Gosh, I hope the passage directly below doesn’t came back to haunt us tonight as R.A. Dickey of the Mets faces Aaron Harang of the Dodgers. Not that there’s anything nasty about what one of the starters said about the other, but the last time something less than flattering about the L.A. club appeared under a Met pitcher’s byline, the Dodgers were next seen torching David Cone and turning a playoff series irrevocably around.
Thank you, Aaron Harang, wherever you are. I don’t mean this flippantly, or obnoxiously. I mean it sincerely. I’ve never met Aaron Harang, a pitcher for the Padres, but he gives me a lift today and doesn’t even know it. Whenever I have a rough outing — and a I have a brutal one here today — I have a strange custom: I go on my laptop and surf baseball Web sites until I find somebody who had an even worse day than me. It’s not that I delight in other people’s misfortune; it’s just that misery does like company, and after my eighth start of the year I am definitely looking for somebody to point to and say, “Hey, this guy’s a respectable pitcher and he got lit up too.” Harang gave up nine hits and seven runs in four and a third innings against the Rockies. Today he supplies the comfort.
I feel less miserable for knowing this.
That’s R.A. Dickey in one of the 2011 interludes in his memoir, Wherever I Wind Up, recounting the atrocious afternoon he experienced at Minute Maid Park on May 14 of last year. It had indeed been a pretty bad day, dropping his record to 1-5 and inflating his ERA to 5.08. Even yours truly — who’d been nothing but smitten by him since he started surprising us in 2010 — made like an Astro and took a few swings:
We love him for his silver tongue, but only because it’s attached somewhere deep within his Dickeyness to his right arm. Well, we used to love his right arm, but lately the affection has been diminished. Our R.A. romance hinges upon his being a character we can root for: bedevils batters then charms reporters. That’s the bargain.
He’s not living up to the half that counts in the standings.
Sometimes you write something that reads as rather inane in hindsight. I’ve been writing here for eight seasons, so I have a few of those in the archives. This feels particularly stupid to me, not because R.A. — who inflamed my ire that Saturday not so much by pitching badly but by creeping to the edge of blaming his fielders for the base hits he gave up — is an all-world pitcher a year later, but because I rather cavalierly dismissed the way he expresses himself, as if he should only grunt “yep” or “I’uhno” after a loss.
Such a line of thinking proved particularly stupid on my part because once you’ve read Wherever I Wind Up, you realize he is the way he is, no matter how he’s pitching. And bless his heart for being who and what he is, because he’s clearly one of the most compelling characters to ever pull on a Mets uniform.
That we wouldn’t care very much about those personal qualities if he wasn’t getting batters out is beside the point. Of course we wouldn’t. We’re fans. That’s fine. We wouldn’t give a damn what Jon Rauch was Tweeting if he wasn’t on the Mets. We wouldn’t ponder Jason Bay’s headaches if he wasn’t on the Mets. And we wouldn’t get caught up in a singular personality like R.A. Dickey’s if he wasn’t on the Mets and winning like crazy for the Mets.
Though that would be our loss, at least a little.
The subtitle of Dickey’s book mentions “authenticity” and Wherever I Wind Up has plenty of that. It’s a collaboration with Daily News sportswriter Wayne Coffey, and it’s pretty easy to detect what comes from the pro and what comes from the pitcher, but Dickey’s voice is in abundance. What we hear is a guy who was publicly doubted in his profession in ways most of us never are and a guy who overcame the doubts after a long, arduous and humble journey. There’s no triumphalism about Dickey making it in New York after being disregarded by the rest of baseball. Really, there’s very little sense of his having succeeded or reached the end point of the journey. There’s a part of him on display that can’t quite believe he’s indisputably traversed that rubicon.
There’s also a part that seeps through, almost as subtext, that says R.A. Dickey is not a fluke, no matter the pitch he throws and the time it took him to learn it. It’s not as if he wandered out of an English lecture, shed his tweed jacket and decided to pick up a baseball for kicks. This guy was, from childhood on (and what a childhood he reveals), a jock. He doesn’t make a huge deal of it, but we might forget that even this most articulate of athletes is, in fact, an athlete: played all the sports in school, competed in the College World Series, made the Olympic team, was drafted in the first round by Texas. Once his ulnar collateral ligament was discovered to be AWOL, however, it was as if fate’s wires got crossed. In Metsian terms, I’d liken it to the 2006 NLCS: we were supposed to win the pennant, go to the World Series, be world champions and reign happily ever after, or at least have an era to call our own.
Dickey should have had it better than slogging through brief auditions in the majors and toiling season after season in the minors (“the mayor of Oklahoma City” was an office he didn’t seek but it became his unwanted nickname). Then again, if the Rangers don’t notice the picture in which his right arm isn’t hanging the way it’s supposed to…and he’s not thoroughly examined…and his bonus isn’t rescinded…then there’s no redefining struggle — physical as well as spiritual — to make him who he became and, well, then there’s no book. Surely there’d be no R.A. Dickey Met story. Maybe if all is well with that UCL, he gets his money early, he has a good or great career and he’s just some guy on Texas you might pick for your fantasy team.
And maybe if Pedro doesn’t go down and El Duque doesn’t have the calf issue and Trachsel isn’t distracted by marital problems and Wright doesn’t almost completely stop hitting and Duaner Sanchez doesn’t get in a cab, then Yadier Molina is just a swell defensive catcher and we all have framed photos of Carlos Beltran covered in Canyon of Heroes ticker-tape hanging in our dens.
You know how that goes, even if we don’t know exactly what we’re talking about when we talk about the baseball players we watch and criticize and subject to too much HE SUCKS! and maybe too much HE ROCKS! One of the most bracing passages in a book filled with them finds R.A. in a bookstore thumbing through a season preview from not too many springs ago. The authors couldn’t have been quicker to write off this Dickey person as an “alleged prospect,” a “marginal righthander” and someone “who has given no indication that he’s ever going to amount to anything.”
Dickey went on with his career and made the most of it. Everything happened for a reason, and these days it’s happening happily for the guy. You read Wherever I Wind Up, you’ll be glad for him, and not just because he’s 11-1 with a 2.31 ERA as a New York Met.
(Let’s just hope Aaron Harang waits until the offseason to purchase a copy. You never know what’s gonna motivate these fellows.)