You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Unless you start throwing a knuckleball. When R.A. Dickey’s pitching career stalled a few years back, he decided to perfect a delivery that he had tinkered with for years—and became a completely different player. R.A. could throw his knuckler with great speed without compromising control. In 2010 and 2011, that ability set him apart from his predecessors. In 2012, it set him apart from every pitcher in baseball. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Robert Allen Dickey was born on October 29, 1974 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) Using first initials was something of a family tradition for the Dickeys. But R.A. mostly went by Robert until he was in seventh grade.

His parents, Harry and Leslie, were both college students when R.A. was born. They had a second child, Jane, before breaking up, when R.A. was 8-years-old. Although Leslie raised her children as a single parent, Harry remained a part of their lives. Later, R.A. lived with his dad. 

In the 1970s, Harry—whose nickname was “Horse”—had a shot at pitching professionally. He was offered a minor league contract by the Cincinnati Reds, but he declined. With a young child, he felt he needed to stay in school and get his degree. He worked construction and security to keep food on the table after college, while Leslie got a job as a receptionist. Although their extended families offered support, money was always tight—before and after the divorce.

Baseball was a part of R.A.’s family culture. His grandfather had been a pretty fair pitcher in his time and had even tinkered with a knuckleball. His mother was a top-flight shortstop in softball. Harry’s brother was also a ballplayer.

Among R.A.’s fondest memories were playing catch with his mom and attending Nashville Sounds game with his dad. He recalls rooting for Don Mattingly when he played for the team in 1981. R.A. also watched Atlanta Braves games on TBS. He fashioned his stance after Dale Murphy’s.

In 1987, R.A. was given a scholarship to Montgomery Bell Academy, a prestigious private school in Nashville. He became the varsity quarterback and also starred for coach Fred Forhand’s baseball squad. R.A. was a workhorse pitcher who threw in the 80s and never gave in to a hitter. In 1993, he led the Big Red to the state championship tournament and hurled 21 innings over three days to take MBA to the finals. In that game, he took the mound in the 9th inning of a 1–1 game and retired the side, and then watched his team score the winning run in the bottom of the inning. His final record as a senior was 15–3, and he led the nation with 218 strikeouts.

R.A. was ranked among the top prep pitchers in the South, and as a high-school  All-American, he was the recruiting target of several major baseball programs. He was also picked by the Detroit Tigers in the 10th round of the draft and offered a six-figure signing bonus. In the end, though, there was little question where his next stop would be. He turned down Detroit’s offer, accepted a scholarship from the University of Tennessee and almost immediately became the Volunteers’ go-to starting pitcher.

The Vols, coached by Rod Delmonico, were nationally ranked. Their star player was sophomore Todd Helton, a clurtch-hitting first baseman and lights-out relief pitcher. (He also quarterbacked the football team until Peyton Manning showed up). The team’s top slugger was another future big-leaguer, Bubba Trammell. 

ON THE RISE

The Vols went 52–14 during R.A.’s freshman year, and he led the team with 15 wins (all in a row) and 147 innings pitched. Tennessee was the class of the SEC with a 24–5 conference record, and R.A. was named All-SEC, a First Team All-American and Baseball America Freshman of the Year. He was only the second frosh to lead Division I in victories. Unfortunately, Tennessee’s season ended one win short of the College World Series. R.A. yielded a game-winning homer to Antone Williamson of Arizona State in the 10th inning of the Mideast Regional final.



R.A. Dickey, SportsChrome

 

 

 

 

 


Don Mattingly, 1981 Arby’s

     
 

Tennessee’s 1995 season ended on a somewhat brighter note. The team went 54–16, Delmonico was named Coach of the Year, and Helton came into his own in what would be his final college season. He broke more than a dozen school hitting records, closed out several key victories for the Vols, and when called upon to take the mound as a starter, he threw four complete-game victories. R.A. had another superb season, going 14–4 with a team-high121 strikeouts in 160 innings. He was named a Third Team All-America at season’s end.

In the Midwest Regional, R.A. pitched a complete game win in an epic extra-inning battle that got the Vols into the College World Series. He practically had to fight his Delmonico and his staff to stay in the game. Tennessee went 4–0 in the play-in round and R.A. was named the Outstanding Player. In the CWS, the Vols were defeated in the semifinals by Mark Kotsay and the powerhouse squad from Cal State Fullerton.

