On April 26, 1978, Greer Stadium hosted its first professional baseball game, and among the 8,156 fans who walked into the brand new stadium that day was 3-year-old Robert Allen Dickey, holding tight to his father’s hand. Dickey doesn’t remember that game, but he has fond memories of many subsequent days and nights at Greer as a boy, eating ice cream from miniature team helmets, watching Skeeter Barnes, Steve Balboni, Willie McGee and Don Mattingly from the cheap seats, and playing cup ball—“Wad up a paper cup and use it as the ball”—with friends in the area outside the left field fence.
From that inauspicious start, Dickey went on to become a local legend in baseball circles. At Montgomery Bell Academy, he made the high school varsity baseball team in eighth grade, and as a senior in 1993 he pitched the maximum allowable innings to help Big Red to the state championship title. He went on to a record-setting career in three years at the University of Tennessee. After a losing debut against the powerhouse University of Miami team during his freshman season, he bounced back to win 15 consecutive games.
Now, 29 years after his first trip to Greer, the kid from Antioch is back (and expected to pitch Friday night). When Dickey trots out to the mound wearing his No. 14 Sounds jersey, there are many fans in the stadium who recall the seemingly tireless young pitcher from MBA and UT. But in ways that go beyond the toll that years of repeatedly hurling a ball 60 feet 6 inches takes on a body, R.A. Dickey is no longer that pitcher. Though he may be back on familiar ground, he finds himself in all new territory, with an optimistic but realistic eye on his future.
“Part of figuring all this out has been accepting that the R.A. I was, I’ll never be again,” he says, sitting in the home dugout before a game. “The beginning of this season [he started the year 1-4 before being sent to the bullpen in mid-May], I was still trying to be who I was. It takes a certain amount of courage to leave that behind. That’s tough, but that’s the decision I had to make. On the other hand, I don’t want to overthink it. It’s just baseball. I believe there’s an element of what I’m doing now that’s philosophical, and a part of it that’s just the way the ball bounces.”
R.A. Dickey’s parents divorced when he was 7 years old, and he spent lots of time with his maternal grandmother, hanging around gymnasiums and ball fields. His mother’s younger brother was Rickey Bowers, a standout basketball player with MBA and David Lipscomb University. He followed Bowers to MBA, enrolling in seventh grade and going on to play basketball, football and baseball.
“I enjoyed MBA, and I had friends there, but I didn’t get real close to anyone,” he says (though in his senior year, he began dating his future wife, the former Anne Bartholomew, the sister of a classmate). “I tended to hang out with other guys who were on financial aid and came from divorced families. I was a little bit of a loner, and I kept busy with sports. I wasn’t the best athlete, so I worked hard at it.”
He was recruited by several schools but chose UT so his family could see him play. In three years there, his record was 38-10 with a 3.40 ERA, the most wins in school history.
In June 1996, following his junior year, he was the first of the Texas Rangers’ two No. 1 draft picks, and a handshake deal promised him $875,000 to sign. A routine MRI revealed—to everyone’s surprise—that Dickey had no normal ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The good news was that he would never have to have Tommy John surgery—designed to repair the damage pitching causes on that ligament; the bad news was the Rangers were spooked, and Dickey ended up signing for only $75,000.
He was pragmatic about the costly turn of events. “I was just glad to get to play,” he says. And play he did, making steady progress up the minor league ladder. In 2001, he had a cup of coffee with the parent team, and then spent all of 2002 in AAA Oklahoma. In 2003, he made a serious bid for the American League Rookie of the Year, appearing in 38 games, going 9-8.
But it wasn’t enough to guarantee him a spot in the Rangers rotation, and he continued commuting between Oklahoma City and Arlington. “I always had pretty average stuff,” he confesses. “So I felt like I had to do extra things, field my position, hold runners well, be flexible.”
In 2005, Dickey’s flexibility took an entirely different turn, as he embarked on the path that would take him away from the R.A. he was, to the R.A. he hopes to be—one of the few major league pitchers whose primary pitch is the knuckleball.
Relying on the knuckleball for your livelihood is a bit like a farmer counting on a monsoon for a little rain. In the history of baseball, there have been only about 70 pitchers who have done it, and for good reason. The pitch is so freakish, so unpredictable, that coaches disdain it and catchers distrust it. “You don’t catch the knuckleball,” Joe Torre has said. “You defend against it.”
It’s been driving hitters crazy since roughly the start of professional baseball. A successful knuckleball does not spin at all. It comes in slow—60 to 65 mph—and with an erratic, unpredictable motion. A good knuckleball is nearly impossible to hit, and has inspired eloquent descriptions from frustrated batters: a butterfly with hiccups, eating Jello with chopsticks, a curveball that doesn’t give a damn.
In the middle of the 2005 season, Dickey began the challenging conversion to knuckleball pitcher, with mixed results. The low point may have been April 4, 2006. His first—and last—start for Texas that season resulted in a Major League record-tying six home runs, a dubious achievement shared with fellow knuckleballers Charlie Hough and Boston ace Tim Wakefield. Dickey was sent back to Oklahoma the following day, and remained there the rest of the season, trying to find himself.
“A lot of being successful at this is finding out what your personality is with it,” he explains. “I was trying to be the prototypical knuckleballer, but mine are mostly in the 78 to 80 mph range. Part of my evolution was to stop fighting that. It has also been in my development as a human being. I’ve had to learn to give up control, to trust, to experience being present in the moment.”
Texas released him after the 2006 season and he signed with Milwaukee, knowing he’d be assigned to Nashville. Things didn’t start out real well this year. As a starter, he went 1-4 with a 6.17 ERA, and in mid-May he went to the bullpen. It was there that he says he began to understand more the mechanics of the knuckleball—in eight relief outings, he was 3-0 and had a 4.95 ERA. It was on a road trip to Omaha the second weekend in June that he had a metaphorical initiation into the fraternity of knuckleheads.
“All the years I’ve been in Triple-A, when we’ve been in Omaha, I could see the Missouri River from the hotel,” Dickey says. “I was always betting my teammates that I could swim across that river. On our road trip there in June, a bunch of guys put up some money and I decided it was now or never. We went down and I waded into the river and started swimming. It was from about here”—he points to the rail at the top of the dugout—“to there”—pointing to the outfield wall, a distance of more than 350 feet. “I got pretty far out, and got caught up in the current. I knew if I didn’t turn back, I would die. I almost didn’t make it. If I had done it when I was younger, I would have died trying. I lost the bet, but when I got out of the river—it’s hard to explain—I felt freed to be who I am, that I didn’t have to live up to anyone else’s expectations.”
Back at Greer Stadium, Dickey rejoined the rotation. In eight starts since then, he is 4-1 with a 2.04 ERA. Last week in Iowa, he pitched his second complete seven-inning game, both in doubleheaders and both resulting in wins.
“I feel good,” he says, relaxed and confident. “Knuckleballers are a little bit eccentric, and I think it’s appropriate that I’m there. I’ve always been a little bit different, but now I’m able to use it.”