Sports
8:54 am
Tue April 10, 2012

'Winding Up' As The Mets' Knuckleball Pitcher

Originally published on Wed April 11, 2012 7:58 am

Most pitchers in the majors stick to fastballs, curveballs, sliders and change-ups when facing batters at the plate.

But not New York Mets right-hander R.A. Dickey. Dickey is currently the only knuckleball pitcher in a current rotation. At 37, he's also one of the older pitchers in the league and has seen his career — and life — mimic the erratic trajectory of the difficult pitch he throws game after game.

In his new memoir, Wherever I Wind Up, Dickey details how his selection as a No. 1 draft choice by the Texas Rangers was sidelined by the discovery that he was missing a ligament in his right elbow, how he bounced around the minors for years, and how learning to throw the knuckleball saved his career — and helped give him the 13th-lowest ERA in the National League last season.

"A knuckleball is like trying to hit a butterfly in a typhoon," he explains to Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "It shakes side to side; it may go straight left on one pitch. It might go straight down to a right-hander on another pitch. It may stay on the very same plane on one pitch. The thing that makes a knuckleball effective is that you cannot predict which way the ball is going to move, which makes it an extremely hard pitch to hit."

Dickey starts by positioning his knuckleball slightly above the catcher's helmet, gripping the ball with his pointer and middle fingers. He digs his nails into the horseshoe and his fingers into the leather underneath. After stabilizing the ball with his thumb, he releases the pitch and hopes for the best.

"If you throw a good one, you make them look foolish," he says. "It certainly didn't start that way. I was all over the place early on in my career as a knuckleballer, and would have games where I'd walk five or six guys and have four or five wild pitches. ... It's a very unique, interesting pitch. It can be really ugly when it's ugly, but when it's on, it's fantastic."

The Road To The Majors

Dickey's road to the major leagues was not an easy one. His memoir recounts his childhood in Nashville, Tenn., where he grew up with an alcoholic mother, slept in vacant houses and was sexually abused by a baby sitter and a 17-year-old boy. For 23 years, Dickey told no one about the painful, abusive memories.

"I had repressed it, but you can't really repress something like that to the extent that you never think about it," he says. "One of the mechanisms that I had developed was pouring myself into athletics. The baseball field, the basketball court and the football field were all kind of my refuges, places that I would take sanctuary from the pain of feeling like I was a fractured, less-than-human person."

Dickey continued to devote himself to sports throughout high school and then attended the University of Tennessee, where he was an Academic All-American. In 1996, the Texas Rangers drafted him as a first-round pick after his junior year of college and offered him a substantial signing bonus. But after flying down to Texas to take a comprehensive physical, Dickey was told there was something wrong with his arm. He was missing a key ligament in his right elbow — and the Rangers didn't want to sign him.

"They thought they had drafted damaged goods, and I went back to Nashville, Tenn., thinking that I may never throw for a professional team ever again," he says. "So my options became go back to school for my senior year, [and/or] try and get drafted again. And about 24 hours before my first class, the general manager [of the Texas Rangers] said, 'We'll give him $75,000. Take it or leave it.' "

Dickey took it and began his professional career toiling away in the minors. In 2001 and again in 2004, he was called up by the Rangers, but he was consistently up and down with his throwing.

"I was very mediocre by my own admission," he says. "I could never get to the next place that I wanted to get to. I felt like I was capable of so much more but the guys in the big leagues were just so good. And so I had to come up with something else if I wanted to hang onto the dream of being a major league pitcher. And that's in 2005, when I made the transition to being a full-time knuckleball pitcher."

A Renewed Sense Of Self

After transitioning to the knuckleball, Dickey gave up six runs in his first start of the 2006 season, tying a modern-era baseball record. He was demoted to the minors in Oklahoma, where after a game one night, he decided to swim across the Missouri River — a big, fast-moving waterway with a lot of undertow. Five minutes into the swim, Dickey realized he was in big trouble.

"Every stroke was a determined stroke to try to survive an experience where I [thought that I] may drown," he says. "I had given myself over to the fact that this was it, I wasn't going to make it. The undertow was pulling me down."

Dickey's feet hit the bottom of the Missouri just as he was about to open his mouth and take a breath underwater. He bounced up and dog-paddled toward the side, where a teammate plucked him from the water.

"I look at it as almost a baptism of sorts," he says. "I went into the Missouri River, I was hanging on by a thread professionally. ... And when I came out of the river, I ended up going 11-2 with a 2.80 ERA and became the Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year. I think when I came out of the river, I was so consumed with just wanting to live in the present well — wanting to enjoy every second — that I think that carried over directly into my pitching, and I just cared about each pitch singularly. ... And I decided that that's how I wanted to live my life."


