Wherever I Wind Up
My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball
The Glass Castle meets Ball Four as Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey weaves searing honesty and baseball insight in this memoir about his unlikely journey to the big leagues.
An English Lit major at the University of Tennessee, Dickey is as articulate and thoughtful as any professional athlete in any sport-and proves it page after page, as he provides fresh and honest insight into baseball and a career unlike any other. Fourteen years ago, Dickey was a heralded No. 1 draft choice of the Texas Rangers, only to have an $810,000 signing bonus, and his lifelong dream, ripped away by an X- ray-and the discovery that he did not have an ulna collateral ligament in his right elbow. Five years ago, he gave up a record six home runs in three innings to the Detroit Tigers-and was effectively consigned to the baseball scrap heap.
Sustained by his profound Christian faith, the love of his wife and children, and a relentless quest for self-awareness and authenticity, the immensely likable Dickey details his transformation from a wreckless, risk-taking loner to a grounded, life- affirming big leaguer. He emerged as one of the premier pitchers in the National League in 2010-and the knuckleballing embodiment of the wonders that perseverance and human wisdom can produce. Dickey views his story as one of redemption. Readers will come to see it as something more-a uniquely American story of beating back demons, listening to your heart, and overcoming extraordinary odds.
THE WORST NIGHT
I EVER HAD
I remember details. I’ve always been able to remember details. I will never be a Hall of Famer and will never lead the league in strikeouts, and am in no imminent danger of joining the 300 Victory Club. But my memory—that I will put up against anybody’s.
I can tell you about the little wagon wheels on my red comforter when I was four years old, my phone number and address—247 Timmons Avenue—when I was in kindergarten, and the smoky haze that hung in my mother’s beat–up Impala when I was six, a sorry heap with a gas gauge that was habitually on "E." I can give you a foot–by–foot description of my boyhood bedroom, highlighted by the Larry Bird photo I tore out of Sports Illustrated and taped on the wall—I loved Larry Bird—and can still see my fi rst glove, a brown synthetic $12 model from Kmart. It was called the Mag. I have no idea why. Maybe it was short for "Magician," or "Magnifi – cent," or "Magadan," as in Dave. I used the Mag when I played shortstop for Coach Teeter, my fi rst Little League coach, who gave us yellow iron–on stars after we did something positive or had a good game.
I got my share of yellow stars, but they never made it onto my uniform. My mom had a lot going on.
I can give you every detail you want, and plenty you don’t want: about the dark times in my life, about the saloons I went to with my mom, and the empty houses I slept in as a teenager, a wayward kid in search of soulless shelter, and about the most traumatic summer of my life. It came when I was eight and it included a new babysitter, and a game with a tennis ball out in the country, on the roof of a garage. Then things happened—horrible things. I remember the smells and colors and feelings, and the pile of the carpeting. I remember it all.
I wish I didn’t.
When I think of that summer, and so many dysfunctional seasons that followed, the details threaten to go on forever. The inner warfare that gripped me the day I went from baseball bonus baby to baseball freak—the Pitcher Without an Ulnar Collateral Ligament— and lost almost three–quarters of a million dollars in the process. The blue fl ip–fl ops I wore when I tried to swim across the Missouri River, one in a long line of unfathomably stupid risks I’ve taken. The orange–red hues of the autumn of 2006, when, eleven years into my professional baseball career, I thought about taking my life because of the mess I had made of it.
I remember the tiniest nuances from events, big and small, through the thirty–seven years of my life. That’s why it’s strange that I don’t have even a vague recollection of the time when I stopped being a phenom.
The word "phenom" has been in the baseball lexicon forever, or at least since 1881, when it was used to describe a pitcher for the Boston Red Stockings named James Evans "Grasshopper Jim" Whitney. Grasshopper Jim was twenty–three years old and went 31–33 and threw 552 innings and 57 complete games that year (this was the pre–La Russa era), his performance undeniably phenomenal. Soon the "–enal" was left off the end, and Grasshopper Jim simply became a phenom—a word that anoints you as the embodiment of hope, someone whose youthful gifts are going to bring joy and victories for years to come.
