Some players talk a good game. Only one in recent memory, however, has shown a knack for articulating an extraordinary postgame.
R.A. Dickey is Faith and Fear in Flushing’s Most Valuable Met for 2010. He earned consideration through his pitching. He clinched the award the minute he cleared his throat.
The knuckleballer nobody saw coming saved the Mets’ season twice. First, he arrived with little fanfare from the scrap heap, via Buffalo, and sealed shut a gaping hole in the starting rotation. Then, after every outing, he casually opened his mouth and explained his thinking.
There are times I swear I would want to buy a ticket to Citi Field just to watch R.A. Dickey think. But I’d be sure to record the game just to make certain I didn’t miss anything he said afterwards.
You need an R.A. Dickey in a year like 2010 for several reasons. First and foremost, you need his numbers every bit as much as his words:
• The 19 quality starts in 26 attempts;
• The National League’s seventh-best earned run average of 2.84;
• The 3.4 WAR that bettered that of all his teammates, save for Angel Pagan, Johan Santana and David Wright;
• The 1.187 WHIP that was the best compiled by any Met righthanded starter since Orlando Hernandez in 2007;
• And the signature 1-0 one-hitter versus Cole Hamels (who recorded the lone safety) and Philadelphia on August 13, achieved in the Mets’ first dual complete nine-inning game since 2005 — and the first in which a Met had prevailed since Shawn Estes bested Glendon Rusch and the Brewers (also a one-hitter, also by a 1-0 score) in 2002.
Second, you can always use the element of surprise. Three healthy Johan Santanas and a couple of unspoiled Dwight Goodens may be ideal but there’s something exhilarating about receiving unexpected contributions from a starting pitcher who wasn’t penciled in for anything by anybody.
No Mets fan who lived through the travails of 1987 wasn’t uplifted to the point of levitated by sidewinder Terry Leach. Leach was a bullpen afterthought when that season commenced. He was its savior when things got hot: 12 midseason Leach starts, 10 midseason Mets wins.
A decade later, journeyman-epitome Rick Reed, tainted in the judgment of some for his participation in 1995 Spring Training replacement games with the Reds, shook off his overstated association with one strike and proceeded to regularly throw strike one. By the end of 1997, Reeder was known for his sub-3.00 ERA and his going, on average, roughly 6.2 innings between bases on balls.
But Leach had been around the Mets on and off since 1981. And Reed, though labor-relations infamy may have washed him out of the bigs for a spell, was at least a vaguely familiar sight, having pitched for the Mets’ then-archrivals, the Pirates, from 1988 to 1991 (including a 1-0 gem in his big league debut versus Bobby Ojeda). R.A. Dickey was almost nobody to the average Mets fan. There was one brief starting encounter, in 2008, an Interleague matchup between those nonfoes, the Mets and Mariners. Dickey threw seven splendid shutout innings, but from a parochial standpoint, the story was Oliver Perez getting lit up early and often en route to an 11-0 Seattle thrashing.
Two years later, when Perez needed replacing and Dickey was the designated substitute, we still didn’t know all that much about R.A. beyond he had a knuckleball; he didn’t have an ulnar collateral ligament, which is what made his mastery of the knuckler a must; and he didn’t stick around Spring Training very long before being assigned to minor league camp on March 15, three weeks before Opening Day. He next appeared on our radar in late April when he tossed a one-hitter for the Triple-A Bisons. Not just any one-hitter, either: He surrendered a leadoff single to Durham’s Fernando Perez and was then perfect the rest of the way. He faced 27 more Bulls and tamed every one of them.
It was his game that raised eyebrows and antennae among the keenest of Met-watchers — “That was the most dominating performance I’ve ever seen,” Bison manager Ken Oberkfell told the Buffalo News — but what we really should have been scouting were Dickey’s quotes afterwards.
“Life is not without that sense of irony,” the almost perfect pitcher elaborated to News reporter Mike Harrington. “To not have that ligament as a conventional pitcher really allowed me to be resilient. it’s that much more as a knuckleballer because I’m operating out there at 75 percent. If I’m at 100 percent, I’m going to be throwing the ball all over the place. I pick my times to really try to hump it up and throw a really filthy, hard nasty one. The rest of the time, I just want to feel like I’m playing catch with it, taking spin off the baseball and manipulate the baseball like I want to do.”