Interview Highlights

On spin

"As a conventional pitcher, you throw a fastball, a curveball, a slider, a change-up — and those pitches are all thrown with a certain amount of spin on them. With a knuckleball, you're doing the opposite. You're taking spin completely off the baseball and you're leaving it up to the physics of air resistance and seams on the baseball. ... So, a perfectly thrown knuckleball has a little less than a quarter rotation from the time it leaves your hand until the time that it gets to the catcher's mitt."

On the pitching coaches and managers

"The pitch is not thrown very often, and there's not a lot of guys out there. And a lot of managers don't know how to manage a knuckleballer, because it can be great one inning, and then the next, you go out there and you don't have a great feel for it, and you throw some tumbling balls up there, and they get hit around, and then the next inning you get it back and no one can hit you. ... It can be a very lonely place because you don't have someone to turn to and say, 'Golly, what am I doing wrong?' It's up to you, you have to be your own best coach."

On how therapy helped his knuckleball

"There's something divine about that. I began throwing the knuckleball exactly when I started working on my life and trying to become who God had authentically created me to be. And I think those things parallel each other and continue to do so."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest today, R.A. Dickey, is a baseball curiosity, the only guy in the big leagues who relies on the knuckleball, a pitch that dips, dives and swerves in ways that make it hard to catch and harder to hit.

Dickey explains how he mastered the pitch in a new memoir, but the book's more than a baseball story. He reveals his troubled youth and childhood sexual abuse, his retreat into the refuge of sports and years of struggle in the minor leagues, trying to become a quality big-league pitcher.

Dickey eventually got there, in part he believes because he got help in dealing with demons from his past and because he finally figured out that crazy pitch - the knuckleball. At age 37, Dickey is now in the starting rotation for the New York Mets and is one of the most effective pitchers in the game. In a stretch dating back to last July, he's had 13 straight quality starts, meaning he's pitched at least six innings, allowing three or fewer earned runs.

Dickey's featured in a new documentary, "Knuckleball," which premieres April 21st. His new book with writer Wayne Coffey is called "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball." We spoke last week, and it began with a reading describing a turning point in his career.

R.A. DICKEY: (Reading) I'm 31 years old and darn tired of being mediocre. Anne and I have two young daughters and a baby boy on the way. I'm living in a Hyatt and getting around on a borrowed bicycle because I don't want to spend money on a rental car. One part retread, one part restoration project, I am a decade removed from my years studying English Lit at Tennessee, forgetting a lot of Faulkner and firing a lot of fastballs.

I have become the quintessential 4A pitcher, baseball code for a player who is too good for AAA but not good enough to stick in the majors. I had already spent two full, extremely undistinguished years in the big leagues. I know that I cannot reasonably expect to get another shot if this doesn't work out.

You want to know how desperate I am? I have turned myself into the baseball equivalent of a carnival act, maybe not a two-headed turtle or a bearded lady, but close. I am trying to make a living throwing the ugly stepchild of pitches, a pitch few in the game appreciate and even fewer understand.

Almost nobody starts out planning to be a knuckleball pitcher. When was the last time you heard a 12-year-old Little Leaguer say: I want to be Hoyt Wilhelm when I grow up? You become a knuckleball pitcher when you hit a dead end, when your arm gets hurt, or your hard stuff isn't getting the job done.

Tim Wakefield was a minor-league first baseman with a lot of power and a bad batting average. That's when he made the switch. I made mine when the Rangers told me in the middle of 2005 that I was going nowhere with my regular stuff, an assessment that I could hardly argue with.

DAVIES: Well, R.A. Dickey, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about the knuckleball. Not many people throw it. Now, you know, most - there are a lot of pitches that pitchers throw, conventional pitches that are designed to break or dip or dive. What distinguishes the knuckleball from all those other pitches?

DICKEY: Well, the knuckleball is very unique in that as a conventional pitcher, you throw a fastball, a curveball, a slider, a change-up, and those pitches are all thrown with a certain amount of spin on them. You're trying to impart spin on the baseball in order to manipulate the break whichever way you'd like.

With a knuckleball, you're doing the opposite. You're taking spin completely off the baseball, and you're kind of leaving it up to the physics of air resistance and seams on the baseball and the way that the air impacts the leather, and the indentations on the baseball make the ball move.

And so when you throw a knuckleball, a perfectly thrown knuckleball has a little less than a quarter-rotation from the time that it leaves your hand until the time that it gets to the catcher's mitt. And that's a very tough mechanic to get down. It's a very hard pitch to be consistent. And so that's why you don't see a whole lot of knuckleballers around, I think.

DAVIES: Right. And if you execute that well and get the ball started toward the plate without spin, how does it behave? Why is it effective?

DICKEY: Hmm. Well, I've heard it said that, you know, a knuckleball is like trying to hit a butterfly in a typhoon. You know, it shakes side to side, it may go straight left on one pitch. It might go down and in to a right-handed hitter on another pitch. It may stay on the very same plane the whole way on one pitch.

