R. A. Dickey’s story is an inspiration that great books and movies are made of — a person from humble beginnings in the pursuit of perfection.
For those living under a rock since Opening Day of the baseball season, R. A. Dickey is a 37-year-old pitcher who labored 15 years in professional baseball, mostly in the minors, with occasional brief, unsuccessful stints in the majors. He seemed out of baseball, but re-invented himself as a knuckle-ball pitcher. His performance for the New York Mets in the first half of this season has drawn comparisons to some of the most dominant pitching streaks of the past 50 years. His 13-1 won-lost record is currently the best in baseball this season. He has pitched two consecutive one-hitters, along with 44 consecutive innings without an earned run.
But his personal story is far more compelling. Dickey describes himself as a wayward kid with a street-fighter’s sensibility. He is the child of divorce with an unfeeling father and an alcoholic mother. He’s the victim of childhood sexual abuse, first by a female babysitter, then later by an older boy. Forever in fights as a kid, he describes himself as a scrapper, rather than a fighter. A scrapper keeps coming back, no matter how badly he gets beat up. Eventually, he persevered and succeeded.
After several years in the minors, in 2006 Dickey earned a spot in the starting rotation of the Texas Rangers and an opportunity to start the fifth game of the season. But his early childhood would come back to haunt him and he lost confidence in himself. He writes, “I am 31 years old, and darn tired of being mediocre, one part retread, one part restoration project.” Even though he warmed up with an excellent, fluttering knuckle-ball, once the game started he lost confidence. His knuckle-ball turned into a beach ball. He got out of rhythm and got bombed. He set a modern record of ignominy, giving up 6 home runs in only 3 innings. He says, “I pitched with fear. I let doubt rob me of any shot I had of succeeding.” He then was demoted to the minors.
Dickey reevaluated himself and pitching. He concluded that the best pitchers are not necessarily the ones who throw the hardest. The best pitchers are the ones who have a plan, and know how to execute it—who know how to compete and never stop doing it. (As a White Sox fan, I am reminded of a recent almost identical comment from Jake Peavy, a pitcher whose many injuries and reconstructive surgeries would have sidelined a lesser competitor long ago. Peavy is also having a career comeback year). Talent is often overrated, and willpower undervalued.
In a fit of depression-induced bravado, Dickey attempted to swim the Missouri River and nearly drowned. His survival was semi-miraculous, and Dickey concluded that God still had something more in store for him. Dickey credits his wife Anne’s support over the years in bringing him to where he is today. He is also seeing a psychotherapist for his demons, especially the sexual abuse. His faith, family and therapist changed his life. When he found inner peace and his pitching improved.
Dickey worked tirelessly in the minors to perfect his knuckler and was named Pacific Coast League Player of the Year.
Finally, in 2010 Dickey signed a contract with the Mets, and the rest is history. He was called up in May, and pitched well. 2011 was even better, and this year he’s phenomenal—a 37-year-old phenom!
Dealing with some of the demons of his past, Dickey climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last winter, risking $4.25 million of his 2012 salary to raise awareness of the issue of human trafficking of children.
One final surprise for me was to find that despite his gruff workingman persona, Dickey was an English Literature major in college with a 3.35 GPA. The book is interspersed with beautifully written short excerpts from his 2011 diary. He reflects on universal topics applicable to life as well as baseball. He has reached the highest levels of sport and of maturity as a human being. His story is worth reading.
Question: How do you feel about players crossing themselves before they come to bat?