A word that means you are special.
It is during my seventh–grade year at Montgomery Bell Academy, in Nashville, that people first notice me. I strike out twelve in six innings and pitch our team, the Big Red, to a league championship, and a year later I make the varsity, and before long people start making a fuss over how I throw. By the time I’m a sophomore, big–league scouts begin to come to my games, and they seem to talk not only about my arm but about my makeup, how I’m a kid who knows how to compete, who you want to have on the mound in a big game. As much as I love throwing the ball and hearing it smack into the leather of the catcher’s glove, I love the pure competition of pitching more than anything, bringing a street fighter’s sensibility to the mound with me, treating every at–bat as a duel at sixty feet six inches.
You may hit me. You may knock me around and knock balls out of the park.
But I am always going to get back up and keep coming at you. The scouts keep coming too. I am the Tennessee state player of the year as a senior in 1993 and an All–American at the University
of Tennessee and a starter for Team USA in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The Texas Rangers select me with their number one pick in the June free–agent draft. Everything is falling into place, my map to the majors laid out before me, as precise as anything a cartographer could draw.
And then it all goes haywire. Five years pass before I make the big leagues, a cup of coffee so brief I don’t even have time to add cream and sugar. I spend seven years—seven!—as a member of the Triple–A Oklahoma City RedHawks, and some people in town are seriously suggesting I run for mayor. I tell them I don’t want to be a mayor, I want to be in the majors. But I am going in the wrong direction. I start losing velocity, and don’t get nearly enough people out. I give up conventional pitching at the urging of Buck Showalter and Orel Hershiser, my manager and pitching coach at the time, and become a full–time knuckleball pitcher. We live in thirty–one different places over a ten–year span. My wife, Anne, who graduated at the top of her class at the University of Tennessee, takes on a series of jobs she is way overqualified for, just to help us make ends meet and support my dream. She teaches aerobics to senior citizens. She works as a salesperson at The Limited in a mall in Port Charlotte, Florida.
During one of our years in Oklahoma City, she gets a clerking job at a big–chain bookstore. I visit her one day and, after sifting through the Stars Wars section (I am a total Tatooine geek) and the Tolkien shelf, I meander over to sports and see what new baseball books are out. I peruse the classics—The Natural and The Long Season and The Boys of Summer—and leaf through Ball Four and The Glory of Their Times. I keep walking and come upon one of those preseason prospectus books.
This should be interesting. I wonder who they’re predicting big things from.
I look up the Texas Rangers section. Why not start with my own organization? The authors roll out half a thesaurus to praise the Rangers’ power–laden lineup, Alex Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez and the rest. They talk about Pudge Rodríguez being the best catcher in the game and rave about a kid named Michael Young. I keep reading. They don’t do nearly as much raving about the Rangers’ pitchers or their pitching prospects. I scan farther down, seeing if I am in there at all.
Finally, I find my name at the bottom. It is in bold type, like the other names. I can’t tell you I remember the exact text a decade later, but this is within a few words of verbatim:
In the farm system, the Rangers’ alleged prospects include
former fi rst–round draft pick, R.A. Dickey, a
marginal right–hander who has given no indication
that he’s ever going to amount to anything.
I consider throwing the book, but don’t. I close it and put it back on the shelf.
Marginal. This is what I have been reduced to, at least in the estimation of the authors. A marginal right–hander. It’s a hard word to read. A brutal word to read. But are they wrong?
You tell me.
When you spend seven seasons in the same minor–league location, when you log almost fourteen years and three hundred games in the minors overall, you’re not on what you’d call the fast track. You are not on any track at all.
You may get called "has–been" or "never–was" but you can be fairly certain that you are not anybody’s idea of a phenom anymore.