So the thing that makes a knuckleball effective is that you cannot predict which way the ball is going to move, which makes it an extremely hard pitch to hit, as well as a hard pitch to throw.

DAVIES: Right. Now, how do you grip it?

DICKEY: Well, I grip my knuckleball in the way that Joe, Phil - Joe Niekro, Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield grip theirs, and I tutored under Charlie Hough, who was a longtime knuckleballer for the Dodgers and the Rangers, the White Sox and the Florida Marlins.

And I take my pointer finger and my middle finger, and I dig my fingernails beneath the horseshoe of the baseball. There's a seam on the baseball that runs over the circumference of the ball, and it makes a shape of a horseshoe on one particular part. I take my fingernails, and I dig them in the leather.

And I take my thumb, I put it on the side and my index finger on the other side, and I use those points as stability points, so that when I throw the baseball, I keep my wrist very stiff, and when I release it, I try to release it at the opportune moment where there's no spin on it.

And so if you can do that over and over and over again, then usually you're going to have a pretty good game. It's when the ball starts rotating a little bit or tumbling forward, and the hitter can pick up that tumbling and predict where the ball is going to end up and hit it very hard.

If you through a good knuckleball, you can make the best hitters in the world look very foolish.

DAVIES: Yeah, have you had particular moments that you enjoyed them flailing away at your - a good knuckleball?

DICKEY: Indeed, indeed. I've thrown a few times, a pitch, a knuckleball, to a left-handed hitter in particular where I've thrown the pitch and it had zero spin on it, and they've actually swung the bat, and the ball has broken after they've swung and actually hit them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DICKEY: So they've swung, and it's hit them either on the back of the leg or the back foot. Or one time I hit a guy in the waist, and he swung at the pitch. And when they're swinging at the pitch, and it ends up hitting them, you know you've got some pretty good movement that day.

DAVIES: Yeah, and they often lose the bat, right? It's just so out of control?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DICKEY: Yeah, oftentimes they'll sling the bat into the stands, which has happened on a few occasions, as well.

DAVIES: Now, the conventional pitcher is always trying to hit a spot. I mean, you work the corners of the strike zone. You don't want to leave it in the fat part of the plate. The knuckleball is a pitch that, by design, is unpredictable. What do you aim for?

DICKEY: Well, I try to get it started at the right height. I think for me, that's what's most important. It's impossible in any knuckleball pitch - a true knuckleball pitcher will tell you it's impossible to, you know, be able to throw a knuckleball on the outside corner. You just simply get it started in the right direction, at the right height, and the ball's going to do what the ball's going to do.

I aim for about two baseballs above the catcher's helmet, and if I can get the ball going on that trajectory, I know, more or less, if it's going to fall within the strike zone. And the key to throwing a knuckleball, and Charlie Hough told me the first day I ever worked with him, he said it took me one day to learn how to throw a knuckleball and a lifetime to throw a knuckleball for strikes.

So you've got to be able to throw strikes with the pitch so that the hitter can - will respect you. That's the rub. And so I start my knuckleball about two balls above the catcher's helmet.

DAVIES: Yeah, that's what I've always been puzzled by. That's what they always say, because a knuckleballer, if they're not throwing it for strikes, will walk many, many batters and get guys on base and lose the game. So you're actually trying to hit the strike zone, huh?

DICKEY: Well, certainly. You know, I better be because I'm not going to last too long if I can't throw strikes with it. You know, and it's taken me a long time to get to that place. You know, it's been a long journey for me learning the pitch and learning how to change speeds with the pitch and learning how to throw it in the strike zone consistently. All that's been a real journey, and it certainly didn't start that way.

I certainly was all over the place early on in my career as a knuckleballer, and, you know, I would have games where I'd walk five or six guys and have four or five wild pitches and three or four passed balls. You know, I actually set the Major League record for most wild pitches in an inning in the Metrodome in Minnesota one day. So it's a very unique, interesting pitch. It can be really ugly when it's ugly, but when it's on, it's fantastic.

DAVIES: How many of your pitches these days are knuckleballs? Do you still have other pitches, fastballs and sliders?

DICKEY: Yes, I do, and in fact, that's one of the things that helps me to pitch deep into games is when I have innings when I don't have a good knuckleball I can kind of rely on my sinker or my cutter or my change-up to help survive the innings when I don't have a good knuckleball going.

If I throw 100 pitches in a game, ideally I want 85 of them to be knuckleballs, and the other 15 will be other pitches; sinkers, fastballs, curveballs, change-ups, what have you. But it is important for me, and it can be a weapon for me, if a guy's thinking I'm going to throw a knuckleball, and I through an 85-mile-an-hour fastball inside. It's hard for him to pull the trigger, and that can be a weapon, as well.