R.A. got into weight training for the first time in college, and it showed. By his junior year, he had added 25 pounds of muscle and his fastball reached the low 90s. R.A. began the season as the team’s #1 starter, but Tennessee struggled to hold leads with Helton absent from the bullpen. Delmonico asked R.A. to slide into this spot. As someone who put a lot of thought and energy into every pitch, he found that closing games suited his personality. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough leads to hold, so R.A. went back into the rotation.

The team finished with a 43–20 record and made it to the finals of the Atlantic Regionals before losing to Clemson. R.A. went 9–4 on the season, with three saves. Despite coming back to earth from 1995, the Vols were able to secure a Top 20 ranking, and R.A. was recognized as a Third Team All-American for the second year in a row. He was also honored as an Academic All-American. An avid reader, had baseball not worked out, he would have finished school and become an English professor.  

But a baseball career was definitely in the offing. That spring, R.A. was selected in the first round by the Texas Rangers. A member of Team USA during the summers of 1994 and 1995, he decided to rejoin the national squad as it headed for the Olympics in Atlanta.

That June, R.A. posed with the team’s other pitchers for the cover of Baseball America. When they lined up, R.A.’s arm hung at a slightly different angle than those of his teammates. The Rangers—who had already put an $810,000 signing bonus on the table—saw the cover and became concerned. Subsequent physicals revealed that R.A. was born without an ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Dr. James Andrews said he’d never seen anything like it. Coupled with his so-so performance for the national team that summer, this discovery prompted Texas to rescind its bonus offer. R.A. ended up signing for a relatively measly $75,000. 


Ron Delmonico, camp borchure
     
 

R.A. started six games and pitched 35 innings for the Charlotte Rangers of the Florida State League in 1997 and was unimpressive. The following year, the Rangers moved him into the bullpen and assigned him to be Charlotte’s closer. He excelled in the role, saving 38 games with an ERA of 3.30. The team finished with the best record in the Florida State league.

R.A. spent most of 1999 with Class-AA Tulsa, both closing and starting games for the Drillers. He went 6–7 with 10 saves, which helped earn a promotion to Texas’s top farm team, the Oklahoma RedHawks. R.A. appeared in six games as the Class-AAA level, splitting four decisions. Over the winter, the decision was made to move him back into the starting rotation. In 2000, R.A. made 23 starts and seven relief appearances for the RedHawks, going 8–9 with a 4.49 ERA.  

The 2001 season saw R.A. pitch exclusively as a starter for Oklahoma. He won 11 of 24 outings and threw three complete games. His ERA dropped to 3.75, and he fanned 120 batters in 163 innings. R.A. spent two weeks with the Rangers beginning in late May. He made his debut with one hitless inning of relief against the Oakland A’s in a win. R.A. took the mound three more times before returning to the minors. His final appearance was not a happy one, as he yielded six runs in a relief stint against the Chicago White Sox.

Even after redeeming himself at Oklahoma, R.A.’s role with the organization was unclear. He had a below-average fastball and curve, and his forkball was inconsistent. This was the pitch he jokingly called “The Thing,” because it sometimes acted erratically on its way to home plate. What R.A. didn't understand was that the fewer times it turned in flight, the better it was. Indeed, the pitch was not a traditional “forkball”—it was closer to a knuckleball, particularly with the way he squeezed and released it. R.A. went back to being a swingman in 2001, starting and relieving for Oklahoma without so much as a cup of coffee with the big club.

Things finally began to change in 2003. R.A. made the Texas bullpen out of spring training and got a chance to start in July. After two losses, he won four straight starts, including a shutout of the Tigers. He held onto his rotation spot throughout the second half and finished with a 9–8 record for the last-place Rangers. Pitching in the bandbox at Arlington wasn’t kind to R.A.’s ERA, but his other numbers were more than respectable for a rookie starter on a bad team.

The Rangers improved to second place in 2004, but it was not a good year for R.A. He lost his starting job in June after getting lit up for nine runs in less than two innings by the St. Louis Cardinals. He spent some time on the DL in August and returned to finish out the season with a 6–7 record and 5.61 ERA.


R.A. Dickey, 1997 Bowman Chrome
     
 

Things went from bad to worse in 2005, when R.A. was demoted after five poor April appearances. He went 10–6 as a starter for Oklahoma, but when he didn’t have all his pitches working, minor league hitters lit him up. Texas recalled him for four starts in September, and he lost three of them. By then the club was out of the running in the American League West. In 2006, R.A.’s career was on life support. He barely made the club out of spring training and was shelled in his first start, giving up six home runs in a loss to Detroit. R.A. was quickly banished to Oklahoma and spent the rest of they in the minors, going 9­–8 with a 4.92 ERA. He made four trips to the DL that season with a sore shoulder.

