Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 12, 2012

Book Review: Travels Of A Journeyman; Journey Of A Man

Right hander R. A. Dickey takes the mound for the New York Mets for the second time this season Friday evening in Philadelphia. At age 37, after a long career spent mostly in the minor leagues and a mid-life conversion from conventional pitcher to knuckleballer, Dickey has finally found a home in Queens. In the second year of a potential three-year contract (it includes a team option for 2013); he has emerged as the Mets number two starter behind Johan Santana. He got the win in his first outing last weekend, giving up just two runs over five innings as New York beat Atlanta 4-2 at Citi Field.

Now he goes up against the Phillies ace Cliff Lee in a ballpark where he has never won; but one shouldn’t let that history count too much in thinking about what might happen. As Dickey’s recently published memoir, “Wherever I Wind Up” makes abundantly clear, as a pitcher and as a person he has worked tenaciously to overcome obstacles and to achieve the ability to leave the past behind, be it a bad outing on the mound or horrific childhood trauma.

One should know going in that in some ways Dickey’s memoir, written with Wayne Coffey and published by Blue Rider Press, is not an easy book to read. There are two distinct stories told in the 330 or so pages. One is of a journeyman ballplayer forever hoping, like so many of his breed, for the chance to make it to the show. This is a classic American tale of tenacity, grit, and ultimately accomplishment. The other is of a born-again Christian who has lived much of his still-young life rebelling against the very concept of giving one’s life over to a higher power, even as he devoutly prayed to be able to do so while being constantly haunted by shame and guilt from events over which he had no control. While this story too ends hopefully, it is a much darker tale; and Dickey spares the reader no detail in its telling.

Dickey was a phenom in high school and at the University of Tennessee, where both his raw ability and his stubbornness and determination were on display early. He was an All-American as a freshman; then in his sophomore year the Volunteers needed two wins in the regional finals to advance to the College World Series. On a Thursday Dickey threw seven innings in a Tennessee win. Three days later he started again against Oklahoma State. After eight innings the score was tied 1-1 and when Dickey came to the dugout his pitching coach told him he was done for the day. An obstinate Dickey refused to hand over the ball. Again after the ninth and tenth the young pitcher and his coach argued in the dugout, and each time Dickey prevailed. In the end he pitched an eleven-inning complete game victory, throwing 183 pitches.

He was chosen for the 1996 U.S. Olympic team and then drafted by the Texas Rangers in the first round of the 1996 Major League draft. It was during his routine physical before signing a contract that included a bonus of $815,000 that Dickey and the Rangers made the startling discovery that he had no ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow of his throwing arm. A literal freak of nature, Dickey should not have been able to pitch at all, and the Rangers understandably withdrew their offer. Yet there was no denying that Dickey had pitched, and pitched well, through high school, college, and in the Olympics where he won both his starts. Eventually the Rangers offered him a $75,000 signing bonus and a minor league contract.

Thus began Dickey’s long trek through the many fields of dreams that make up the minor leagues. From 1997 through 2010 he spent all or part of every year in the minors, the vast majority of the time at the AAA level. He spent so much time in Oklahoma City at the Rangers’ AAA affiliate that locals suggested he run for mayor. Along the way there were call-ups to the big club in 2001, and then every year from 2003 through 2005. But with it becoming clear that Dickey’s best stuff was simply not quite good enough to get major league hitters out, the Rangers encouraged Dickey to switch to the knuckleball.

At first he lacked confidence in the pitch, and his initial big league start as a full-fledged knuckleballer was an equally full-fledged disaster in which he surrendered six home runs in just 3 1/3 innings. That debacle effectively ended his time with Texas, and he spent three years drifting through the Brewers, Mariners and Twins organizations before being signed by the Mets prior to the 2010 season. But in the course of that drifting Dickey finally fully embraced the knuckleball, seeking out both active knucklers and retirees for advice and instruction. After his initial conversion to the pitch he relied on it little more than half the time. Now nearly ninety percent of his offerings are knuckleballs, and Dickey has perfected the ability to throw the pitch at a variety of speeds, making it even more confounding to hitters. In his first two years with the Mets Dickey posted career bests in a number of statistical categories, including wins (11), complete games (2), ERA (2.84), and WHIP (1.19) in 2010; and starts (32), innings pitched (208.1), and strikeouts (134) in 2011. With his win in his first outing of the season, he evened his professional record in both the major and minor leagues at 121-121; a fitting symbol of a successful journeyman.

Yet even as R. A. Dickey the ballplayer found his way to the show, Robert Allen Dickey the man remained stuck, haunted by demons not of his own making. The first child of parents wed too young because of his mother’s pregnancy, Dickey was the product of an early broken home. He grew estranged from his mother as she descended into the pit of alcoholism, and then later from his father as he withdrew into an emotional distance that men of a certain generation seem unable to cross. As a child he was sexually abused repeatedly by a babysitter, and then later sexually assaulted by an older male playmate. Drawn to Christ through the intervention of a high school friend who was the older brother of the girl who would eventually become his wife, Dickey was able to speak the language of the born-again while still seeking to control every aspect of his life, largely because he was unable to confront the many traumas of his youth.

It took a singularly spectacular attempt at suicide, an arduous effort to remake his marriage after breaking his vows, and long and intensive therapy for Dickey the man to finally surrender the burdens he had carried for most of his years. He leaves nothing out of his memoir; which, as noted at the start, can make for difficult reading. But in the end Dickey the man seems to have found peace. Reunited with a mother in recovery, bonded once again with a forgiving wife, the happy father of a growing family, and finally, it appears, fully committed to his religious beliefs, R. A. Dickey seems to have reached a place that all of us can aspire to; one of acceptance and grace. It has clearly not been an easy journey; and reading about travels on a hard road can be difficult. But not all reading should be escapist fantasy. Dickey’s remarkable memoir reminds us all of that; which is reason enough to buy it.

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