DAVIES: Now, in addition to being hard to hit, the knuckleball is hard to catch. Do catchers hate having a knuckleballer on the mound?

DICKEY: Well, you know, if you're Bob Uecker, who said the best way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and go over and pick it up, then yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DICKEY: But I have been blessed with some really good catchers, that have hands. You know, the key to catching a knuckleball is to try to let it get as deep as possible. Because when you go out and try to catch it before it kind of gets to you, it'll break, and you'll end up chasing it to the backstop.

So I've had a couple of guys who have really struggled with it, but for the most part, the guys really accept it as a challenge, and I work really hard at trying to do it well, and so I've benefitted from that.

DAVIES: You wear a big, oversized catcher's mitt, right?

DICKEY: Yeah, the catcher has a kind of - I have a special glove by Rawlings that's made up, it's a knuckleball mitt, that's unique for the knuckleball, to give them a little bit better chance.

DAVIES: Now, can umpires accurately call balls and strikes with a knuckleballer? Is it harder?

DICKEY: You know, it is hard. But I have found that most of the Major League umpires really give me the benefit of the doubt because they don't want to miss a strike. It really reflects poorly on them if they missed a strike. So if there's a borderline pitch or a marginal pitch that could be a strike or a ball, a lot of times I will get that call because they think that they don't want to be the guy who can't call a knuckleball right. They really take it as a challenge.

And the guys up there are so good, the umpires are so good that most of the time, you know, they might miss four or five a game, but over the course of a 250-pitch game, that's pretty remarkable.

DAVIES: OK, so umpires, if you're listening, R.A. Dickey says you're great. So this season, give him a break.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DICKEY: Yes.

DAVIES: You know, there are only a handful of guys in the major leagues that have done this over the years. I think you're probably the only knuckleballer out there right now, is that right?

DICKEY: That's right. Tim Wakefield retired last year. He was the other one.

DAVIES: Are you guys a special club? I mean, do you get to know each other?

DICKEY: Certainly. I mean, we are a very tight fraternity. It's interesting because if I want to get better at my craft of being a knuckleballer, I can't necessarily turn to one of my peers and say, hey, how do you throw yours, or, you know, what am I doing on this pitch, or I can't turn to my pitching coach and ask him to help me. I have to lean on someone who's done it because it is such a specialized mechanic.

And so I will call or reach out to Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield or Phil Niekro. Those are kind of my go-to guys that I really talk to quite a bit when I'm struggling. But it is, because it's something that's so seldom done, and it takes such a very committed, disciplined, longstanding time commitment to try to perfect.

There's not a lot of people who have walked a mile in your shoes. And so you definitely want access to those people, and for me, those guys have been incredibly generous with their acumen and their wisdom and really poured into me in a way that has made a difference in my life.

DAVIES: We're speaking with R.A. Dickey. He is a starting pitcher for the New York Mets, and he has a new memoir called "Wherever I Wind Up." We'll talk more after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with big league pitcher and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. He's a starter for the New York Mets, and he has a new memoir. It's called "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball."

The great knuckleballer Phil Niekro, you wrote in one of your conversations with him, he watched you throw, and he said you have an angry knuckleball. What did he mean?

DICKEY: Well, I throw - most knuckleballers, the velocity of the knuckleball is anywhere from 62 to 69 miles an hour. My knuckleball is anywhere from 69 to 81. And so I think he was speaking to that effect, is that, you know, when I throw mine with greater velocity, and I'm able to take spin off of it, you know, it comes in like a bucktooth termite trying to saw through that wood.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DICKEY: You know, and so that's kind of the image that I always took from it.

DAVIES: You know, baseball is such a team game, and there are hitting coaches and pitching coaches, and guys who are struggling, you know, will get advice and encouragement from other people on the team who do what they do. You know, knuckleballers are in a situation where nobody does what they do. I mean, you get the feeling that managers and pitching coaches run you out there and cross their fingers and hope for the best because they can't really help you. Does that make for kind of a different relationship in the dugout?

DICKEY: That's a great question, and the answer is yes, it does. And it's not necessarily a bad relationship, or it doesn't worsen the relationship. It's just different. It's very unique because the pitch is not thrown very often, and there's not a lot of guys out there, and a lot of managers don't really know how to manage a knuckleballer because it can be great one inning and then the next inning, you go out there, and you don't have a great feel for it, and you throw some tumbling balls up there, and they get hit around, and then the next inning you get it back, and all of a sudden nobody can hit you.

So, you know, Terry Francona had a quote where he said, when he was managing Tim Wakefield with the Red Sox, he would just sit on his hands and wait for Tim to tell him when he was ready to come out of the game. And I have found that same relationship with Terry Collins and the New York Mets.

