How R.A. Dickey Learned To Throw a Blazing-Fast Knuckleball—and Saved His Career

People who accomplish great things, and how they do it.
Oct. 29 2012 3:45 AM

Master of the Knuckleball

How Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey saved his career by conquering the most elusive skill in sports.

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R.A. Dickey: Charlie Hough gave me the idea of how to get my mechanics to be compact enough so that I could repeat it and I could visualize getting through the doorframe without coming apart, so to speak. I took it a step further, [and] turned the doorframe into a shoebox at the plate. I don’t want to try to use hyperbole here, I want to give you a real honest answer—it took over … over 30,000 … over 30,000 balls thrown against a brick wall before I really felt like I knew what I was doing.

Slate: What did your training regimen look like? There's the old Malcolm Gladwell saw about a person needing to practice something for 10,000 hours in order to perfect it—is there truth in that for you personally?

R.A. Dickey: When I started the knuckleball in 2005, I would grab whoever I could and have them catch with me underneath the stadium, in the cages, [wherever]. I would throw balls off of the outfield wall during batting practice. I would always have a ball in my hand. As I drove around the city, I would put it in my cup holder and I would play with it—that’s one of the things Charlie Hough first taught me. He said, “always have a ball in your car and always have it in your hand when you’re driving so you can just get the sensation of what it feels like for your grip to be in the right place.”

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It wasn’t like I was a robot and I went into the gym after 500 balls a day for six months and all of a sudden I came out the other side and was this great knuckleballer. In 2006, I remember I was with the Texas Rangers trying to make the club and I would come into the cages before anybody even got to the stadium and take a bucket of balls and just throw them into the net. I would go pick that bucket of balls up and go back to the mound and throw it into the net.

That was early on in my transformation, so I would get so angry because I could see that it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do and I didn’t know how to fix it. Out of sheer stubbornness, I just would keep going—just hoping that at some point something would click. I certainly held onto the hope that it might. I had no guarantees, but I trusted that if I worked hard and put in the time, it would eventually reap a fruit. I just didn’t know what that fruit was going to be or how big it was going to be.

As far as being able to pinpoint how many hours or how many times, I would go ahead and say that 30,000 is a conservative estimate.

Slate: You've talked in the past about experiencing Kairotic moments—critical defining junctures in your life and career when, as you have put it, “things come together.” It seems like you may have had more than one. Can you clearly remember the most important single Kairotic moments for your pitching career and for your personal life?

R.A. Dickey: I think from a pitching standpoint one of those moments came when I took the mound as a Buffalo Bison, which is the Triple A affiliate of the New York Mets, in 2010. I had been pitching pretty well and felt like I was really turning a corner.

I had had some good seasons, some spurts where I felt real consistent, but then it would go away. And I would be like “where is it? How could it disappear like that?” Then I would go through a month where I just couldn’t figure it out, couldn’t find it, and that would make my numbers kind of be skewed. So I could never get a real good clear picture of what I could become.

In 2010, I got off to a pretty decent start and [on April 29] I threw a one-hitter against the Durham Bulls. I gave up a lead-off hit and then retired 27 hitters in a row after that. It was an almost perfect game kind of thing. I felt like “OK, I think I feel like something clicked.”

Slate: Can you describe what that feeling was like exactly?