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The Triumphs Of R.A. Dickey

After unimaginable childhood horror, he succeeded at the toughest pitch in baseball.

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Toronto Blue Jays Photo Day
Dickey in Canada, thoughtful as usual.
Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

What records would you like to set? What memories of things that make you unusual?

On April 6, 2006, R. A. Dickey started his first — and only -- game for the Texas Rangers that season. In 3.1 innings, he managed to give up six home runs, tying the AL record.

Then, on August 17, 2008, against the Twins, Dickey managed to tie another AL record — most wild pitches in an inning, with four.

In 1996, college player Dickey was selected for the US Olympic team. The July 22 issue of Baseball America put him and several teammates on the cover. Right there on the newsstand, next to Will Smith on the cover of People.

A Rangers trainer noted something odd about the picture (Texas had picked Dickey 18th in that year’s draft). The doctors checked it out. It turned out Dickey was missing a ligament in his right arm.

That cover cost Dickey his $810,000 signing bonus. He had to settle for $75,000 instead. And it would be another 14 years before he found a home in the majors. He didn’t set out to be a knuckleball pitcher; he threw gas as a teenager. Things just worked out that way.

No-one’s entirely sure who first invented the pitch; it may have been Eddie Cicotte of the American Association over a hundred years ago. (Cicotte had ligament damage in his throwing hand.) The pitch never seems to die out entirely; there’s usually at least one player throwing it.

When Dickey was developing his knuckler in the 2000s, he learned tips from old experts Charlie Hough and Phil Neikro. He passed on some of what he knew to young Red Sox success Steven Wright; Wright will probably give those tips to someone else.

It’s a pitch players usually adopt from losing other options. The speed of a knuckleball is enormously slow by MLB standards; it’s the pitch’s errant movement which makes it effective. A proper knuckler is thrown with virtually no spin, causing airflow over the baseball’s seams to make it move unpredictably. Put spin on the ball by accident, and it’s batting practice.

After his wild pitch debacle against Minnesota, the Twins signed Dickey for a year (climate-controlled stadiums are ideal for the pitch, and clearly he was making it move that night). He wasn’t terrible as a reliever; but he had another hurdle to handle.

Dickey was repeatedly sexually abused at eight by a barely teenage babysitter; later, raped by a older boy. It took him decades to tell anyone about the abuse, and longer to talk about the rape. He would meet the babysitter again, years later (at his mother's house!), after he graduated from college. The babysitter had blocked out the memory.

Data about the different effects of child sexual abuse on girls and boys is not enormous (the rate of abuse is much higher for girls, about 3-1) but some studies show distinct variations. One is that women who were abused as children are more likely to distrust their current partners; men are more likely to hate themselves. (Victims of both genders often have difficulty forming lasting relationships.)

Almost all victims experience an intense, sometimes very long-lasting, sense of personal worthlessness. How these things would not have happened to you if you were not a freak, a pathetic loser. That it happened when you were a child only intensifies the feeling; others must have known, even then, how utterly nothing you would be; you carry it in your core.

Dickey’s parents battled alcoholism; he would sometimes sneak in empty houses just to sleep somewhere else. Even after he met and married his long-suffering wife Anne, he would have an affair, engage in self-destructive behavior. Once he nearly drowned attempting to swin the Missouri (Grant Balfour helped pull him to safety).

But Anne encouraged him to stick with baseball and stick with therapy. And after years of counseling, and years of practicing his knuckler, Dickey finally had a breakout season with the Mets, in 2010.

Now he is 41, not old for a knuckleballer. (Niekro pitched until age 48.) He is considered something of a clubhouse free spirit (he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for charity with hipster Kevin Slowey). Some Mets found his eccentricities annoying; the Blue Jays don’t seem to mind.

He’s written two books; the first, Wherever I Wind Up, was a well-received and deeply honest autobiography. The second, Knuckleball Ned, is a delightful anti-bullying story for children. The characters are baseballs, and all have different abilities based on their spin; Ned, who has no spin, is the oddest but sometimes most useful of all. (Check out this neat artwork by illustrator Tim Bowers about the characters. It’s really cute!)

Dickey’s contract with Toronto expires at the end of this season; after that , the family will discuss future plans. He also works for Christian charities and to support organizations rescuing children from sex trafficking, so there’s that option as well. He'll certainly always be grateful for those who helped him make it through to this point. And baseball fans should be grateful he did make it.