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)
I'm glad to see R.A. in the mix this year. I'm confused as to his role though. Is he in the bullpen or starting now? Guess we're still looking for a niche eh?
Interesting article. You make each interview a unique one. It's a good way to get to know the Twins!!! Keep on writing those interviews, Dave!!!