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.
The fact is, the knuckleball has always been something of a novelty act, a little bit of trickery at odds with the game’s speed, size, and power—attributes that tend to earn the easy attention of scouts and fans, as well as money. It’s difficult not to think that the recently retired LaRussa, back for this one game after leading the Cardinals to a World Series victory last year, may be playing somewhat to this prejudice as well, choosing an obvious thoroughbred like Cain, over a pitcher who had no choice but to become a fox. But baseball is about more than power and the pride it engenders, or else Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire would be the only templates that mattered, and R.A. Dickey’s first half of the 2012 season would be irrelevant. Winning is what matters. The minor leagues are full of hulking giants screaming "challenge me!" from the dugout after popping up to shortstop on a slow breaking ball. Their pride demands power versus power—challenge me. It’s the cry of the eternal .230 hitter, always undone by cunning.
LaRussa explains that he's starting Cain because he's afraid Dickey's knuckleball might might mix up starting catcher Buster Posey, Cain’s batterymate with the Giants. It’s true no one wants to see the All-Star game opening with the catcher racing to the backstop to retrieve a bushel of passed balls. But there’s the glass-half full version as well: The top of the American League’s order, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Josh Hamilton, all humbled trying to hit the sweet spot on a hummingbird.
The AL’s top hitters screwing themselves into the ground, shaking their heads in frustration, would be as memorable as John Kruk’s plate appearance in the 1993 All-Star game after Randy Johnson sailed one over his head, and Kruk was happy just to survive by striking out. It was entertainment but it also highlighted Johnson’s extraordinary ability, the fear he instilled in his adversaries, as well as Kruk's sense of humor in the face of failure, a requirement over the stretch of a baseball season. For all the All-Star game’s heroic moments, the game-winning homeruns and masterful pitching performances, it’s the eccentric moments that illuminate for us fans who otherwise have little insight into the kind of talent and sensibility that it takes to play the game of baseball at the level of an All-Star.