Below is an excerpt from Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey; written by Dickey and Wayne Coffey. Here, in an except from Chapter 10 – Requiem For My Fastball – he tells the story of realizing that to continue his career, he needed to completely reinvent his game to that of a knuckleball specialist.
A note from publisher Blue Rider Press (via Amazon):
An English Lit major at the University of Tennessee, Dickey is as articulate and thoughtful as any professional athlete in any sport-and proves it page after page, as he provides fresh and honest insight into baseball and a career unlike any other. Fourteen years ago, Dickey was a heralded No. 1 draft choice of the Texas Rangers, only to have an $810,000 signing bonus, and his lifelong dream, ripped away by an X- ray-and the discovery that he did not have an ulna collateral ligament in his right elbow. Five years ago, he gave up a record six home runs in three innings to the Detroit Tigers-and was effectively consigned to the baseball scrap heap.
Sustained by his profound Christian faith, the love of his wife and children, and a relentless quest for self-awareness and authenticity, the immensely likable Dickey details his transformation from a reckless, risk-taking loner to a grounded, life- affirming big leaguer. He emerged as one of the premier pitchers in the National League in 2010-and the knuckleballing embodiment of the wonders that perseverance and human wisdom can produce. Dickey views his story as one of redemption. Readers will come to see it as something more-a uniquely American story of beating back demons, listening to your heart, and overcoming extraordinary odds.
I am in a small space, surrounded by concerned faces, an inquisition without the bright lights. The topic of today is my lifelong run as a conventional pitcher. It is not being decided on a mound.
It is being decided on a sofa in Buck Showalter’s office. The sofa is comfortable but I am not
I wonder why they’ve called me in here. Have I run out of road? Could they finally be giving up on me?
Across from me are Buck, pitching coach Orel Hershiser, and bullpen coach Mark “Goose” Connor. It is mid-April 2005, a full nine years after the Rangers drafted me. I’ve been a member of Buck’s staff for the last two seasons, a spot starter and long reliever, my first extended time in the big leagues. I hate to say those Baseball Prospectus writers were right, but the truth is that I am probably not even as good as marginal. My ERA is 5.09 in 2003 and 5.61 in 2004, and I give up a bunch more hits than innings pitched. I have enough promising moments to convince the front office to keep me around – I throw a complete-game, six-hit shutout against the Tigers in late ’03 – but as hard as I compete, I just can’t seem to sustain any success against major-league hitters.
And now Buck and Orel and Goose want to talk to me about it.
Two days earlier, pitching in relief against the Angels, I’d thrown a sinker to Garret Anderson and felt as if I’d been stabbed in the right shoulder. The pain landed me on the disabled list and now on Buck’s couch. My senses are on high alert, noticing everything from the tight weave of the carpet to the reddish, round contour of Buck’s face. His desk is obsessively neat, with a tidy stack of papers and game notes, a well-ordered lineup of framed photos, and a row of books about warfare and leadership. Behind him is a whiteboard with the names of the Rangers’ top minor-league prospects. Buck likes being a general, on top of everything, no detail escaping his ever-darting eyes. But this time he lets his lieutenant, Orel, do most of the talking.
I like it when Orel talks. He knows a lot about pitching. He’s a man with a good heart, a man I trust. He gets right to the point.
After you finish rehabbing your shoulder, what would you think about going back to Oklahoma City to learn how to become a full-time knuckleball pitcher? Orel asks. I’m sure you don’t want to go back to the minors, but we think it’s your best chance for success. You have a good knuckleball already. You have the perfect makeup to make it work, because you know how to compete and we know how hard you’ll go after it. We think it can be a great thing for you and for the ball club, but we want to know what you think.
I squirm on the sofa and make eye contact with all three of them, one after another. It doesn’t feel as I’m being ganged up on. It feels as though they are all on my side.
Orel and I have had some general conversations about this, but nothing concrete. I’ve done bullpen sessions for him in which I’ve thrown nothing but the knuckleball, a pitch I throw once or twice a game, if that. He’s always been positive and supportive of me. So have Buck and Goose Connor. Positive is exactly what I need right now, because I’m full of doubts and short on hope, a thirty-year-old journeyman whose career is hanging by a glove string. I’ve never been a guy to obsess about stats, and I believe the game has gone berserk with all its number crunching and slicing and dicing of statistical metrics. But I cannot run from my numbers. Over parts of four big-league seasons, I have pitched in seventy-two games. My record is 15-17, my earned-run average is 5.48. I’ve ben up 293 hits in 2392/3 innings. Those are some ugly numbers
Fringe big-leaguer numbers.
