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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Slate: I read that you often call up fellow knuckleballers Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield, and Phil Niekro to get pointers on your pitch. What are those calls like?

R.A. Dickey: I’ll call every one of them if I’m having a problem until I figure out what’s going on. Or I’ll send them film. Or they’ll look at film and they’ll call me. Or they’ll see me on TV and they’ll send me a text. The generosity that I’ve experienced from these men has just been overwhelming, and they have been so incredibly kind with their resources and their time. Without those guys I never would have reached the level that I’ve been able to reach the last three years.

Slate: So are those calls mainly about mechanics?

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R.A. Dickey: A lot of the time it’s the mental side of it. I talk to all of them really, at least a couple of times a month.

Slate: You are an incredibly resilient person. You had a near-death experience in the Missouri River, you had a million-dollar contract taken from you before you had a chance to even play a single professional game, you contemplated suicide at one point, you suffered abuse as a child. Does all of this give you some kind of greater perspective and resilience on the mound?

R.A. Dickey: I certainly leaned on some of my previous tough experiences. At the beginning I think I leaned on it in a kind of very unhealthy way. I would use sport as an escape from the pain of what was real. Instead of dealing with the pain, instead of being honest about the pain, instead of asking for help—if I had to do it differently, I would do it differently in that regard.

I had a lot of fear that would motivate me to try to work hard, because I didn’t know what I would do if I wasn’t a baseball player. In an unhealthy way, I found a lot of validity in having always been a very good athlete, a very good baseball player, and I’ve since grown out of that place into a different perspective and learned how to live differently, thankfully, where baseball is certainly something that’s very important to me. It’s not who I am, though. It’s just what I do. I think emotionally and mentally, keeping all this in the right perspective has enabled me to reach a level of success that I hadn’t otherwise experienced.

I’ve had a lot of people who have cared about me, that have poured into me. Whether it’s Tim Wakefield, or Charlie Hough, or Phil Niekro, or my wife, or a friend on the team, or a pitching coach.

Slate: You start your book by saying "I will never be a hall of famer and will never lead the league in strikeouts and am in no imminent danger of joining the 300 victory club.” One of those predictions has been proven wrong already. Are you reconsidering that portion of the book?

R.A. Dickey: When I wrote that, I wrote it because experientially, I had never come close to what happened last year. But the first sentence in my epilogue to my book for the paperback edition will be an apology for lying.

That whole strikeout thing, that’s kind of surreal. You never go into a season thinking you’re going to strike out 200 guys or that you would have the most double-digit strikeout games in the big leagues, or anything like that. You just try to win, and the outing becomes what the outing becomes. After those back-to-back one-hitters, I tried to identify what was going on. Like, how was I doing this? I feel like I figured out something then, as far as a Kairotic moment as far as strikeouts go. I really felt like I kind of stumbled onto something during that run that helped me throw pitches that hitters would swing at and miss. I’m afraid to divulge it to you because if someone happens to read the article and identify something that would help them solve the mystery, I would be sad about that.

Jeremy Stahl is Slate's social media editor. You can follow him on Twitter.