February 27, 2008
New Twist Keeps Dickey’s Career Afloat
By ALAN SCHWARZ
PEORIA, Ariz. — By all rights, R. A. Dickey should be working a day job somewhere, cursing twisted fate. Or he should be coaching at some Tennessee high school, telling kids what he once was and lamenting what might have been.
Instead, Dickey slipped on his Seattle Mariners uniform Monday, stepped on a bullpen pitcher’s mound and made his pitching arm do something it should not be able to do — throw a baseball. In an age when more and more pitchers have ugly scars crawling up their elbows, where surgeons’ scalpels have replaced their ulnar collateral ligaments in what is known as Tommy John surgery, Dickey does not need to worry about strains or painful pops.
He does not have an ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. None. Dickey either was born without one, or the tissue simply disintegrated when he was a teenager.
A dozen years after discovery of his situation cost him a virtual million-dollar payday, when he was told to give up his dreams of becoming a major league pitcher, Dickey today is one of the most intriguing players in any spring training camp. He did not just prove skeptics wrong by building a career that has included brief stays in the big leagues. Now 33, Dickey has reinvented himself as a knuckleballer, one promising enough that he could prove quite valuable in 2008 and beyond.
“For him to be able to throw at all is pretty phenomenal in itself,” said Rick Griffin, the Mariners’ head athletic trainer. “But he’s doing it in the major leagues. People in sports amaze you physically, but this is something you’d never suspect. It’s like a running back in the N.F.L. having no anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. It’s amazing.”
Dickey, a huskily bearded father of three, said: “Doctors look at me and say I shouldn’t be able to turn a doorknob without feeling pain, and I shouldn’t be able to turn the key and start my car without feeling pain. But I’m still here. I feel I have a whole career ahead of me.”
Dickey’s knuckleball danced through the Pacific Coast League last year, when as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers’ Class AAA farm team in Nashville he went 13-6 with a 3.72 earned run average. (He went 9-2 with a 2.51 E.R.A. in his final 15 starts as the pitch started to become particularly effective.) The Minnesota Twins signed him in November, but he was soon snapped up by the Mariners in the Rule 5 draft, meaning Seattle must keep him on its 25-man roster all season or offer him back to Minnesota.
Bill Bavasi, the Mariners’ general manager, said that one of Dickey’s primary attributes is — of all things — his durability. “He can throw four innings in relief tonight and spot start tomorrow,” Bavasi said. “He can save your butt by eating a lot of innings.”
After pitching professionally for 12 years without any elbow discomfort to speak of, the man who was told the joint would never hold up can pitch almost every day if needed.
“It’s a real blessing now,” Dickey said. “I’m real resilient, simply because I don’t have to worry about that ligament being sore, or tearing it. There’s nothing to tear.”
Dickey’s route to this point was as tortuous as his knuckleball. It started with a picture that told a thousand words — at about $800 apiece.
A hard-throwing all-American pitcher at the University of Tennessee in 1996, Dickey became a first-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers and a starter for the United States Olympic team, along with Kris Benson, Billy Koch, Seth Greisinger and Braden Looper. Baseball America pictured the five of them standing side by side on the cover of its Olympic preview issue.
Dickey was ready to accept the Rangers’ $810,000 bonus offer when a team physician picked up the magazine and noticed Dickey’s right arm hanging somewhat awkwardly at his side. The doctor recommended that the team examine him further, leading to the bizarre discovery that Dickey not only had an elbow issue, he had no ulnar collateral ligament, the primary tissue that stabilizes the joint. The Rangers pulled their offer and wound up offering him $75,000, more out of guilt than confidence in his future
“Imagine winning the lottery and then losing the ticket,” said Dickey, who signed with the Rangers because he assumed no team would give him a chance again. He reported to the minor leagues knowing that precious little was keeping his elbow together, that each day pitching could be his last.
“Every day I had to decide whether I was going to be bitter, if I was going to be that guy — woe is me, you know?” Dickey said. “I had to choose every day to be the other guy.”
Dickey moved up the minor league ladder steadily, never experiencing arm issues, and reached the major leagues in 2001. He relieved and spot started for the Rangers for most of 2003 and 2004, posting E.R.A.’s over 5.00 and standing out mostly for his strange and unclassifiable forkball, known as “the thing.”
Dickey never acknowledged that the pitch was actually a hard knuckleball. “I didn’t want to be seen as desperate,” he said Monday.
By 2005, Dickey realized that the only way to keep his career alive was to succumb to the knuckleball and try to perfect it. The Rangers coach Charlie Hough, a former knuckleballer, helped him alter his homemade grip into one more conventional, and Dickey finally got the hang of it after signing with the Brewers for last season.
Dickey did not get called up to Milwaukee, but now is only weeks from possibly beginning his second major league career, two more than he was ever supposed to have.
“The majority of knuckleballers have most of their success from ages 32 to 40, and win most of their games,” said Dickey, who studied the history of pitchers like Hoyt Wilhelm, Wilbur Wood and Phil Niekro while making his transition. “I think there’s something to that. There’s the maturity that comes with throwing that pitch. To surrender to being a new person and a new pitcher is tough. You kind of feel like the leper of the colony, a circus act.”
Dickey’s knuckleball travels at a zippy 77 miles an hour, about 10 m.p.h. faster than the one thrown by the Boston Red Sox’ Tim Wakefield, the majors’ prototype knuckleballer for the past 15 years. As Dickey threw it during his bullpen session Monday, he did so not far from J. J. Putz, the Mariners’ gas-heaving closer, who later marveled that his new teammate could throw at all.
“I’m starting to wonder if we really need that ligament,” Putz said with a laugh. “We should all just get ours cut out. Our arms would never get sore.”
Sure enough, Putz spoke with several pounds of ice strapped onto his shoulder and elbow, and an electronic gizmo monitoring its effects. A few lockers away, Dickey buttoned his shirt unencumbered, eager and ready to pitch again.