Later, Goose confirms for me just how precarious the situation is.
They aren’t going to bring you back to the big leagues as a conventional pitcher, R.A. You’re going to come back as a knuckleball pitcher or you are not going to come back at all.
I fidget on Buck’s sofa and contemplate the end of one career and the beginning of a new one. It’s hard to wrap my mind around it. Okay, so not many people have ever confused me with Nolan Ryan. I get that. But still, I’ve always been able to throw a hard sinking fastball, at 92 or 93 miles per hour. I became an All-American and an Olympian and a first-round draft choice because I had stuff – a big-league fastball and a big-league changeup to play off it.
Now I am supposed to say goodbye to all that and join the lineage of Hoyt Wilhelm and the Niekro brothers and Charlie Hough?
That’s exactly what I am supposed to do. And it is what I have to do because radar guns don’t lie, and this whole spring, my fastball has been topping out at 85 or 86. My arm feels fine and I cut the ball loose, and what?
Your fastball isn’t coming in the way it used to. How’s your arm feeling? Goose would ask.
It feels fine, Goose. Really. I don’t know what’s going on.
Throw it again, Goose would say.
I’d throw it again and again, waiting for the gun reading to change or for someone to tell me the gun was busted and it was all a big mistake. The reading never budges. The gun isn’t the problem. I try to rationalize the predicament any way I can. I’d hurt my arm at the end of 2004; maybe it’s just taking longer than usual to get my strength back. Maybe I’d fallen into some bad mechanical habits that Orel and Goose and I can sort out. Lots of pitchers go through little dead-arm periods.
It could be a lot of different things, I keep telling myself.
I want to run from the truth. I want to escape, the same way I did when I slept in empty houses. But in my heart I know what is going on. Know I am feeling good and throwing freely, and throwing slop.
I know my arm is spent.
As we break camp and the season starts, my fastball remains AWOL. Bleakness sweeps over me. Anne and I now have two little girls and I have no backup plan if the Rangers let me go. No family business. No standing job offer. Nothing. Worse still, I have lost all belief in my ability to get big-league hitters out. Every time Buck calls for me, I feel as if I’m showing up for battle without a single weapon, using a peashooter against guys carrying bazookas.
Baseball isn’t fun anymore, I think. I feel overmatched. I don’t even want to come to the ballpark. I imagine a future making widgets on an assembly line.
So I look at Buck and Orel and Goose from the sofa, and I tell them:
I’ll do it. I’ll go to Oklahoma City. I’ll become a full-time knuckleball pitcher and I promise you I’ll give it everything I’ve got.
I stand up and shake hands with all three of them, a life-changing, seven-minute meeting complete. I feel as if a weight has been lifted, as if they’re throwing a lifeline to me. Lightness doesn’t come easily to me, but I walk out of there feeling almost buoyant, reminded of a quote from Romans 5:3-4 in the New Testament: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…”
Hope is good. Long-term hope is even better. Packing up for my tripe to Surprise, Arizona, the Rangers’ winter home, to rehab my shoulder, I pause to Google every knuckleballer I can think of. I’m not looking for tips. I am looking to find out how many games they won after turning thirty years old. A few clicks yield the astounding truth.
Phil Niekro won 287 games after the age of thirty. Charlie Hough won 182. Phil’s brother, Joe, won 163. Tom Candiotti won 122 and Wilbur Wood 105. Time Wakefield has 156 and is still going.
Add them all up, and the best knuckleballers of the last three or so decades have won over one thousand games in their thirties and beyond. Phil and Charlie weren’t far from pitching with AARP cards in their pockets. It is one of the best perks about life in the knuckle world: because you don’t throw it hard and you do no twisting or contorting, the knuckleball puts almost no strain on your arm. It enables you to not only eat innings but to inhale them.
The same week that buck and Orel and Goose sit down with me to redirect my future, Tim Wakefield dominates the Yankees twice in five days. Not that I need any more convincing, but it’s good to know. I leave behind my career as a conventional pitcher with the paltry fifteen victories and the farcical 5.48 ERA, the precise reasons why the knuckleball is my only option.
I tell myself:
Who cares about throwing 90 miles per hour? I’m tired of being average, or worse. Tired of being lost, hiding on the margins of life and the Texas Rangers’ roster.
Tired of pretending that I am something that I am not. I have no idea how this experiment is going to go, but I can’t wait to find out.