Not surprisingly, the Rangers let R.A. walk after the campaign. He received an invitation to spring training from the Milwaukee Brewers, and although he did not appear for the club during the season, he pitched well for their minor league team in Nashville. R.A. led the Sounds with 13 wins and got to play with a group of up-and-comers that included Ryan Bruan and Yovani Gallardo. Nashville was the class of the Pacific Coast League that season, and R.A. was a big part of the team’s success.

A big part of R.A.’s success was his knuckleball. During the 2005 season, he began to realize that his forkball was his best pitch—and that his forkball behaved more like a knuckleball. The Rangers supported this transition, but after the debacle against the Tigers in 2006, they were unwilling to let him experiment on the big league level. It was while pitching at Triple A that he learned how to command this pitch, which was thrown 10 to 15 mph faster than a “typical” knuckleball. The results spoke for themselves—at the end of 2007, he was named PCL Pitcher of the Year.

After the season, R.A. signed a minor league deal with the Minnesota Twins. They failed to add him to the 40-man roster, however, and the Seattle Mariners quickly claimed him in the December Rule 5 Draft. The Mariners liked what they saw, but the club felt R.A. might need more time in the minors. Seattle sent the Twins a prospect in order to retain his services. R.A. ended up making seven starts in the minors and pitched in 32 games for the Mariners in 2008. He enjoyed moderate success, going 5–8 for Seattle—including a dazzling performance in an 11–0 win over the New York Mets.

The Mariners chose not to re-sign R.A. after the 2008 campaign, but he caught on with the Twins and served as the mop-up man out of the bullpen. He finished the year with a 1–1 record and 4.62 ERA. Of the 34 relief appearances he made, 28 came in games the Twins lost. At age 34, R.A. was basically an afterthought.


R.A. Dickey, 2005 Heritage
     
 

The Mets, perhaps remembering the gem he threw against them two seasons earlier, signed R.A. to a minor league deal for 2010. The plan was for him to take his turns as a starter for Class-AAA Buffalo and be ready if the big club needed an emergency start or a long man in the bullpen. New York had a good-looking starting rotation. Johan Santana, John Maine, Jon Niese, Mike Pelfrey, and Oliver Perez all had plus arms. Pitching in the team’s spacious new ballpark, the starting staff looked like money in the bank.

By May, however, the pitching situation was getting ugly. Maine was hurt, and Perez could barely make it out of the third inning. Meanwhile, R.A. was pitching lights-out at Buffalo. He had learned to command his knuckler, and minor league hitters were helpless against it. On April 29, in a game against the Durham Bulls, he yielded a leadoff single and then mowed down the final 27 hitters. Three weeks later, after winning six of his eight starts as a Bison, R.A. got the call to start for the Mets against the Washington Nationals. 

R.A. pitched well in his debut for New York. He threw six innings and gave up two runs. The bullpen blew the leadin the seventh and the Mets lost 5–3, but manager Jerry Manuel sensed that he might have a hole-plugger on his hands. Little could he have anticipated what happened next. R.A. won each of his next six starts and was the talk of the town. Even when he dropped three decisions in early July, R.A.earned praise from fans and teammates, as he gave up a mere seven earned runs in those defeats. 

The highlight of the summer for R.A. came in August on Friday the 13th. Facing the heavy-hitting Philadelphia Phillies, he took a no-hitter into the 6th inning. Cole Hamlels, the opposing pitcher, dumped a single into right field, but that was the one and only hit for Philadelphia. In the bottom of the frame, Carlos Beltran doubled home David Wright for a stirring 1–0 victory.

R.A. finished his first season with an 11–9 record and 2.84 ERA, which was good for seventh in the NL. He walked only 42 batters in 174 innings—a remarkable number for a knuckleballer. The secret was obviously great control of the fluttering pitch, but also the fact that he could still get his fastball over the plate at 85-plus mph when he needed a strike.