Which brings us to third reason why R.A. Dickey is Most Valuable, especially in 2010.
Read that quote again. Look at the phrases the winning pitcher brought to bear: “sense of irony”; “conventional pitcher”; “resilient”; “hump it up and throw a really filthy, hard nasty one”; “manipulate”. Dickey showed as much control of the language as he did the baseball that night in Buffalo, and demonstrated a repertoire of English that transcended any notion of him as a one-trick pitcher of complete sentences.
Has anybody else mixed a philosophical musing about life with pointed jockspeak like that? Anybody else sound as comfortable blending SAT prep with humping it up? Anybody?
I’ve never heard another player talk like R.A. Dickey. I’ve heard players talk more than R.A. Dickey, and I’ve heard players talk louder than R.A. Dickey and I’ve been impressed listening to any number of Mets over the years address their craft, but R.A. Dickey on the subject of anything he was asked about in 2010 — the subject didn’t have to be R.A. Dickey — was spellbinding. The pitching, from his Met debut on May 19 to his relief cameo on October 2, was generally sublime (which is why we paid attention to what he was saying in the first place). But the reflecting…that’s what proved truly award-worthy in our eyes and to our ears.
The Mets humped it up for spells in the first half of 2010, but by the time their West Coast wanderings were over in late July, so was their season. We were left with a bunch of not unlikable earnest guys haplessly attempting to reason away the latest hard nasty slump. Combine that with the standard quota of bad-apple incidents and the usual contretemps that surround this team, and we as hardcore, hang-on-every pitch/syllable fans, needed something to look forward to and feel good about.
As things developed, our icon became someone who would likely never end sentences with prepositions like “to” or “about”.
R.A. Dickey, we learned as the year went along, did not major in pitching all his life. He studied English at the University of Tennessee and took it very seriously, as was conveyed in one enchanting profile after another. Writers covering the Mets seemed to love covering R.A. Dickey. I once read that the New York “literati” of the 1960s were enamored of the Dallas Cowboys’ wide receiver Peter Gent because he struck them as a kindred spirit, an inference proven out by the publication of Gent’s football novel North Dallas Forty in 1973.
Dickey became this season’s Gent — our most well-spoken gent. As Jeff Roberts put it in the Record after another R.A. “W” in September, “Dickey, 35, looks more like an English professor than a major leaguer. He is working toward a degree in literature after studying English at the University of Tennessee before getting drafted in 1996.” There was also something in Roberts’ story (and several others) about the rare find in Dickey’s locker, items no other Met or baseball player apparently exhibited:
The small library sits on the top shelf of R.A. Dickey’s locker, nine books neatly lined up by size.
There’s a dictionary, a thesaurus, Life of Pi and A Year With C.S. Lewis.
Not just books, but literature having nothing to do with sports. Books aren’t exactly a common sight in the Mets’ clubhouse. Just as Dickey’s story isn’t exactly typical for most major league pitchers.
The description was eventually followed, much as ligament follows collateral follows ulnar, by one of those priceless, self-aware R.A. Dickey quotes:
“My journey has been such that I cannot take anything for granted,” Dickey said in his Tennessee accent. “That’s my story. Other guys have a different story, but my story is that I need to live in the moment as much as possible and work on living the next five minutes as well.”
I can’t blame Roberts or any of the other writers covering the Mets for going to the Dickey well at the drop of a knuckleball. They work with the language, and Dickey clearly respects the language. He reads the language. He speaks the language with grace and style — and he indeed possesses the most charming of accents.
If my job was to interview Mets, I, too, would seek out R.A. Dickey ever chance I got. In fact, when asked by the Mets communications folks on Blogger Night II if there was any Met in particular with whom I’d like five minutes, I requested an audience with R.A. Dickey. (Alas, he was unavailable, though Chris Carter did nicely, per his particular talent, in a pinch.)