Doing all that minor–league meandering tends to leave you in one of two camps. You either resign yourself to never getting out, to just playing out the string until your skills erode or you’ve had it with the back roads and bus rides. Or you go the other way and convince yourself that you absolutely still have a chance to make the big leagues, even if all available evidence suggests otherwise. You keep finding a way to hold on to hope, keep waiting for the Call, and if and when it comes, you make darn sure that you don’t give the club any reason ever to send you back down.
I am in Camp Number Two. And hanging on by a fingernail of hope is exactly where I find my non–phenom self in the early spring of 2006, when the Texas Rangers hand me number 45. It is the fourth day of the season. We are playing the Detroit Tigers at home, at the Ballpark in Arlington, as it was then called. Against considerable odds, I have made the Rangers’ starting rotation out of spring training and am beginning my fi rst full season as a knuckleball pitcher. The pitch is still a work in progress, some days good, more days not so good, but if Buck Showalter thinks I’m ready, what am I supposed to do, decline?
Say, "Thanks, Skip, but I think some of the kids are more deserving"?
No. I wasn’t going to do that.
I am thirty–one years old and darn tired of being mediocre. Anne and I have two young daughters and a baby boy on the way. I am living in a Hyatt and getting around on a borrowed bicycle because I don’t want to spend money on a rental car. One part retread, one part restoration project, I am a decade removed from my years studying English lit at Tennessee, forgetting a lot of Faulkner and firing a lot of fastballs. I have become the quintessential "4A" pitcher—baseball code for a player who is too good for Triple–A but not good enough to stick in the majors. I had already spent two full, extremely undistinguished years in the big leagues. I know that I cannot reasonably expect to get another shot if this doesn’t work out.
You want to know how desperate I am? I have turned myself into the baseball equivalent of a carnival act—maybe not a twoheaded turtle or a bearded lady, but close. I am trying to make a living throwing the ugly stepchild of pitches, a pitch few in the game appreciate and even fewer understand. Almost nobody starts out planning to be a knuckleball pitcher. When was the last time you heard a twelve–year–old Little Leaguer say, "I want to be Hoyt Wilhelm when I grow up"? You become a knuckleball pitcher when you hit a dead end, when your arm gets hurt or your hard stuff isn’t getting the job done. Tim Wakefield was a minor–league first baseman with a lot of power and a bad batting average; that’s when he made the switch. I made mine when the Rangers told me, in the middle of 2005, that I was going nowhere with my regular stuff —an assessment that I could hardly argue with.
I’d been going nowhere for a long time, after all.
AT 3:45 P.M. on Thursday, April 6, I walk out of the Hyatt, hop on the bike, and pedal to the Ballpark for the most important start of my baseball life. I cannot view it any other way. I roll up to the park after a ten–minute ride. It’s time for my far–fl ung odyssey to stop, for some measure of stability to start.
I know the only way that’s going to happen is by getting bigleague hitters out.
After eating a turkey sandwich in the players’ lounge, I head for the video room to watch a tape of Wakefield pitching against the Tigers the year before. I’m not looking for specific strategies on how to attack Pudge Rodríguez (he left the Rangers via free agency after the 2004 season) or Magglio Ordóñez so much as reassurance that major–league hitters can be retired with the pitch. It’s a positive–imaging exercise for me, balm for an insecure soul. I have zero confidence in myself, and in the consistency of my knuckleball. I don’t really want to send R. A. Dickey out there against the Tigers. I want to send out Tim Wakefi eld, the most successful knuckleball pitcher of the 1990s and 2000s.
If it works for him, maybe it will work for me.
Ninety minutes before game time I take a shower, spending most of it visualizing myself going after every Tiger batter. When I am finished, I say a prayer out loud. I put on my uniform and go out to the outfield with the bullpen catcher, Josh Frasier. I start throwing and I feel good. I have a pretty good knuckler on fl at ground. After a few minutes we move onto the bullpen mound, and I am throwing it even better, the ball fl uttering, my confidence building to unaccustomed levels. When you throw a knuckleball, you want to have the same release point every pitch. You want your arm and your elbow at the exact right angle, and you want your nails biting into the horsehide the same way. The ball is moving well and I have good control over it. I am locked in.
