Over the last three years, R.A. Dickey has basically been my favorite* baseball player. A couple of weeks ago, he was traded from my favorite baseball team, the New York Mets, to the Toronto Blue Jays. I could break down the trade for you from a sabermetric perspective, point out the wins and losses each team might expect to gain or lose. I could talk about the prospects involved in the trade, and why it makes sense to add an up-the-middle player on a rookie contract -- even if he might never be a star -- even if it means giving up the reigning Cy Young winner.
[ * Note: David Wright has made an astonishing comeback over the last few months.]
But I don't want to talk about that stuff. I want to talk about the things I think about when I think about R.A. Dickey.
My favorite baseball players have always been my favorites for what they do, and what they represent, not for who they are. We don't know who they really are. And yeah, even though we live in a world of Twitter and TMZ and six or seven 24-hour sports television stations, we still don't know these guys.
R.A. Dickey was a favorite of mine for what he did first, and that's throw a knuckleball. There's something about the knuckler that appeals to the more cerebral baseball fan, or at least to baseball fans who think that they're more cerebral. To put it in terms of Norse mythology or Marvel Comics, most major league ballplayers are like Thor, all powerful hammer and casting lightning. But knuckleball pitchers, they're like Loki. Mysterious. Clever. Mischievious. Knuckleball pitchers rely on deception, they foster chaos, they break from the normal patterns. And there's something very compelling about that. Especially when they're good at it.
Not only that, but knuckleball pitchers are a rarity, a sideshow, an event. Even at the height of the knuckler's popularity, there were only a few specialists in the knuckle-piece. As a kid, I was fascinated by the knuckler because I knew it. My friends and family would play whiffleball in the backyard, and I'd rack up hit after hit on my best days. But whenever I was getting just a little too good, a little too confident, my dad would say something like this:
"Okay. Get ready. Here comes the big one."
I'd get all jazzed up, ready to take a huge hack, really load the hands, and he'd release a slow, almost eephus-like ball that knuckled forward and back, something moving in slow motion like spilled syrup down the side of a bottle. I'd swing, I'd miss, but I'd be fascinated. It was frustrating, but amazing. No matter if I knew it was coming, even years later, you couldn't resist taking the huge hack at it. And once in a while, you'd time it right, and you'd crush the daylights out of it. But most of the time, it made you feel like a fool.
I saw Tom Candiotti throw the same pitch in real-live baseball games, and I saw real-live major league hitters look as stupid as I did. I felt like I was one of them, for a little while. I never ever traded away Tom's baseball cards. I never stopped being fascinated by that pitch.
I consider myself a bit of a nerd. And like many people with nerdy hobbies, I feel an instant sense of kinship with anyone who shares my fascinations. So when I learned that not only was R.A. Dickey a knuckleball pitcher, but he shared a few interests that I had, well, I was a little pleased.
Growing up, I loved baseball, as much as I love it today. But boy, was I terrible at it. Though I dreamed of being the All-Star center fielder second starting pitcher average third baseman utility infielder minor league second baseman something, anything for the New York Mets, it didn't take many years of Little League to set me straight. I topped out as a poor-hitting defensive third baseman by about the age of 13. From there, it was on to AD&D and theatre and the school literary magazines and watching the games, but never being good enough to play for real.
And we have this idea in our heads that the great baseball players, the great athletes, fall into that stereotype we keep in our heads of the "typical jock." They've got interests like sports, and more sports, and that's about it. We fail to understand that professional athletes are the same complex individuals we are, with varied interests and hobbies beyond the sport.
But R.A. Dickey showed interest in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and southern literature, and I have interest in these things so there seemed to be a synchronicity. Without knowing Dickey, I knew some of the things he liked, and I liked them too, and you start to see how people are similar, if not the same. And because you also have interest in three books where three-foot people spend a year trying to return some jewelry, you feel connected to that player. And it feels nice to be part of something.
About a year ago, I was reading about R.A. Dickey's career, and thinking about knuckleballers, and how they're almost always formed out of adversity, out of necessity. And I made a connection to my own life.
If you're not familiar, R.A. Dickey never wanted to throw a knuckleball. His chosen career path was big league starting pitcher, but coming out of Tennessee, R.A. was a power pitcher. He threw hard, and he attacked hitters, and he got strikeouts with a very real fastball. After signing with the Rangers out of college, Dickey found he didn't have a UCL, his career stalled a bit, he lost velocity, he failed in his chosen profession. R.A. learned how to throw the knuckler out of necessity, worked at it for years. In 2010, he finally reached the level of performance that he always wanted, that he always thought he'd reach, it just happened maybe ten years later, and in a much different way, then he had planned.
The connection to my own life is tenuous, but it's there. I've always had big dreams, big plans. To be a ballplayer or actor or author or any of a dozen fantasy careers that bring wealth and appreciation and joy. I always saw myself as someone who could use my innate, special skills to escape the nine-to-five job that makes up the blood and the guts of a "normal life." I saw myself as special and different.
I had plans. Those plans did not work out the way I'd intended. I work the nine-to-five. I've never written a book, I've never made money beyond my wildest dreams, and I've never had the kind of career success people dream of. Life did not work out the way I'd dreamed in my youth.
I'm also far, far happier than I think I'd ever planned.
I've got an amazing, unbelievable wife that blows my mind with her intelligence, looks, and humor. I have a quite-much-less-amazing dog, who is pretty adorable. I'm comfortable. I have a hobby (writing about baseball) that is far more fulfilling than collecting rejection letters from graduate writing programs or not getting callbacks as a teenager. My family is in (relatively) good health.
Anyways, my point is that the path we take to the "big leagues" is not always the one we have planned. Sometimes we have to give up on the dream of being Bob Feller or Kerry Wood and striking out all the guys with a blazing heater. Maybe sometimes, we have to (or choose to) give up on our first dream, or our second, or our fifth, before we find the person we were meant to be. In R.A.'s case, he still got the point he'd always wanted, he just had to discover that he was born to throw the knuckler. I'm thirty. I still think I've got time to discover what I'm meant to do.
Even beyond that, the symbol of R.A. Dickey gives us hope that once we get there, maybe the normal aging curves don't apply. Maybe we'll hit our best season late in the game, defy expectations, give everyone a good surprise. Maybe our best seasons are coming after most people have hit their "prime." There's a Cy Young season left in all of us.
For me, R.A. Dickey and his knuckleball have become something like a metaphor for life, as corny or cliche as it sounds. You still need the hard work, the luck, the patience. But you can never be quite sure where your best effort, your finest pitch, will end up. Like R.A. throwing his mysterious knuckler, we're not exactly sure how we're supposed to get to where we're going. But we keep giving it our best try. We wind up, rear back, sometimes make an extremely silly face ...
... and let go.