NEW YORK -- “I do need to say thank you to the fans,” said R.A. Dickey after Tuesday night’s Mets loss. “There was an energy in the park tonight different than the last few nights. It may not have been because I was pitching,” he hastened to add, but “at this point in the season, you want to give the fans something.”
Dickey won’t quite say it, but anyone else will: Of course it’s because of him. Citi Field was sullen and almost empty on Monday night, but lively and hopeful, if eventually disappointed, on Tuesday. The main reason to watch the Mets now is to see Dickey throw his “freak” pitch as he chases 20 wins, something the Mets themselves have acknowledged with a special R.A. Dickey ticket plan. (As one fan put it: “… Because once every five days, we don’t suck.”)
The Mets are stumbling to the end of another lackluster season, but in Dickey they have one of the most remarkable stories anywhere in baseball. He has been the subject of dozens of profiles, he’s published a deeply personal and well-reviewed memoir and charmed the pants off of an exhausted and dispirited fan base, and co-stars in a documentary, “Knuckleball,” opening in limited release on Sept. 18. Yet he is not only living up to the hype, he is exceeding it.
Given his personality, experience, lack of an ulnar collateral ligament and career trajectory, Dickey would be a great story even if he were clinging to the majors by a thread. Instead, he is having one of the best seasons a knuckleball pitcher has ever had, and an excellent one by any standard. He has the lowest ERA in the National League among qualified pitchers, and threw back-to-back, complete-game one-hitters in June. He is perched at 18 wins, and while pitcher wins aren’t a very accurate measure of performance, the magic No. 20 might well land him the Cy Young award, for which he is a leading contender. He’d be the first true knuckleballer ever to win it.
What’s most striking among many striking things in Dickey’s 2012 season is, well, the strikes. Conventional baseball wisdom says that even the guy who throws the knuckleball has no idea where it’s going, that the pitch has a mind of its own, that, as knuckleball emeritus and Dickey mentor Charlie Hough has said: “Butterflies aren’t bullets. You can’t aim ’em. You just let ’em go.” But Dickey sure seems to have a decent idea of where his pitches are going. As near as anyone can tell (separate records are not kept for knuckleballers), his strikeout rate this season of 8.86 per nine innings is the best any knuckleballer has had -- better than Tim Wakefield’s best seasons, better than Hough’s, better than Hall-of-Famer Phil Niekro’s (another Dickey mentor). Dickey has K’d 195 batters and, more astonishingly, he has walked only 45. That’s great for any pitcher, let alone one releasing butterflies in the direction of the batter’s box.
Asked what, if anything, he’s doing differently this year to produce these results, Dickey thinks for several seconds. “I mean, what manifests on paper is that I’m striking out more guys than I ever have,” he says. “Now, the way that I’m doing that, I think I’m just becoming more comfortable with my craft. Another year of development maybe, being able to change speeds a little more, being able to change elevations a little bit better and know what I’m doing. I think those may be reasons.”
The fact that Dickey himself is using words like “think” and “may” is just why the baseball establishment is so leery of the knuckler. But it’s also what makes Dickey’s season, and career arc, so special. What the hell is happening here? How long will it continue? No one knows. Enjoy it.
Dickey’s career ERA was 5.48 when he took up the knuckleball -- after nearly a decade of bouncing around the minors and barely holding on in the majors -- in a last-ditch effort to save his career. As “Knuckleball” highlights, desperate last-ditch efforts are where just about every successful knuckleballer has started. With Hough, it was an injury. Wakefield, the film’s other star, was a failed first baseman. It took Dickey more than two years of honing the pitch before he made it back to the major leagues on even a semi-regular basis. His career ERA is now 4.01; his average over the last three seasons with the Mets is under 3.00. Dickey will be 38 in October. This is not how these things usually work.
It used to be that a number of pitchers who were not mainly knuckleball pitchers, like Hall-of-Famer Early Wynn, included the pitch in their arsenal -- it was part of their game, a way to surprise and unbalance hitters. But that practice has just about died out. “It’s just so hard to throw a good traditional knuckleball without throwing it all the time,” Dickey says. “Because when you throw other pitches, you just lose the feel. That’s why people throw it all the time, it’s because they need that feel in their hand … it’s really, really hard.”
Dickey is anxious to dispel the idea that anybody can throw a knuckleball -- he jokes that every position player on the team thinks he can throw one. But that seeming accessibility, however illusory it may be, is also part of the fun. Most people can’t throw 95 mph, but, purely from a strength perspective, a lot more can throw a 60- or 70- or even, in Dickey’s unusually hard-throwing case, 80-mph knuckler.
It’s long been speculated that if a female player were ever to make it to the major leagues, it would be as a knuckleball pitcher. The prospect remains an unlikely one, of course, but asked whether it was possible, Dickey’s face lit up.
“Yeah,” he says. “I think she’d have to be left-handed, too. A left-handed knuckleball pitcher. I think it’s possible.”
Knuckleballers are all about possibility. Dickey was a first-round draft pick for the Texas Rangers in 1996 who saw his bonus cut from $810,000 to $75,000 after tests revealed the lack of a UCL in his elbow -- a discovery that baffled doctors, who maintained he should barely be able to turn a doorknob without pain. He struggled first as a “regular” pitcher, then again as a knuckler, and didn’t find sustained major league success until 2010. But all along, it was still possible.
It takes a special kind of stubbornness to stick with the game that long in the absence of much encouragement. Dickey is earnest, thoughtful, devout, careful to put the team first in his interviews, and geeky -- he loves “Star Wars,” his dorky habit of naming his bats after fictional swords from fantasy books led to one of the best New York Times corrections ever, and he comes to the plate to the theme song from “Game of Thrones.” But he also has a stubborn streak a mile wide. This past offseason he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money to help victims of sex trafficking -- over the objections of the Mets, who were anxious to protect their unexpected star pitcher, then just two seasons removed from obscurity. Dickey went anyway. Given his ensuing season, the team should probably ask him to climb again.
That same stubbornness is a valuable asset on the mound: Dickey never gives an at-bat away. And he doesn’t give an inch just because it’s September and the team is way out of contention, attendance is down and everyone, from manager Terry Collins to the beat writers to the clubhouse attendants, is visibly tired. Dickey left Tuesday’s game with the Mets trailing by a run but with a chance to win -- “as always,” said Collins. Both last fall and this, Dickey’s late-season motto has been: “There’s always something to play for.”
In Dickey’s case, that something is not just the 20 wins or the Cy Young; it’s also the knuckleball itself.
Since Wakefield retired last season, Dickey is the knuckleball’s lone torchbearer, and a vocal advocate for the pitch that saved his professional life. Even if a pitcher can master the knuckleball, difficult enough by itself, finding a club that will take a chance on it is just as great a challenge. It’s striking, hearing baseball insiders discuss the pitch in “Knuckleball” or reading about their opinions in Dickey’s memoir, how great the contrast is between the way fans see the knuckleball, and how the baseball establishment views it.
Fans (and writers) love novelty. For a baseball fan, one of the best parts of the game is getting to see the unusual and unpredictable happen within the tight, unchanging framework of 27 outs. Talent evaluators, on the other hand, do not like novelty at all. In a sport where reliable talent is already deeply difficult to find and project, they crave predictability and want to know what to expect -- which you almost never know with the knuckleball.
Knuckleballers are all about defying expectations, mostly the batters’ expectations, but also the fans’ and sometimes their own. That explains why so many teams were unwilling to commit to Dickey over the years while he was learning his craft. But it’s also why the Mets, in the middle of another predictable disappointing September, are able, every five days, to give their fans the best surprise in the game.