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.

(Continued from Page 2)

R.A. Dickey: When you start a game, you don’t think to yourself, “well, OK, I’m going throw a one-hitter today.” It just becomes an organism, your outing becomes an organism and it grows. In that particular game, I remember into about the sixth inning I realized, “you know what, they may not—they may not get a hit the rest of the game.” Because of how it felt coming out of my hand. That was the first time when it came out of my hand in such a way that I felt like nobody could probably hit it well. I was surprised if someone got a hit. That’s the first time I’d ever felt that.

From a life standpoint, I kind of came to the end of myself as a human being around 2006. I had been dealing with a lot of pain from past traumas, and I was trying to make my marriage work. I was a father who was trying to provide for my family and barely making ends meet as a minor league ballplayer. I got tired of living like that and wanted to live differently. So I sought the help of a professional [therapist] whose name is Stephen James, and he really taught me the vocabulary and helped me unpack a lot of baggage so that I could work on trying to live authentically in the moment with who I felt like I was called to be. That was the genesis of who I’ve become presently.

Slate: In terms of the mechanics of the knuckleball, you throw it faster than any previous knuckleballer. Is that the secret to what you've been able to accomplish in this one season? How do you throw it so much faster?

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R.A. Dickey: I think if you asked the opponents they would say that that is a contributing factor. I would say that that is one component. But I think like with anything, the more self-aware you are about what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, the better you’re going to be at what you’re striving to be good at.

It wasn’t just about trying to throw the hardest knuckleball that’s ever been thrown. There’s a lot of other things that I can do, a lot of bullets in my gun. Some of those things are being able to change speeds within the framework of a single at-bat against someone. So if Prince Fielder’s seen five knuckleballs at 78 miles per hour in a row and all of a sudden I can throw one at 65, well that’s a bullet in my gun.

Slate: Why are you the only player in the majors throwing this pitch? Is it really that hard to learn?

R.A. Dickey: It’s an incredibly hard thing to do. I don’t want this to come across at all in a way that’s narcissistic; I’m just saying it’s hard and there’s not a lot people who are willing to devote the amount of time it takes to do it well. I just laid out for you a little bit of what I went through and there were parts of it that were hell.

Every day waking up going to the gym, trying to figure something that you never really knew 100 percent if you were going to get or not. I mean, that’s hard on the mind, much less the body. [Secondly], no scout, no general manager is going out looking for the next great knuckleballer. They’re all going out looking for the next Stephen Strasburg. So there’s not a lot of opportunity.

A lot of people don’t trust the pitch. There’s this kind of reputation it has for being untrustworthy and fickle and capricious and everything else, and those are words that big league managers and general managers and organizations aren’t too fond of. So you’ve got to really prove and reprove yourself over and over and over again just to get an opportunity. And that makes it difficult.

Slate: How would you motivate yourself during those periods of doubt?

R.A. Dickey: I think what motivated me was just hope. Something inside of me, deep down in my guts, always felt like there was something in there. I don’t know how to explain it. … I didn’t want—I had a wife that did not want me to have a singular regret about chasing my dream, which helped me tremendously. I did not want to have a singular regret. I always held out hope that it was going to turn for the better. That’s always what motivated me was hope. Whereas before, when I was just beginning, it was fear. That morphed into hope after I matured a little bit and became a more fully living human being.

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