He's fantastic, and we have a very open line of communication, and we over-communicate, which really enables us to have a good relationship and know when to put the relievers in, and I can be honest with him when my knuckleball is really not very good, and he can have somebody ready to go, and things like that.

But it's a very - and it can be a very lonely place, you know, because you don't have someone to turn to and say, golly, what am I doing wrong? It's up to you. You've got to be your own best coach. And so I've spent a greater part of seven years trying to figure out what makes me good and what makes me not so good.

DAVIES: A knuckleball is hard to master, but the one great thing is that it's less punishing on your arm, and you see some guys throw it into their 40s, right, I guess maybe even 50s?

DICKEY: Yeah, yeah, you can certainly throw it into your mid-40s, and a lot of knuckleballers, their best years come from ages 38 to 44, right in that area. Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield all won a great number of games during that age period.

You're able to do that because I'm out there as a knuckleballer operating at about 75 percent capacity, whereas as a conventional pitcher, you're full-tilt all the time. As a knuckleballer, you know, it's much better for you to operate at 75, 80 percent capacity. That's when you get the most movement on your pitch.

So it enables you to recover a lot better. It's a lot easier on your body. So if the other parts of your body hold up well, there's no reason to think that you can't pitch as long as you want to pitch.

DAVIES: You grew up in Nashville, you tell us in this book, and your dad left your mom early, and your mom had a drinking problem, used to take you to a bar called Joe's Village Inn. And, you know, it's gotten a lot of attention in the book that you revealed that you were abused sexually in your childhood, you know, once - well, repeatedly by a teenage girl who was your babysitter when you were eight years old and then on another occasion more brutally by I guess a 17-year-old boy. This is tough stuff. Did you tell anybody about these incidents at the time?

DICKEY: No, I didn't. In fact, it wasn't for 23 years until I uttered a word of it to anybody. I think one of the tough things about being sexually abused is you - you know, right away you feel like you've been a part of something incredibly wicked, that you've had something to do with it even. I now know it has nothing to do with any fault of your own. But you certainly feel like it was partially your fault. And so, I always just stuffed it away and would build up mechanisms for dealing with that pain.

DAVIES: Yet you became a great athlete. I mean, you were a great athlete, and you played, you know, sports, many of them, well in junior high and high school. Did you think much about the abuse at the time, or had you repressed it or thought you'd repressed it?

DICKEY: Well, I certainly had repressed it, but there's not - you can't really repress something like that to the extent that you never think about it. And one of the mechanisms that I had developed was pouring myself into athletics. You know, on the baseball field, the basketball court and the football field were all kind of my refuges, places I would take sanctuary from the pain of feeling like, you know, I was a fractured, less-than-human person, you know? I mean, and that's when you're given.

When you're sexually abused, that's what you feel like. You feel like you're not worth anything. And so I would try to gain back some of that worth by pouring myself into athletics in a way that was, you know, at times probably pretty dysfunctional.

DAVIES: You went to live with your dad, I guess in your teenage years, right, because your mom's drinking was becoming more apparent to you. And we should say that she's been in recovery now for many years, and that's great.

DICKEY: Yeah, she's great.

DAVIES: But that was a rough time for you, and it's interesting that you say there became a point where you began sleeping at times in vacant houses. I mean, just tell - what made you do that? How did you figure out where to go?

DICKEY: Well, I was a high school student at Montgomery Bell Academy, which was an all-boys school in Nashville, and it was just lonely. It was lonely at home, and it didn't necessarily - it had to do with so much more than just, you know, being the only child in a house with a father and a step-mother. It was just loneliness that had probably gotten its genesis from the sexual abuse and other things that had happened along the way.

But I would go into the library and look at the classifieds in the newspaper, The Tennessean or the Nashville Banner, where the two newspapers at the time. And I would look at the classified and find houses that were for rent that were close to school. I always knew that I was going to be at school sooner or later because, you know, there was always some kind of practice or game that was going on.

And I would just tell my dad that I was spending the night out, and I would find a vacant home that I had found in the classifieds in the library and kind of scope it out, and usually there was always a key under a mat or under a flowerpot, something like that, and I would just let myself in. And at least, you know, it was a loneliness of my choosing, you know, at that point. I wasn't reminded of how lonely I was, you know. And that's kind of how I started doing that.

DAVIES: R.A. Dickey's new memoir is called "Wherever I Wind Up." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

We're speaking with R.A. Dickey, the only knuckleball pitcher in Major League Baseball. He has a new memoir about his struggles to overcome childhood trauma and make it in the big leagues called "Wherever I Wind Up."

Dickey was a great conventional pitcher at the University of Tennessee, where he pitched several games in the College World Series and made the U.S. Olympic team.

Now you become a first-round draft choice for the Texas Rangers. This was a big deal, right? I mean what did it mean to you to get that kind of an entree into the big leagues?

