R. A. Dickey came up for the Mets in May and pitched so well that they couldn't take him out of the rotation. He wound up with a guaranteed spot in the Mets rotation in 2011.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — R.A. Dickey is a rare athlete who feels an obligation to make each interview as congenial, expansive and enlightening as he possibly can.
When I talked to him Saturday in the spring camp of the New York Mets, where the Mariners discard has become a vital member of the Mets’ rotation, he struggled to describe what the security of a two-year, $7.8 million contract means after 14 years of hanging on for dear life.
“I want to give you the right adjective, because to say it feels nice is so clichéd it makes me throw up,” he said.
Many athletes consider it mission accomplished when they deliver a cliché (like “mission accomplished,” for instance). Dickey acted like he would rather give up a single to the pitcher to lose a no-hitter — as happened to him last August, with Cole Hamels’ sixth-inning hit all that stood between Dickey and the first no-hitter in the Mets’ 48-year history.
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Dickey finally settled on “satisfying,” but I think he would have ridden his bicycle (he bikes 12 miles from his condo to the Mets complex most mornings) to a bookstore to buy a thesaurus if the Mets didn’t have to hit the field soon.
Later, I asked Dickey, 36, if he had found inspiration in the biographies of other late-bloomers who had endured circuitous routes to the majors — perhaps Jamie Moyer or Jim Morris of “The Rookie” fame.
“Maybe Odysseus,” he replied, as I tried frantically to recall what team he played for before realizing he was referring to the hero of Homer’s epic poem, “The Odyssey.”
If I had a dime for all the athletes over the years that have cited Odysseus … I’d now have a dime.
“I relate so much more to English literature and characters from books,” said Dickey, who plans to finish the degree in literature he nearly completed at the University of Tennessee before signing professionally with the Texas Rangers. “You can’t make my story up. I do read a lot, and he’s the character I liken myself to.”
It’s an apt choice for a guy who, after being the Rangers’ No. 1 pick in 1996 (No. 18 overall) had his signing bonus reduced from $810,000 to $75,000 when Rangers doctors found out he didn’t have an ulna collateral ligament in his right elbow. One of the doctors had noticed Dickey’s arm hanging oddly in a picture on the cover of Baseball America and ordered further tests.
Dickey meandered through the Texas organization so unimpressively that in 2005, at the recommendation of Orel Hershiser, he gave the knuckleball a try. It would take six more years, and uninspiring trips through the Brewers, Twins (twice) and Mariners organizations, before he mastered the most confounding pitch of them all.
The Mets, who signed Dickey purely as insurance before last season and promptly made him the first cut of spring training, were the beneficiary. Dickey came up in May and pitched so well that they couldn’t take him out of the rotation. He wound up with 11 wins, the seventh-best earned-run average in the National League at 2.84, and a guaranteed spot in the Mets rotation in 2011 — a career first.
Not bad for a guy who admits that on several occasions, he was just a phone call away from hanging up the glove. But each time, he and his wife, Anne, after much soul-searching, decided to persevere. When the Rangers cut him loose after the 2006 season, Dickey waited for the phone call that didn’t come until January. It was the Brewers, offering a AAA job that he grabbed.
“That was the only call I got,” he said. “The decision was almost made for me, but in God’s grace, He gave me a shot, and I was able to take advantage of it. That’s how I ended up in Seattle.”
More specifically, after spending the 2007 season in AAA with Milwaukee, Dickey signed with the Twins, who promptly lost him to the Mariners in the Rule 5 draft. At the end of spring, the Mariners offered Dickey back to the Twins but immediately reacquired him in a trade for pitcher Jair Fernandez.
With Seattle in 2008, Dickey had his moments, but splitting his time between starting and relieving, he was 5-8 with a 5.21 ERA. After the year, the M’s let him go and he wound up back with the Twins — who designated him for assignment in August.
“I do wish that at some point that year I would have been one or the other,” Dickey said of his time with Seattle. “I remember starting the year real hot, being put in the rotation, then taken out. I remember throwing out of the ‘pen between starts thinking, this is just more opportunity.
“But now, looking back on it, that didn’t help. I was an infant in my knuckleball years, so being an infant, it might have helped knowing when I was going to go in a game, knowing when to prepare to go in a game. That was a process I had to learn.”
If his floater was an infant then, what is it now?
“I’d say probably like late 20s,” he said. “Knuckleball years are like dog years.”
After his Mariners season, Dickey sent tapes to Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, who graciously invited him to his home for a knuckleball lesson. He also has picked the brains of masters like Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield, to the everlasting gratitude of Dickey.
“And then when I stopped trying to be everyone else, and was just me, that really helped, too,” he said.
I mentioned to Dickey that he could be on the verge of a Wakefield-like career. The Red Sox pitcher blossomed late, and like many knuckleballers, is still going strong in his 40s.
Not surprisingly, his answer was surprising.
“I don’t know if I would be able to pitch, even if I’m capable and still producing, until I’m 43 or 44 years old,” he said. “I just love my family (he and Anne have three kids, ages 9, 7 and 4 with a fourth on the way in March) too much.
“In thinking about that question, I don’t mind going out on a high note if it’s time to go and my family needs me. My family is more important to me than pitching another year. As long as I still have a family that wants me to live without regret, and continue to chase a dream, and support me in doing it, I’m going to keep doing it, and see where it goes.”
And so for R.A. Dickey, the odyssey continues.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org