“When I was presented with a different way to live, it’s almost like I’d been waiting on it my whole life. I was 31, 32 years old when I really got started, when my growth really began for me. I’ve grown more in the last six years than I did my previous 30.”
A limited fraternity
Meantime, Dickey plowed forward with the switch to the knuckleball, first with the Rangers organization — his first and only big league start for them as a knuckleballer, in 2006, was a disaster, as he gave up a record-tying six home runs — then with the Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins.
Former Rangers knuckleball ace Charlie Hough worked with him extensively, showing him a new grip and a repeatable delivery, and he later got lessons from noted knuckleballers Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield. The small cadre of knuckleball specialists acted very much as a fraternity.
“There’s an instant bond because we’re the only ones who have walked a mile in each other’s shoes,” Dickey says. “I used what they gave me and infused the pitch with my own personality.”
Dickey’s knuckler is different from others in that it is harder — typically in the mid- to high-70s, as opposed to the mid- to upper-60s. As a result, he is able to keep it in the strike zone with consistency unmatched for a knuckleballer, while still fooling hitters with its flutters.
“He’s got the rising one, the sinking one, the sideways one — it’s tough to hit,” says Nationals slugger Michael Morse. “You see it, and by the time you swing it’s in another spot. Squaring up his knuckleball is tough. You basically have to go up there and take all your mechanics and everything you’ve learned, and throw it out the window, and just kind of go Little League — just swing as hard as you can and hope you make contact.”
Most of Dickey’s rate statistics through his first 11 starts of 2012 are running at career highs — including his walk rate (2.1 per nine innings) and his strikeout rate (8.6 per nine innings) — and he is positioned, with another month’s worth of solid performance, to make his first all-star team.
“That would be nice,” he says. “It would be recognition that what you do is legitimate, and just because you throw a knuckleball doesn’t mean you can’t be just as valuable as the 100-mile-per-hour-fastball guy.”
Everyone thinks the 100-mph-fastball guy has it all over the knuckleball guy, but Dickey knows better.
The fastball isn’t a living thing; it’s a rock in a slingshot, a bullet. They don’t have a relationship; it’s a one-way street. The fastball guy may love his fastball, but without that shared history, without the trust built up through understanding each other’s needs, it will never love him back.