R.A. Dickey stuck with knuckler
Mets right-hander discovered pitch as a last resort in 2005
R.A. Dickey of the Mets has a dilemma.
His knuckleball buddy, Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox, entered August on the precipice of a significant pitching milestone, his 200th career victory.
"I'm excited for him," Dickey said. "We've been friends for a long time. I know how much it means to him. It's pretty special. I have to get him a gift, but it's got to be something original."
Maybe a nail file.
The nail file is as vital to a knuckleball pitcher as a screwdriver is to a mechanic. It is the tool that keeps his nails at just the right length and shape to throw the baffling pitch that Wakefield, Dickey and others like Phil Niekro, Charley Hough and Hoyt Wilhelm have embraced and used for successful Major League careers.
The knuckler flutters toward the plate, skittering here, there and everywhere. It baffles batters who are accustomed to pitches that travel considerably faster and gives catchers nightmares. It is designed to confound and often succeeds. So why don't more pitchers use it?
Dickey thinks he knows the answer to that question.
"We live in an era, a generation when power arms are coveted," he said. "Throw the ball hard and you are revered."
The knuckler is viewed as something of a trick pitch, a last resort solution for those who can't push past 90 miles per hour on a consistent basis. But take it from Dickey, it is not an easy pitch to master.
"It's hard to take the spin off when your whole life is predicated on doing just the opposite," he said. "It's too capricious. It can't be trusted. It's too precocious.
"It's not the first choice. It seems like an accident, like a circus act on the side of the road. It's hard to make people believe in it."
And so, baseball sticks to the tried and true, despite the evidence to the contrary. Niekro won more than 300 games. He and Wilhelm threw no-hitters and are in the Hall of Fame.
"Those guys won hundreds of games and pitched forever," Dickey said. "You would hope the mindset would change. It seems logical. But lots of times, this game is not defined by logic."
If logic applied, by now Dickey would be teaching English literature in some college classroom. That was his major at the University of Tennessee and remains his passion. If logic applied, he wouldn't be planning a charity climb of Mount Kilimanjaro after the season to benefit Red Light District Outreach Mumbai, which works to save girls from a life of human trafficking.
Dickey was just a journeyman pitcher, drifting from Texas to Seattle to Minnesota to Milwaukee and beginning to consider other career options, when he reached for the pitch of last resort in 2005.
He started the next season in the Texas rotation but allowed six home runs in his first start, tying a record set by Wakefield. Two years later, he tied a record by throwing four wild pitches in an inning. Niekro shares that record. Despite the bumps in the road, Dickey stuck with the knuckler and began to master it as well as any pitcher ever can.
"I'm fortunate to be in an organization that buys into it," he said. He caught the attention of the Mets last year while pitching for their Triple-A Buffalo affiliate when he retired 27 consecutive batters after allowing a leadoff single on an 0-2 pitch. The next month, he was pitching in New York and threw another one-hitter, this time against the Phillies.
The pitch remains mysterious, even to Dickey.
"I'm still learning with it," he said. "I have every year since I started with it. Sometimes, I learn on the fly."
Then, Dickey dismissed the nail file idea for Wakefield.
"He's probably got a good collection of them," he said.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.