The PA man announces the lineups. It’s almost time.
I walk in from the bullpen and sit on the bench. I run a towel over my face and take a swig of water. I wonder how Nate Robertson, the Tigers starter, is feeling at this very moment. As I prepare to go out to the mound, I pray for confi dence, for good health, for the courage to get after them.
"Be glorified, Lord," I say.
I remind myself to stay positive. It all feels good.
The Tigers’ leadoff hitter is Brandon Inge, their third baseman. Inge is not a typical leadoff guy; he strikes out often and is not inclined to be patient, but he does have a lot of pop in his bat. I throw him a knuckleball for a strike to start the game. I wind and deliver the 0–1 pitch, a knuckler that tumbles slowly toward the inner part of the plate. It feels okay coming out of my hand, but it has too much rotation. Rotation is the mortal enemy of knuckleballers, the thing we spend years working to eliminate. When knuckleballs rotate, they don’t move. They sit up and often disappear. As the ball nears the plate, I can actually see Inge’s eyes grow wide.
He swings and puts serious wood on it, driving the ball deep to left. I follow the flight of the ball, and watch it go over the fence.
Two pitches into the game, I am already down a run. Not the start I had in mind. At all.
I get the next two guys and then Ordóñez steps in. On a 1–0 pitch, I float another knuckleball toward the plate. He coils and takes a rip. A loud thwack fi lls the park, and then another ball disappears over the left–field wall. Two–nothing is the score, and .500 is the Tigers’ batting average against me, and even in that moment I know why.
I had prayed for confidence but the fact is I don’t have any. Once there are real live hitters at the plate, I turn into a completely different pitcher than I was in the pen. I am afraid to make a mistake.
I’m not going after the Tigers hitters, and the upshot is that not only are my knuckleballs not confounding the Tigers, they are coming in looking like beach balls.
I get Dmitri Young to ground out to end the inning. I come into the dugout, and try to forget about it. Pitching coach Mark Connor—we call him "Goose"—comes over and pats me on the back, and reminds me that plenty of pitchers get roughed up early on before settling into their rhythm.
You’ll be fine. Just keep battling, Goose says.
We get two hits but don’t score in the bottom half, and now I am back on the mound.
One hitter at a time, I remind myself. It may be baseball’s oldest cliché, but I’ve learned that a lot of clichés gain currency for the best possible reason: they work.
The first Tigers hitter in the top of the second is Chris Shelton, a power–hitting fi rst baseman. Ahead, 1–2, I throw another knuckler that sits up. Shelton waits. He takes a huge slugger’s cut at it and an instant later the ball is in orbit, another knuckler leaving the premises—quickly. I try not to think that I’ve already given up 1,200 feet worth of dingers. Shelton isn’t three steps out of the box when I ask the umpire for a new ball. I am not going to watch him round the bases. What would be the point? I know what his destination is. I stand on the mound and rub up the ball and look vacantly toward the sky. I can’t fathom what is happening. I turn around and look at the blank faces of my infi elders, shortstop Michael Young and first baseman Mark Teixeira, and feel terrible that I am letting them down, letting the whole team down. The infield is as quiet as a library.
Forget it. Go get the next hitter, I tell myself. This can still be a quality start if you stop it right here.
I retire the next three guys and manage to get through a bumpy third inning, despite a long fly and two line drives. It isn’t pretty, but it is scoreless, and that constitutes progress. The first batter in the fourth is Dmitri Young. I strike him out, my fi rst strikeout of the night. I am happy Dmitri is in the lineup. Then it is Shelton’s turn again. I go up on him, 1–2, just as I did the last time.