DICKEY: Oh, well, it was what - immediately what it meant was that I was going to be able to sign a contract that was at least on the frontend in the way of a signing bonus worth close to $1 million. And that was something that was, you know, we came from a low to middle income type situation when I was growing up, so I had plans for the money to do things with and that's what it meant right away. And then it certainly also, you know, I think I took for granted the fact that I was going to be a professional pitcher, which is something that I'd always, had always wanted to be from an early age. And when I was drafted I was the 18th pick overall by the Texas Rangers in 1996. And I'd made the Olympic team and we went to Atlanta in '96 to compete for a gold medal, we ended up winning the bronze, and then that's when I went down to Texas to sign my contract and get on with my big league career.

DAVIES: Right. And we say 18th pick. That's in the first round. I mean that is a really high quality - that's a prestigious place to be for a kid entering the big leagues. So your dreams are coming true. You're going to be financially secure in a way you never have been and then it all falls apart. What happened?

DICKEY: Well, when I flew down to take my comprehensive physical, which all first rounders do, they did this test called the Valgus stress test, where you put your elbow into this apparatus and they apply pressure from the back and they take an X-ray from the top. And it revealed that I had a little bit extra laxity in my right elbow in that joint than my left elbow. By the time I had left the doctor's office and got to the general manager's office to sign my contract in Arlington, Texas, the doctor and the general manager had talked and my agent was there and we were going up the elevator and, you know, I'm thinking I'm about to do the - you know, throw out the first pitch of the game, meet Nolan Ryan, who was my boyhood idol and sign my contract for $850,000. Doug Melvin was the general manager at the time called my agent into the office and I went on and stood out on the balcony and watched batting practice take place while my agent and the general manager talked.

Well, the agent comes out of the office and gets me and he's got kind of a pale look on his face and says, you know, we need to go in here right away. And I sit down across from Doug Melvin. And Doug Melvin commenced to say that they were going to take the offer off the table because they felt like there was something wrong with my arm. And, of course - and in that moment, you know, I was having a million different emotions, least of which was to jump over the table and choke him to death because I had spent a lifetime trying to get to that very point and he was taking it all away, at least that was what I thought. But I quieted my spirit, and thankfully I didn't burn a bridge in that moment and I went on to see Dr. Andrews in Birmingham, Alabama, the next day and he advised that I get an MRI.

So I got in an MRI and sure enough, the MRI came back that I didn't have the existence of an ulnar collateral ligament in my right elbow at all, which is the ligament inside the elbow that keeps that joint stable. In my mind I was thinking this is great, we should get more money. I'm never going to have to have that ligament replaced.

DAVIES: Because that's a typical injury...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: That's a typical injury for pitchers, the...

DICKEY: That is – yeah - the Tommy John surgery is a typical injury for a Major League pitcher. But, of course, the Rangers did not see it that way. They thought they had drafted damaged goods. And I went back to Nashville, Tennessee, thinking that I may never throw for a professional team ever again because with that kind of hanging over you, you never know what's going to happen.

So my options became go back to school for my senior year. I had been drafted after my junior year of college, go back from my senior year and try to play well enough to get drafted again - albeit, it would not have been in a high round because of the condition that I had. And about 24 hours before my first class at the University of Tennessee, the general manager, Doug Melvin, called my agent and said we'll give him $75,000, take it or leave it. And I prayed about it and talked about it with Anne, who is my wife now, and felt led to take the contract. And so I did and started my professional career as kind of this freak that didn't have the ulnar collateral ligament.

DAVIES: So with this bizarre injury, I mean, your dream is shattered. You don't get the $850,000 signing bonus. In the end they give you I guess a $75,000 contract. And you go to their minor league system and you start there grinding away in the minor leagues, Port Charlotte, Florida, initially then you spent a lot of time in Oklahoma City toiling away in the minors. Do you remember when you first went up to the big leagues that first game? I'm sure you do. Tell us about that.

DICKEY: Oh, certainly. Certainly. I had spent parts of five seasons in the minor leagues and played everywhere from Port Charlotte, Florida, to Venezuela to Puerto Rico and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then finally Oklahoma City before I got called up to the Texas Rangers in 2001 - was my first call up. And my first outing was against the Oakland Athletics in Texas and I just remember it being almost surreal kind of experience. So many people thought that I would never get there simply because of the condition I had in my elbow and I had made it and I was able to celebrate that with my family, and they were there in the stands. And I had a three up, three down inning against the Oakland A's in the ninth inning and it was just a fantastic experience all around.

DAVIES: But in the end it didn't go well, did it?

