Posted at 9:00 PM on April 15, 2009
by David Zingler
34-year-old R.A. Dickey is one of only a handful of men on this planet who has mastered the art of the knuckleball (at least to the degree it can be mastered). I caught up with Twins reliever on Tuesday and discussed this bizarre art, his long and winding career and life on the fringe of the big leagues.
DZ: Being a guy who got one of the last roster spots, how do you not put too much pressure on yourself when you go out and pitch?
DICKEY: I am kind of an older guy so I've been through it before. I can draw on some of the experiences I've had before. Baseball is important to me, but it's not the most important thing in the world to me and I think that helps dealing with the pressure of it. I am also really passionate about what I do, so I just let that kind of take hold, do my best and let the cards fall where they may.
DZ: You were a 1st round pick by the Rangers when it was discovered you were missing the ulnar (Dickey assists me as I butcher the pronunciation) collateral ligament in your right arm. Can you take us through that (process)?
DICKEY: I was a 1st round pick (18th overall) by Texas and had agreed to a signing bonus of about $850,000 and I took a physical and - to make a long story short - they discovered I didn't have the "Tommy John" ligament in my right elbow - ulnar collateral ligament. They said my elbow joint should be very unstable; I shouldn't be able to turn a door knob without having some pain - do everyday activities, much less throw a baseball 90, 92 mph. I was always asymptomatic, never had any problems. Instead of $850,000 I ended up going ahead and signing for $75,000 which was their final offer and embarked on my professional journey. That was in 1996 (and) I had to decide if I would be better off going back to school at UT (Tennessee) or take it. I felt that I had to go ahead and accept their offer and see what happened.
DZ: Then about 6 or 7 years later, you pick up the knuckleball?
DICKEY: Actually, it was 10 years later. The first 10 years of my career, I pitched as a conventional pitcher and was able to have some big league service time and success. I was up for parts of 4 seasons in the big leagues with the Texas Rangers. I had come back from an injury and didn't regain the velocity I once had and so I had to come up with something if I wanted to stay.
I had always had a good knuckleball (and) Orel Hershiser - who was my pitching coach at the time - recommended that I could go to that full time if I wanted to prolong my career much like a (Tim) Wakefied or a Charlie Hough or Phil Niekro. That's what I did. I started that process in 2005.
DZ: It was Orel Hershiser? I had read it was Charlie Hough?
DICKEY: Charlie Hough was a guy I tutored under, but Orel Hershiser was the one that kind of pushed me in that direction.
DZ: Do you still communicate with him?
DICKEY: Charlie Hough, I do - Tim Wakefield and Phil Niekro, I talk those guys quite a bit. Orel and I haven't spoken for a long time just because our lives are so different and we are in different places, but it's such a small fraternity when you are a knuckleball guy. You only have a few people to kind of draw on. It's been a real blessing to be able to talk to the guys I have been able to talk to.
DZ: Your knuckleball is faster than Wakefield's or going back to Hough's; is that just your own signature on it?
DICKEY: Yeah. I would say it's my personality. It took me a long time to buy into that, but it's one of those things where you have to discover where your personality is with it. I am not Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough or Phil Niekro. I am R.A. Dickey and I've got to buy into the fact that I offer different things than those guys had to offer. One of which is that I throw it a little bit harder. I still have enough arm strength to throw a fastball about 86, 87 mph, so I can still use that as a weapon. My knuckleball is anywhere from 68 to 80, 82 mph. A normal knuckleball is about 69 mph as a high.
DZ: Is that a benefit?
DICKEY: I would like to think that it is. It's something that I think I can offer that...it's a different look, that's for sure. I try to work on changing speeds with it quite a bit because I feel like that can be a real weapon. At the same time, you've got to be able to take spin off the ball - that's what the knuckleball is. To throw a good fastball, you impart a lot of spin on the baseball. To throw a good knuckleball, you try to take spin completely off of the baseball. If I can execute that consistently, it's going to be a pretty good night usually.
(Photo by Rob Tingali/Getty Images)