In June 2010, the nation’s capital was atwitter with stories of the Washington Nationals rookie Stephen Strasburg, a starting pitcher who threw 100 miles per hour with a wicked changeup. On days when he pitched, attendance doubled; television sports shows asked their panelists to weigh in on Strasburg Fever.
On July 3, Strasburg was set to pitch against the New York Mets, and herds of fans made their eager way to the Nationals’ ballpark. In a stadium-bound subway car filled with middle-aged men wearing Strasburg T-shirts, another man in early middle age named Robert Allen Dickey eavesdropped on the fans’ effervescing excitement. Dickey was interested because he was the Met scheduled to pitch against Strasburg that afternoon. No one on the subway knew who Dickey was, mostly because almost no one anywhere knew who Dickey was. To sportswriters, he was a journeyman ballplayer; to fans he was a guy whose fastball topped out in the mid-’80s. In Wherever I Wind Up, Dickey says that being matched against Strasburg was like a butterfly being matched against a fighter jet.
That afternoon, 40,000 fans saw Strasburg pitch well—and Dickey pitch better. A month before, Dickey had been a minor leaguer in Buffalo, wrapping up a decade-and-a-half run of professional baseball irrelevance; a month after, he came as close as any Met ever has to pitching a no-hitter. Two years after the Strasburg game, he has the longest streak of quality pitching starts in the majors. But Dickey isn’t unusual for being a late bloomer so much as for the way he bloomed, and his memoir tells an interesting story.
In 1996, Dickey was the Texas Rangers’ first draft pick, with an $810,000 signing bonus. Before signing the contract, he had to take a physical exam, where it was discovered that he was missing a ligament in his pitching arm. The signing bonus was cut to $75,000 and Dickey was relegated to the margins of the Texas farm system. As his arm problems caught up with him, Dickey’s pitching got worse, and feeling that desperate times called for desperate measures, he began to throw a knuckleball.
A knuckleball is baseball’s most unusual pitch—right now, Dickey is the only major league pitcher who throws it. Instead of being aimed at a target, knuckleballs are designed to have no spin as they fly from the pitcher’s mound to the plate, letting air resistance flutter them back and forth at random. A good knuckleball can’t be hit. Few pitchers ever throw them, however, because knuckleballs are hard to throw well, and when thrown badly, are very easily hit. The post-1900 record of home runs allowed in a single game (six) was tied by Dickey in his first major league start as a knuckleball pitcher.
Dickey grew up in a broken home; his parents divorced when he was 8, and he was badly abused by a babysitter. As an adult, he refused to trust anyone and felt desperate to show the world his worth. When he started throwing the knuckleball, he says, he threw it badly because he didn’t trust himself to throw it well. He kept his old, conventional pitches in his repertoire and didn’t give the knuckleball the practice it needed. Inevitably, he didn’t throw anything well enough to catch on in the major leagues, and by 2007 he’d spent a decade in baseball bouncing around the farm systems and growing depressed.
One day, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, he looked out at the Missouri River and decided to swim across it. Dickey isn’t sure why—but looking at the Missouri, he thought of “Washington crossing the Delaware, Joshua crossing the Jordan, Perseus crossing the river Styx.” (Dickey has a touch of the poet in him.) The Missouri, of course, is a big, strong river, and Dickey was a third of the way across when he realized he wasn’t going to make it and would probably drown. He tried to retreat to the shore but got towed under by the current. Onlookers were convinced he wouldn’t be coming back up.
Deep underwater, Dickey began to cry—because his life had been a failure, because he was leaving behind three kids and a wife to whom he had not been a good husband, and because, though accepting Christ in high school had helped him forget his miserable childhood, he hadn’t been a good Christian, either. Then he hit bottom. Feet planted on the riverbed, he was overcome by a feeling that God was giving him a second chance, and with his last ounce of energy, pushed himself back towards the surface. A friend managed to yank him onto shore.
Second chance in hand, R. A. Dickey surrendered himself to the knuckleball and became the pitcher he is now. And that pitcher is beloved—partly because he throws a pitch that no one else throws, partly because he’s a 37-year-old professional athlete who says he’s “only 26 in knuckleball years,” and partly for wanting to teach English and for naming his bat “Hrunting” after Beowulf’s sword. Also because he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to support a group that helps abused kids and because no one can imagine him cussing, ever.
Joshua Gelernter is a student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.