We’ve already printed some statistics relevant to Dickey’s fine pitching. What would be more appropriate, considering what it is we really cherish about this guy, is to go to his greatest hits…each of them of the spoken-word variety. Read on and ask yourself if you’ve ever heard any Met — or any athlete — consistently express himself so gloriously.
For that matter, how many people, whatever their calling, speak this well?
• After his first win, an 8-0 triumph over the Phillies on May 25: “I feel like I’m 27 in knuckleball years because I started throwing it in ’05. It’s been a nice journey for me with this pitch.”
• After his second win, a 10-4 decision over the Brewers on May 30: “Before, if I had a poor knuckleball, I really would desert it. With who I am now as a pitcher, I don’t desert it. I think with the pitch that I throw, I probably have to prove myself more than most, because people want to see that it’s a trustworthy pitch.”
• After his third win, 4-3 over the Marlins on June 4: “There are little mechanical nuances that you have to really be able to feel. It’s a lot like a golf swing. It has been an evolution, and it’s slowly getting better and better. I don’t ever feel like I’m entitled to anything. That sense of entitlement will really get you in trouble. So I just try to stay humble and do the work I need to do.”
• After his fourth win, when he beat the Orioles 5-1 on June 11, specifically addressing the impact of his starting first games of series and potentially disturbing the opposition with his unusual pitch: “I don’t know. I think, if anything, it will screw them up. I surely don’t think it will help them for the next two days. If that’s the hypothesis, now we have a series to see if it works — to prove it out.”
• After getting off to a 5-0 start by defeating the Indians 6-4 on June 17 — and downplaying his personal achievement: “I hate giving you the SportsCenter answer, but I’m much more interested in how we fare collectively. But it’s nice. It’s better than starting 0-5.”
• On his traveling with a catcher’s mitt designed specially for handling the vagaries of the knuckler: “I feel a little dorky, like a field goal kicker carrying around a tee. This glove has a personality of its own. It will be broken in when it’s ready.”
• After going eight innings in a 5-0 win over the Tigers on June 23 and raising his record to 6-0 — regarding Jerry Manuel’s confidence in him: “I don’t pitch for other people, I pitch for me. It’s what I enjoy doing. I’m passionate about it and I have been fortunate to have been given the gift to do it. So I appreciate Jerry’s encouragement, but I don’t necessarily pitch for his approval.”
• On the unexpected nature of his success: “It doesn’t feel surreal. I feel like this is something I’ve been capable of doing. I felt like if I put in the hard work and committed to the journey, eventually it was going to yield some fruit. I’m excited it yielded this ripe a fruit. But it doesn’t feel like a dream.”
• After being undermined by his defense in his first loss, an eventual 10-3 pasting by the Marlins in San Juan on June 28: “Sometimes that’s the way the ball bounces — literally.”
• After outpitching Stephen Strasburg in a game the Mets’ bullpen eventually gave up 6-5 to the Nationals on July 3: “It was kind of anticlimactic. Not that he’s not very good. He’s good. But I felt like the ball was going to be invisible. I actually saw it.”
• On the impact the winds of AT&T Park may have had on his knuckleball: “Inconsequential.”
• After arguing to no avail with Manuel when the manager came to the mound to remove him when it appeared he injured himself while engaged in a pitchers’ duel the Mets would go on to lose to the Dodgers 1-0 on July 25: “It seemed like he was giving me a chance, but maybe my argument wasn’t compelling enough. I don’t know. But I definitely felt the compulsion to plead my case, and I did. On that small comebacker, with the pitcher running, I felt like I could afford to treat it a little more gingerly than I otherwise would. But I think that probably alarmed the powers that be.”
• After pitching into the ninth and earning his first win in a month, 4-0 over the Cardinals, July 29, following a tough Mets loss the night before: “We lost a heartbreaker yesterday. The propensity is to pout about it or mope about it. You really saw the character of this team today.”
• On convincing the remaining skeptics that he was for real: “There’s a lot of guys probably saying, ‘When is the horseshoe going to drop?’ And that’s OK with me.”
• After struggling to find his grip amid oppressive humidity in Atlanta but ultimately prevailing 3-2 on August 3: “Oh man, it was just straight guerrilla warfare tonight. I used every trick I knew out there.”