DICKEY: Well, not as a conventional pitcher. You know, I kind of was up and down for the next four years as a conventional pitcher and I was very mediocre by my own admission, you know, I never could get to that next place that I wanted to get to. You know, I wanted - I felt like I was capable of so much more but the guys in the big leagues are just so good, you know? If you're not pinpoint you're going to - your weaknesses will be revealed very quickly and mine were often revealed. And so I had to come up with something else if I wanted to hang onto the dream of being a Major League pitcher and that's in 2005 when I made the transition to being a full-time knuckleball pitcher.

DAVIES: You know, I was going to ask you about coming back to the minor leagues so many times because when you start the minor leagues it's exciting, right, you're a professional baseball player.

DICKEY: Sure.

DAVIES: And then there comes a point at which you're one of the oldest guys in the dugout and this place isn't exciting because you've been to a big league park and, I don't know, did you worry that you were going to be one of these guys who just has a minor league career and then moves on?

DICKEY: Certainly. Certainly. You know, and you hit the nail right on the head. The first couple of years of minor league baseball you're like all right, you know, you're here, you're chasing your dream, and then all of a sudden five years go by and you've had a child and you're married and you've been in Oklahoma City so long you could run for mayor, you know, and you're looking for that opportunity. And so when it comes you're certainly elated. And I got the call. I remember in 2001 when I first got my call to go to the big leagues, I was in Colorado Springs and I remember being so happy because it was the first time that I ever flew first class somewhere and that was a real treat.

DAVIES: We're speaking with R.A. Dickey. He is a starting pitcher for the New York Mets and he has a new memoir called "Wherever I Wind Up." We'll talk more after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with big league pitcher and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. He's a starter for the New York Mets and he has a new memoir. It's called "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball."

So you describe the moment that you made this transition to being a knuckleball pitcher, I mean two greats of the game, you know, Buck Showalter and Orel Hershiser tell you we think, you know, you've been fooling around with this pitch, you can do it well, and then you begin in a way in this second pitching career learning it. And it's a hard craft to master and you went up to the big leagues a few times and got - did well but also got knocked around plenty and when it isn't working it's a rough day on the mound.

DICKEY: Sure.

DAVIES: And you ended up back in the minors again. And there's this bizarre, I don't know if we could call it a turning point in your career, that involved you trying to swim across the Missouri River in Iowa. What happened?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DICKEY: Oh, man. What didn't happen? That's exactly right, what happened. Well, you know, I had been coming - like I said, I spent so much time in Oklahoma City one of the places we would always play was Omaha, we would play the Royals, and the Omaha Royals, which was the AAA affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. And I had been going through there for years and we always stayed at this hotel and overlooked the Missouri River. And for years I would go up the elevator looking out over the river thinking I wonder if anybody can swim across that. Well, in 2007 I thought I'm going to do it. You know, I've spent a lifetime of not taking any risks; I'm going to take one and try to do it. And so word spread around the clubhouse and all my teammates got out there and they watched me de-robe and get down onto the shallows of the Missouri before I took off and tried to traverse it.

DAVIES: That's a big, fast-moving river, right? What happened?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DICKEY: Well, it's - it is big, it's dirty and it's fast-moving, and it's - come to find out it has a significant undertow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DICKEY: But I set out and I'd always been a pretty good swimmer. I felt like I was going at a pretty good clip. And, you know, I had gone about 100 yards upriver so that I felt like if I got across, you know, I would kind of be in the place I needed to be that would look right across the hotel to the hotel from the other side. And I thought after I had been swimming for about, you know, what seemed to be four or five minutes, I thought I'd come up and take a peek. And so when I did, I realized all of the sudden that the river had swept me very far down the river and I - my teammates who were once standing right in front of me at six feet tall just about, were now looked like little ants on the horizon. I mean it was a really scary moment. Well, I get out almost to the middle and by this time I'm thinking I have zero shot at getting to the other side. And so I turn around and I know at that point when I turn around that it's going to be a fight just to stay alive and things took on a much less jovial feel.

You know, it was every stroke was, you know, a determined stroke to try to survive an experience where I may drown. And so I got close to the shore and I had kind of given myself over to the fact that this was it, you know, I wasn't going to make it. And I closed my eyes and started to sink. And I remember writing a line in the book the sensation of weeping underwater, it was a real interesting sensation and I was praying that God, you know, would protect my family and all that. I had come to grips with dying and started sinking.

And right as I was about to open my mouth and take in all this water just ended quickly, my feet hit the bottom of the river and it kind of renewed my adrenaline and I surged up and I was probably about 14 feet high. Of course, the water is so deep - I mean dark. You don't really know where you are. And I boosted myself up and did that repeatedly, dog-peddled a little more and then made one furious - more furious attempt to try to get to the side and one of my teammates had followed me all the way downriver, named Grant Balfour, and if it weren't for him I wouldn't be talking to you today, Dave. But he stuck out his arm and I reached up and grabbed it and he pulled me to shore and I survived.