MAKING HIS MARK


R.A. Dickey, 2010 Choice
     
 

The Mets gave R.A. a raise to boost his salary into the seven-figure range. He responded with another quality campaign in 2011, but he pitched much of the year in horrible luck. Time and again, he left games with a lead that the bullpen coughed up. On several occasions the Mets simply didn’t score for him. In games when things seemed under control, he gave up untimely home runs. The net result was an 8–13 record despite career-highs in starts, innings pitched and strikeouts. R.A.’s 3.28 ERA was tops among the starters for the second year in a row, and 12th-best in the league.

Following the 2011 season, baseball fans learned about a series of traumatic incidents from R.A.’s childhood when he published Where I Wind Up. In it he recalled being molested on several occasions by his 13-year-old babysitter when he was eight. A short time later, he was molested by a teenage boy. R.A. talked about how he was filled with shame, and how keeping this dark secret made him angry and depressed. As an adult, he even contemplated suicide. It took 23 years before R.A. was able to tell his wife, Anne, about the incidents. After the book was published, R.A. was hailed as a hero for bringing this uncomfortable subject out into the open.

At this point in his rejuvenated career, baseball experts were split on where R.A.’s career was headed. Some said his bad luck in 2011 was a harbinger of things to come. Others pointed out that stats have a way of evening out, and that he was due for a run of good luck in 2012. No one, however, predicted the kind of season he would enjoy.

The first half, in particular, was a thing of pure wonder. With the exception of an April hiccup against the Atlanta Braves, R.A. seemed to get better and better with each start.  After a 3–1 start in April, he wentundefeated in May and June. In consecutive starts against the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres at the end of May, he reached double-digits in strikeouts. He repeated this feat in June during interleague play, against the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles. Those two starts both resulted in complete-game one-hit victories. The hit that he allowed Tampa Bay was a roller to third that Wright failed to field cleanly. It could easily have been a no-hitter.

Starting with the Pittsburgh game in May, R.A. logged 32 and 2/3 innings without giving up an earned run, establishing a new team record. By striking out 12 Rays and 13 Orioles, R.A. became only the third pitcher with back-to-back one-hitters and 12-plus strikeouts. Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan were the other two. R.A. won again to run his record to 12–1 at the All-Star break. Mets fans were rooting for him to start the Midseason Classic, but Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants got the nod instead. R.A. pitched one inning in the NL victory, striking out Mark Trumbo and inducing a double-play grounder by Miguel Cabrera.

The law of gravity took hold of R.A. in the second half, but he was still one of the toughest pitchers in either league to beat. The Mets, meanwhile, began to crumble in the final three months. This had a definite impact on R.A.’s record. In 16 post-All-Star starts, he gave up two or fewer earned runs 10 times but won just six of those games. With three starts remaining, R.A. had 18 wins and was among the league leaders in victories, ERA, innings pitched, strikeouts and shutouts. He beat the Miami Marlins 4–3 on September 22 and the Pirates five days laterto get his 20th win. He tied his career-high with 13 strikeouts in the Pittsburgh game. R.A. finished the year with a no-decision against the Marlins, but he pitched long enough and well enough to hold down his NL lead in several key categories.


R.A. Dickey book
     
 

Although the Mets finished far off the pace, R.A. was arguably the best pitcher in the league. He finished first with five complete games, three shutouts and 230 strikeouts.He also tied for first with 33 starts and was second with 20 victories and a 2.73 ERA. R.A. did it all with a torn abdominal muscle.

In R.A.’s first two years with the Mets, he was viewed as a reliable innings-eater and a veteran presence on a club developing young pitching. In his third year, he became a championship-caliber pitcher. The odds say that he will end up somewhere in between in the seasons to come. Of course, where R.A. is concerned, those are the kind of odds you might just want to bet against.

R.A. THE PITCHER

R.A. came to the majors with a so-so fastball and a serviceable array of off-speed pitches, including a forkball. It wasn’t until he mastered the knuckleball that he became a star. It took him five years to control the pitch to where he could take the mound as a starter. Today, he throws a high-velocity knuckler that behaves like the traditional pitch, but it gives hitters an instant less to pull the trigger. The result is a lot of strikeouts, pop-ups and weak grounders. When R.A. falls behind in the count, his fastball and curve are still good enough to keep hitters honest.

R.A. fields his position well, mostly snagging grounders. He rarely has to deal with bunts because of the erratic nature of his primary pitch.

The intangibles are hard to define for R.A. He has endured a lot of pain and heartache over his life. Those experiences have certinaly hardened him as a competitor. His response to them have also inspired teammates.


R.A. Dickey, autographed photo
     

 

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