• After his knuckleball proved ineffective against the Phillies in a 6-5 loss on August 8: “It was kind of tumbling in there. It didn’t get that extra little wiggle that I’m used to getting.”
• After he blanked the Phils on one hit — allowed to opposing pitcher Hamels — on August 13: “There’s definitely no woulda-shoulda. There’s, ‘Aw shucks, I wish that wouldn’t have happened.’ That’s probably the most satisfying thing about this night for me is that there’s no regret. I had an outing without regret, and you rarely can say that about an outing. There’s always one pitch that you didn’t execute right, or a sinker you didn’t get or a ball you left over the plate that got raked in the gap. There’s always a regret. This game is about how to handle regret, it really is. Tonight, man, I could have pitched into the wee hours.”
• After the Mets came back to beat the Marlins 6-5 on August 24 despite his giving up a lead-changing three-run homer to Gaby Sanchez: “It’s just sad. You pitch your heart out and then one swing changes the culture of what’s going on in the moment. But I’m glad we won.”
• After an impressive 5-1 victory over the Marlins on August 29 when he scattered six hits over seven-plus innings: “I’m hopeful that for the rest of my career, the anomaly will be the bad outing. It’s nice to be on the same stat page, so to speak, but I don’t give it a lot of thought.”
• On his previously stated desire to serve as a ball man for the U.S. Open in the face of learning the tennis people don’t allow facial hair on those serving in that position (in a text message to David Waldstein of the Times): “I would prefer that they embrace me with beard. Especially for $7.75 an hour.”
• After an otherwise good day in which he bested Liván Hernandez and the Nationals 3-2 on September 8, addressing a baserunning ploy that went awry: “I got a little bit frisky. I don’t know how old Liván is, but I know he’s old enough to bait somebody. I’m older, too, so I was figuring, ‘Is he really arguing [with the umpire] or is baiting me here?’ I was affirmed that he was baiting me once I got out at third base. That was a terrible play. I was just trying to make something happen.”
• On his restrained but unmistakable criticism of teammates who didn’t join the Mets who visited injured veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center: “I’m a 35-year-old man with three kids, so I feel like what I say with a pure heart, I don’t have to apologize for it.”
• After his knuckleball baffled the Pirates in a 9-1 complete game victory on September 14: “It had some severe movement. That thing, especially with wind in your face, if you throw that thing slowly, it can move in four, five different directions.”
• After a 3-2 loss to the Phillies on September 24 when the big story was the questionable takeout slide Chase Utley aimed at second baseman Ruben Tejada: “If you deem as a team that it’s a dirty play then you should take action. Absolutely, you’ve got to protect your teammates, for one, and you’ve got to show the other team that you’re not going to roll over for them and let them step on your neck. That’s just part of the game, any game at this level. You don’t want to ever be a team that has the reputation that you can be kicked around and you’re going to go into the dugout after the game with your tail between your legs.”
• After his well-received final appearance of the season, an unforeseen relief stint in a 7-2 win over the Nationals on October 2 when Manuel chose him over bullpen refugee Perez: “Sure, you hurt for Ollie. You do. He’s had a tough year as far as the things that have happened with him and to him, and the things that he’s been asked to do and the way he’s handled it has been painted a certain way. I feel for him. But, at the same time, as a professional, I’ve got a job to do, regardless of his feelings. So I’ve got to compartmentalize that. But he’s my teammate and I’m for him.”
• On Manuel’s suggestion that he might bring him back in the season’s final game just to receive another round of applause from the appreciative Citi Field crowd: “If I had my druthers, that was an ovation enough.”
We have our druthers, and we stand in salute to 2010’s most unexpected and consequential gift to Mets fans.
A big tip of the cap to those reporters whose notebooks and recorders took down every most valuable syllable R.A. Dickey uttered in 2010.
FAITH AND FEAR’S PREVIOUS MOST VALUABLE METS
2005: Pedro Martinez
2006: Carlos Beltran
2007: David Wright
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Pedro Feliciano
Still to come: The Nikon Camera Player of the Year for 2010.