During Major League Baseball’s All-Star game Home Run Derby last night, hometown Kansas City fans booed Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano with such gusto one could be forgiven for supposing there’s still a lively rivalry between the New York and Kansas City franchises—like there was back in the 70s and 80s. Or maybe after almost 29 years Royals fans just haven’t forgotten the pine-tar incident.
Of course the real controversy coming out of the All-Star game is National League manager Tony LaRussa’s decision to give the start to the San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain over R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets. The baseball press is up in arms over the decision, with some darkly recalling the 2009 All-Star game when the American League manager left knuckleballer Tim Wakefield sitting in the bullpen the whole game.
The writers have good reason to question LaRussa’s choice: Dickey’s numbers are better. The Tennessee-born knuckleballer has 12 wins to Cain’s 9, his ERA is 2.40 to Cain’s 2.62, and he has a National League leading 3.6 wins above replacement. Cain’s 2.4 wins above replacement, notes USA Today, isn't even in the top ten.
And while it’s true Cain pitched a perfect game in June, Dickey also pulled off a rare feat, pitching back-to-back one hitters—one of which might have been a no-hitter had Mets third-baseman David Wright not show-boated a slow roller. Moreover, Dickey put together a streak of 44 innings and two/thirds without giving up an earned run.
The other thing Dickey has going for him is his story. Many athletes give over some of their time and money to promote their favorite charities, but Dickey pushed it one step further last winter when he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to “raise awareness for the Bombay Teen Challenge, an organization that rescues and cares for women and girls in Mumbai who are at risk of being abused and exploited.” (Here’s a Dickey post about reaching the Kilimanjaro’s summit.)
An English literature major at Tennessee, Dickey published a (co-authored) memoir this spring, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, that describes his troubled childhood and his circuitous career path. The Texas Rangers selected him in the first round of the 1996 amateur draft, but when one of the team’s physicians discovered that the Vols ace had no ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, the Rangers withdrew their $810,000 offer and signed him for $75,000. But it was with the Rangers in 2005, with manager Buck Showalter and pitching coaches Orel Hershiser and Mark Connor, that Dickey discovered the knuckleball that turned him into an All-Star seven years later with the Mets, after tours with two other big-league clubs.
It appears Dickey has two different knuckleballs, a high one that jumps as it reaches the plate and a low one that dives away from batters, both of which he throws around 80 MPH, considerably faster than the typical big-league knuckleball. Also, Dickey has more control over the pitch than most of his knuckleballing precursors, walking just 1.9 batters per nine innings this season. Charlie Hough averaged 3.9 walks over the course of his career while the recently retired Tim Wakefield averaged 3.4, and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro averaged 3.