Don’t make the same mistake, I tell myself. If you miss, make sure you miss down. If I get him, I’ll be an out away from a second straight scoreless inning. I can maybe salvage this start and show something to Jon Daniels, the general manager, and Showalter, the men who had given me this opportunity.
Except that on my next pitch I throw another beach ball up in the zone and Shelton crushes it to left, way over the fence, farther than any of the others. Goose comes out to the mound. He looks like an undertaker, only sadder. Goose knows me as well as anybody on the club. He lives in Knoxville, about three hours from me. All winter long, I’d drive to see him and throw to him, and then drive home. He wants me to succeed as much as I do, and one look at his face tells me he is feeling every bit of my pain.
Hey, R.A., let’s just take a breath right now, okay? he says. Let’s slow the game down right here. Just keep fighting. Keep grinding it out. Don’t fold up. Take a breath and give us some innings.
Goose is right in everything he says. It feels reassuring to hear his words. I take the breath. I tell myself I am going to stop the carnage here, once and for all, and get out with no further damage. The next hitter is Carlos Guillen, the shortstop. I walk him, and
that brings up center fi elder Craig Monroe, who swings at the first pitch, one more knuckleball that does almost nothing. Monroe hits it halfway to El Paso. Now it is 6–0, and a full–blown debacle. I could take breaths until the 162nd game and it isn’t going to change the hideous truth: the biggest start of my life has turned into the worst start of my life.
The next hitter is Marcus Thames, the left fi elder. No matter what, I am not going to let him hit a knuckleball out of the park.
Instead, I throw a fastball. And he hits that out of the park. It is my sixty–first, and last, pitch of the night.
As Thames circles the bases, I look up into the half–filled stands and listen to boos rain down on me. It’s hard to get baseball fans in Texas to boo you, but I have done it, with a pitching line that isn’t just bad, but epically bad, tying the post–1900 record for most home runs given up in a start. My line is 31⁄3 innings, 8 hits, and 7 runs. Buck is on his way out to get me now. The whole scene is completely surreal, as if I were at the center of a slow–motion highlight reel, Tigers swinging, Tigers slugging, balls flying out of the park, a home–run derby come to life. It seems as if it takes Buck a half hour to get to the mound. I stand there and wait and feel more alone than I ever have on a ball field. It feels very, very familiar.
How long have I felt alone? How long have I been fleeing from my shame and my secrets, bobbing and weaving through life, terrified about people fi nding out about where I’m from and what I’ve been through?
In a strange way, as I wait to hand Buck the ball and get out of there before any more Tigers can take me over the wall, I realize that I’ve spent my three and a third innings doing the same sort of bobbing and weaving.
I’d trusted myself and pitched with conviction during my warm–up. I’d thrown good knuckleballs, and thrown them with a purpose—knuckleballs that had big movement, late movement, the kind that could make even the best hitters look silly. I was fully in the moment. And then the game started, and I hid. I pitched with fear, pitched like a wimp, doubting whether I was good enough to beat the Detroit Tigers and letting that doubt rob me of any shot I had at succeeding. As I let each pitch go that night, I had voices in my head saying, Please, let it be a strike and Please don’t let them
It is no way to pitch, no way to live.
As I walk off the mound, I take in all the details of the scene around me: the vitriol of the fans; the little white lights telling the hideous truth on the scoreboard; the grim reality that I am indeed a marginal big–league pitcher. I want to believe that God has better things in store for me, and that this is not how my baseball life will end. I want to hold on to hope. I look out at the outfield walls that couldn’t contain the Tigers.
There is still hope for me. Isn’t there?
- Publishers Weekly, Starred review
- Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated
- Jeremy Schaap, bestselling author, Emmy award-winning journalist, ESPN
-Orel Hershiser, ESPN Sunday Night Baseball analyst, former MLB All-Star
- George Vescy, New York Times
- Jim Caple, ESPN
- Gary Cohen, SportsNet NY (SNY)
- Mike Bauman, MLB.com