Monday, September 17, 2012

Sometimes the Good Guys Win

8Finally, beloved,* whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about* these things.
Philippians 4:8

R. A. Dickey is one of the best stories in baseball this year.

At age 37 he is one of the oldest pitchers in a starting rotation. He is also the only current knuckleballer. His 18-5 record of wins and losses is second in the National League, an improbable achievement, since his team, the New York Mets, has an overall record of 66 wins and 80 losses. At 2.68, his earned run average leads the league. He’s also first in complete games and in shutouts. He’s second in WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), strikeouts, and innings pitched.

Dickey’s life has not been easy. He grew up with an alcoholic mother and was sexually abused by a baby-sitter. His refuge was athletics. But his path to the Major Leagues was not an easy one. He was an Academic All-American at Tennessee and was drafted in the first round by the Texas Rangers in 1996, but a routine physical showed there was something the matter with his arm. His right elbow was missing a ligament. Dickey recalls, “They thought they had drafted damaged goods, and I went back to Nashville thinking that I may never throw for a professional team again.”

Eventually, the Rangers did sign him for $75,000, a small fraction of what they had originally offered. He bounced around the minors with little success. In 2006, after re-inventing himself as a knuckleballer, he got another chance to start a major league game, but he gave up 6 runs and was immediately demoted to the minors in Oklahoma.

His minor league exile led to a baptismal experience that changed his life. One night after a game he decided that he wanted to swim across the Missouri River. It was not long after he waded into the water that he discovered that the current and the undertow were much worse than he had anticipated. "Every stroke was a determined stroke to try to survive an experience where I [thought that I] may drown,” he said. "I had given myself over to the fact that this was it, I wasn't going to make it. The undertow was pulling me down."

His feet touched bottom just as he was giving up and prepared to sink and let the water fill his lungs. He was able to make his way toward the shore where a teammate pulled him out of the river. "I look at it as almost a baptism of sorts," Dickey said. "I went into the Missouri River; I was hanging on by a thread professionally. ... And when I came out of the river, I ended up going 11-2 with a 2.80 ERA and became the Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year. I think when I came out of the river, I was so consumed with just wanting to live in the present well — wanting to enjoy every second — that I think that carried over directly into my pitching, and I just cared about each pitch singularly. ... And I decided that that's how I wanted to live my life."

The Mets are not on television very often and I have only watched him pitch once. It was a game against the Yankees and he did not display his best stuff. But he did show me something at least as important. After nearly hitting Alex Rodriguez in the head with a wayward knuckleball, he took a couple of steps toward home plate and shouted an apology.

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