looked like—and I don't think he would mind my saying this—someone recently returned from Jedi training in the Dagobah system. Whereas everyone else in the house (including myself) looked on the way to brunch, R.A. Dickey looked ready to airdrop into Khe Sanh.

We talked in his living room for a few hours. He answered all the questions I had written down and any I could think of off the top of my head. He gave long, detailed answers. I slouched in his nice chair, stammered out my questions, and laughed nervously. He acted like he was talking to Bob Costas.

* * *

Two years later, I am a senior in college, and R.A. Dickey, on the verge of his 20th win, is guest-lecturing in my sports reporting class, discussing how to interview an athlete. He's my teacher after all. His autobiography is on the syllabus as required reading. He has to be the sports world's most improbable icon right now. What was it that his high school classmates predicted for him? From his senior yearbook:

What The Best Pitcher In Baseball Taught Me About Prep School, Socrates, And The Art Of Not Selling Out

(They were right about one thing: Dickey did beat out someone from Princeton, but it won him way more than $50,000.)

I try to imagine how Montgomery Bell Academy will eventually honor Dickey. He spoke in front of the student body this year, which is weird to me, though he talked less about baseball than he did about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, which is not the least bit weird to me. He is an honored alumnus, taking his place alongside Granny Rice and all the rest. I don't know about the Great Scorer, but the gatekeepers of the school's pantheon certainly do care whether you win or lose (unless you were in the Confederacy, in which case, well, who was keeping score?)

It won't be long before the jersey moves out of the gym's basement. R.A. Dickey is a winner now, and on terms unique to him: a power knuckleballer with exceptional control; a 20-game winner on a garbage team; a Cy Young candidate in a "Stormtrooper Moods" T-shirt. There are winners who adhere to institutional norms, and there are winners who explode those norms, who change and enlarge our idea of what success can look like. That's R.A. Dickey in 2012.

One of my classmates asks Dickey what advice he would give an aspiring major leaguer. He draws on a familiar quotation, one that he pulled down from the ceilings of Montgomery Bell Academy and made wholly his own:

"'The unexamined life is not worth living,'" he recites. "Socrates."