Before the 2012 season started, Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey published his memoir, Wherever I Wind Up. It was the best baseball book I'd read in ages. And now that literary surprise dovetails with a baseball one: Dickey, after back-to-back one-hitters, is pitching better than anyone else in baseball.
Dickey has apparently discovered a glitch in the game. He's not the first knuckleballer to have success, but he's doing things knuckleballers have never done before. He leads the National League in strikeouts. Phil Niekro, in all his years, led the league just once. And Niekro got the strikeout crown while also leading the league in walks. Dickey's walk rate is the third-lowest among National League starters. And he has—get this—zero wild pitches on the year.
The basic Dickey pitch is a fast knuckler. The classic knuckleball is usually described as a matter of the pitcher surrendering control, setting a butterfly free to flutter no-one-knows-where, as frustrated hitters try vainly to club it. What Dickey throws has more zip and aggression to it, like an angry hornet buzzing the plate, the ball darting unpredictably sideways and a bit downward, missing bats. When a hitter does put a bat on it, it usually dribbles harmlessly to an infielder. Here's Nick Johnson trying to catch up with one, succeeding only in adding injury to insult:
Dickey will slow all the way down and throw an eephus knuckler, too, to keep hitters' timing off. And he throws at speeds in between, keeping them flustered. A few pinpoint fastballs ensure that he stays on top of the count. He is, for this superlative not-quite-half-season so far, in total command.
And Dickey is doing this all at age 37, and not a perpetually-injured-player-with-surprisingly-little-mileage-on-him 37 or a where-did-those-extra-20-pounds-of-muscle-come-from 37 (although Dickey's copped to a fondness for Toradol, a strong anti-inflammatory shot), but a wow-he's-past-his-physical-peak 37. He shouldn't be thriving in baseball right now. So why is he?
Wherever I Wind Up doesn't answer the question immediately. It doesn't consider itself a baseball book so much as it considers itself a book about a man who happens to play baseball. This isn't modesty: When Dickey published the book, he was merely a soft-spoken semi-surprise who relied on an unusual pitch and gave a good interview. He was coming off an 8-13 season. Last night's dominant outing against Baltimore finally bumped his career record above .500.
But because of 2012, we can now read the book as the tale of a man on the cusp of greatness. And what do we learn? Faith and family matter to him more than the game does. He concludes both the narration and his acknowledgements section with prayers.
These aren't the usual pieties. Church is plenty applicable to what Dickey does out there. A knuckleballer engages in outwardly mystical rituals, like obsessive nail-filing. A few wise old men retain the wisdom behind the pitch. And there's no guarantee that the pitch will work out. Even Dickey's sharp knuckler depends on faith; no two are alike, he says. He just does his best and pushes the ball toward the plate.
Dickey's prose in the book isn't flowery. He writes in vernacular with occasional references to Star Wars and the Bible. His ghostwriter, Wayne Coffey of the New York Daily News, presumably gets the better of him at points, and turns Dickey's voice into that of a newspaper columnist. But Dickey is, broadly speaking, a storyteller who easily taps into his emotions and sparks the reader's, too. Consider the passage when he attempts to swim across the Missouri River and flounders:
It occurs to me that if I just open my mouth underwater, I can apologize to God in person.
I am sinking fast now, well below the surface. I am ready to die, and as I spend the final moments of my life engulfed in sorrow and regret, I feel solid ground beneath my flip-flops.
I have hit bottom. Literally.
This is how Dickey writes, always in the first person, questioning himself, atoning for mistakes he's made in the past, even though he seems to be a better human than most of us are.
Much of the book is quite sad. We learn about how R.A. was molested as a child. We learn about his alcoholic mother and distant father. We learn about his wife's miscarriage. We learn about when he cheated on his wife and wanted to kill himself, and then we learn about that river crossing, where he nearly does kill himself, unintentionally. He seems like Job. The resemblance is more than passing. Of the sexual abuse, Dickey writes: "How could a loving God let this happen to me? How? Can you tell me that? I was only eight! Why didn't He do something?"
It would have simple enough easy for Dickey to write a formulaic book about making it in the majors. He grew up poor, became an All-American in college, lost his first-round signing bonus because his elbow looked weird on a Baseball America cover, and languished in the minors for many years before reinventing himself as a knuckleballer. Even then, he languished some more before striking it big with a mess of a franchise. That's enough for a good story and a Dennis Quaid movie down the road.
Yes, those longing for baseball-specific wisdom will find some of it here. Dickey befriends Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, and Tim Wakefield, and all three refine his knuckleball. (Knuckleball!, a documentary about Dickey and Wakefield and featuring glimpses of the other two and Wilbur Wood, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. One imagines the filmmakers now wish they had focused on Dickey rather than Wakefield's sad, surly chase for 200 wins.) Dickey explains that the knuckleballer must pitch as though contained in a doorframe, because flailing limbs generate spin, the knuckleball's enemy. Niekro teaches Dickey that he must bound off the mound, pushing the knuckleball with all the force he has (rather than throwing it). Dickey also explains proper fingernail care—an injury causes him to hit a Korean manicurist in Flushing hours before a start—and knuckler grip.
And, sure, Dickey talks a little bit about his teammates. He tells a nice story about Jeff Brantley, who bought him a suit, shirts, and shoes when he was a rookie and had nothing to wear. He raves about the moral fiber of Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, two great Mets smeared by the local media for the last half-dozen years. He talks about field-goal-kicking hijinks with Mike Pelfrey, who hits them from 50 yards. He has a couple negative anecdotes about his rookie year in Texas, but he doesn't mention any names. He's not like his fellow knuckleballer-turned-author Jim Bouton, who exposed the big-league clubhouse in Ball Four.
R.A. instead writes about his personal triumph, how he wound up being a better father, a better son, and a better husband. In one scene from 2011, he takes his daughter to the doctor after she fractures her arm. It's 3:30, and he's pitching at Citi Field at 7. His 9-year-old daughter tells him to run along to work, but he stays at the doctor's, out on Long Island, until she gets treated. He doesn't get to the stadium until after 6, after the gates have opened and many fans have arrived, but Dickey doesn't really care. He writes, "It was a day when I showed up. It was a day when I took a big step to break the dysfunctional cycle of my own experience as a kid. This is how families become healthier, how lives can change and children can be nourished."
Yet Dickey doesn't sound arrogant about the man he's become. He credits those around him for helping him find his way. Yes, he was always contemplative. But as a teenager he broke into vacant houses and slept in them for solitary reflection. He connected with no one. As an adult, he examines his life through extended dialogues with his wife, pastor, and therapist. He gets results. His book offers the reader the possibility of transformation.
Dickey knows he's imperfect. At the book's core is the story of his struggle to become a better man. Thankfully for Dickey, he's chosen a baseball craft—knuckleballing—that gives a player a reprieve from time. All he must do is keep struggling. He can't be perfect, no. But he can get damn close.