“It’s definitely a relationship,” Dickey, who carries the best record in the National League (8-1) into Thursday’s start against the Nationals, says before throwing his standard, between-starts bullpen session. “Sometimes we fight. There will be times where I’m yelling at the baseball — like, ‘Do I really know you?’
“That’s what keeps me invested. [The knuckleball] can grow. It’s not just an inanimate thing. It’s very much a living thing. It’s very organic.”
The relationship between Dickey and his knuckleball wasn’t always at this lofty place, with Dickey holding a 2.69 earned run average roughly a third of the way through the season. Theirs was an arranged marriage — forced upon them seven years ago by the management of the Texas Rangers, who noted Dickey’s expanding ERA and declining velocity, and suggested, in no uncertain terms, that for the sake of his own career he reinvent himself as a knuckleballer.
“It’s important to be honest about what you’re not good at,” Dickey says. “When the Rangers came to me and said, ‘We don’t think you can do it anymore as a conventional pitcher,’ there were 29 other teams out there that I could have taken my chances with. But I identified in myself that I wasn’t good enough, I was very mediocre. . . .I like truth. I’m drawn to it in an effort to grow as a person. A big part of that is self-awareness.
“The flight of the pitch is the perfect metaphor for my life anyway — the ups and downs, the grappling with it, the chaos of it.”
A belief in redemption
Dickey is, without question, the Most Interesting Man in Baseball. It isn’t just that he speaks of his primary pitch as if it were a living, breathing thing, or of his development of that pitch as a relationship — but it is partly that. He is the only knuckleball pitcher left in the majors, and only a knuckleballer would speak in such a way.
But he is also a voracious reader of Big, Important Books (for example, “My Name is Asher Lev,” by Chaim Potok; “Life of Pi,” by Yann Martel), a former English major at the University of Tennessee, a born-again Christian and an avid bicyclist. This past winter, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania — despite the Mets threatening to void his contract if anything happened to him — telling New York magazine, “The scope of the mountain resonated with me.”
He is also a medical marvel, possessing no ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow, which first came to light after the Rangers drafted him in 1996 — doctors concluded either he was born without it, or it disintegrated during his youth — and which cost him a small fortune, since the Rangers lowered their signing-bonus offer from $810,000 to $75,000 upon discovering the missing ligament.