DAVIES: Now this was a near-death experience. I mean you almost didn't get out of that river alive. And it's fascinating that after that experience you're pitching got better. Why do you think?

DICKEY: I know, you know, I certainly look at it as almost a baptism of sorts. You know, I mean I went into the Missouri River. I was hanging on by a thread professionally. I was like one in four at the time with a six something ERA, which is not very good in baseball at all, and I was one phone call from the general manager away from being released and never playing baseball again, maybe. And when I came out of the river, I ended up going 11 and two with like 2.80 ERA and became the PCL Pitcher of the Year.

DAVIES: That's Pacific Coast League. Yeah.

DICKEY: Yeah. The Pacific – yeah, Pacific Coast League.

DAVIES: Terrific season. Yeah.

DICKEY: Yeah. Terrific season. And I say that only to emphasize the point that, you know, I think when I came out of the river I was so consumed with just wanting to live in the present well that I think that carried over directly into my pitching and I just cared about each pitch singularly. And so, you know, if one pitch didn't go well, forget it. Here's this pitch. What am I going to do with this pitch? And when I did that over and over and over again, I was able to look back and all of the sudden I was putting together a pretty incredible run. And I decided that that's how I wanted to live my life.

DAVIES: You got therapy during this time. There were problems in your marriage, and you finally sat down with a therapist and opened up about things in your life, including the abuse. Was this the first time you'd ever talked about it?

DICKEY: That was it, Dave. Yeah. It was 2006, and it had been locked away for 23 years and had wreaked havoc on my life and the relationships that I had in my life, not only with my friends, whom I really wasn't even friends with. You know, I didn't trust anybody, obviously, and my wife didn't know the darkest things about me.

You know, I had kind of conned her into marrying me, almost, which is a tough admission. I loved her dearly. And so I projected who I wanted to be, but I would never let her inside, because I always feared that when someone knew the real me, they would want to run the other way.

And I think that's the perpetual darkness that you live in as a victim of sexual abuse. And when I met a guy named Steven James - he was my counselor at the time and who is now a really dear, close friend - he kind of helped me see a different way to live, and that you could trust people and that they could hold your story well and they could help you process through things that you thought you were going to have to deal with your whole life.

And it was then that, you know, Anne and I started to really work on our marriage, and I really started being honest with her and telling her the truth about things that were very hard to tell her the truth about and hope that she would love me despite those things. And she did.

DAVIES: And, of course, you've now become a quality big league pitcher. You had a great season in 2010 and a good season last year after a rocky start - a terrific finish. And I wondered - you know, this may be a reach, but when you were a man with these demons and a lot of, you know, maybe repressed anger and you were being a conventional pitcher, it was hard, and that being a knuckleballer means you kind of have to give in a little bit and throw a different kind of pitch, one that isn't - it's not power pitching. It's finesse pitching. It's letting the ball do what it's going to do. Do you think therapy is connected to doing that well in some way?

DICKEY: Oh, man, what a fantastic insight. You know, I think that's exactly what happened. You know, I feel like that there was something very divine about that, you know. I began throwing the knuckleball exactly when I really started working on my life and trying to become, you know, who God had authentically created me to be. And I think those things parallel each other.

You know, I feel like, one, trying to become a knuckleballer and work on something new and deconstructing what I once knew as a conventional pitcher and trying to relearn a mechanic, that helped me be a better human being. Going through counseling and trying to live in the moment well helped me be a better knuckleballer.

And so I think they coincide. I there's a real interesting relationship between the two that has, you know, really helped complete me.

DAVIES: So you're the only knuckleballer in the game now. I mean, is this a dying art, or is there somebody coming up who's going to throw this pitch?

DICKEY: Well, I think just by examining the sheer number of people who throw it, you have to admit that it's a dying art. But I have hope that someone's going to be coming up. There are a few guys, a couple of guys in the minor leagues, a couple of guys in independent baseball that are trying to get their knuckleball to a place where a big league team is going to be interested.

There's no one eminently about to come up, but I certainly feel like if I'm able to pitch for four or five more years, it will give someone somewhere enough time to get their knuckleball right so that I'm not the last one.

DAVIES: Well, R.A. Dickey, you know, we're speaking to you from Philadelphia, and I just don't think my daughter would let me wish a New York Met a successful season. But I am going to say I wish you the best, and it's been really interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

DICKEY: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: R.A. Dickey won his first start of the year Saturday, a 4-2 decision over Atlanta. His manager Terry Collins said trying to grip and throw the knuckleball on the 55-degree day was like throwing a piece of glass. Dickey's featured in a documentary, "Knuckleball," which premiers April 21st. And he has a new memoir called "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity, and the Perfect Knuckleball."

Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Bonnie Raitt's new album. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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