Baseball career paths are predictable. If you’re going to make the Major Leagues and have any sort of success, you’re usually on a roster by your early-to- mid-20s and usually there for good by a couple of years after that. Normally the players who become stars have debuted by 22 or 23 and are regulars within a couple years of that.
Occasionally though, a few players break the mold entirely, including Nashville’s own R.A. Dickey, who is redefining “unconventional” in every way. While most players are retired from baseball at age 37, Dickey is not only having his best year, but quite possibly pitching his way into baseball history as well.
The former Montgomery Bell Academy and University of Tennessee star pitched a complete-game, one-hit shutout – the second game in a row in which he’d done that – when he beat the Baltimore Orioles on Monday. And actually, the first one-hitter has a slight chance of becoming a no-hitter: the Mets are appealing an official scorer’s decision of a grounder to third baseman David Wright on June 13 that was ruled a hit.
Even if Dickey isn’t awarded perfection, he could pitch his way into the record books anyway. His scoreless innings streak now stands at 42 2/3, just 16 1/3 innings shy of Orel Hershiser’s all-time record. He leads the National League in wins and strikeouts, and is tied with Brandon Beachy for the ERA lead at 2.00.
That’s just the beginning of the story, as Dickey’s career path is one of the best rags-to-riches stories going in the big leagues. Dickey was a highly-regarded prospect while at UT, but some were concerned about the high pitch counts he rung up in several starts. Nonetheless, the Texas Rangers took Dickey with the 18th overall pick of the first round of the 1996 MLB Draft.
The Rangers then discovered another problem – Dickey was missing the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. They said that opening a door should be painful for Dickey, let alone throwing a baseball. Suddenly, their offer of an $810,000 signing bonus shrunk to $75,000.
A few years later, even the low bonus seemed generous. Dickey didn’t make the majors until 26, and over the course of the next five years – when he wasn’t being shipped back to the minors – he ranked as one of MLB’s worst pitchers. As his fastball velocity dipped to the high-80s, Dickey tried to resurrect his career as a knuckleballer.
The Rangers gave him a shot to use that pitch on April 6, 2006. Three-and-a-third innings and an MLB-record six homers later, his Texas career was finished.
But Dickey persevered. The Brewers signed him and assigned him to the AAA Nashville Sounds, where he became the PCL Pitcher of the Year and let him walk as a free agent.
The Mariners and Twins gave him shots the next two seasons, but got unimpressive results. But the Mets believed. They signed him for 2010, and he posted an 11-9 record and an excellent 2.84 ERA. Last year he went 8-13, but again, the 3.28 ERA told the story of an effective pitcher. They kept him in the rotation again this year, and the rest may soon be history.
Knuckleballers are rare – he’s the only one in baseball right now – but Dickey’s version of the knuckler is one of the most unique pitches in baseball history. While most knuckle-ballers throw around 70 miles an hour and have trouble with their control, Dickey’s gets to the plate between 79 and 81, and he’s walked just 16 men this year. To see how ridiculously effective he is, watch this video from Monday of Dickey striking out 13 Orioles in his latest win.
Baseball aside, it’s a miracle Dickey is in baseball regardless. In his recent book, Dickey shared very personal details of an awful childhood that included sexual abuse and sleeping in abandoned houses. Unable to trust anyone or find intimacy, Dickey never told his wife about the abuse until they’d been married for eight years.
By that time, he’d already cheated on his wife, and the shame of it led him to thoughts of killing himself.
But 2006, the year he started throwing the knuckleball more aggressively, wasn’t the mark of the only change in his life. Dickey became a Christian, and started thinking more about others. In addition to raising two daughters with the wife who stuck by his side, Dickey now operates a charity to provide for the poor people of Latin America, and works to raise awarness of human trafficking in India.
Now, there’s talk of another first for Dickey: an All-Star Game appearance next month. Many think he’ll even be the National League’s starting pitcher.
Regardless of whether that happens, Dickey has already proven he’s made it in baseball – and in life as well.