Literary Knuckleballer


Baseball’s spring training—really winter training—seems pretty superfluous these days. Most players employ personal training staffs, stay in top shape year-round, and hone their skills relentlessly with the aid of the most advanced technologies available.

Yet still they arrive at camp for a month and a half of training and exhibition games each February, all of which could likely be cut down to a couple of weeks at most, with a review of fundamentals and the necessary player cuts and reassignments.

Of course baseball writers follow teams to Florida and Arizona. From there they issue dispatches in voices that grow increasingly desperate for content. This made worse by the fact that, in addition to articles, they are required to write blog posts, make social-media updates, provide video and photographic evidence et cetera—and they must submit almost hourly.

This newer requirement doesn’t change the fact that very few interesting stories emerge and a reader/fan can expect little more than the boiler-plate pieces that have been filed from spring training since the beginning of pro ball. The majority of this stuff promotes hope for the upcoming baseball campaign.

“It’s a new year.” “Last year was last year.” “We’re an improved team, and we’ve got some good young talent. If things break our way, we could be the surprise of the division/league.” “Every team has the same record on Day One.” “We all have an equal chance at winning the World Series.” “Every good narrative requires conflict.”

Wait, who said that last one? It was R.A. Dickey, knuckleball pitcher for New York’s National League baseball team—the club that is also the biggest newsmaker this spring, for reasons that have little to do with baseball and more to do with the largest Ponzi fraud in United States history.

Dickey is a minor story by comparison, but an interesting one. He’s a journeyman pitcher who had a breakout 2010 season, when he was finally able to get his tricky knuckleball under control and record eleven wins for an otherwise mediocre team. This feat earned the thirty-five-year-old a two-year contract worth almost eight million bucks.

It’s been a strange journey for Dickey. A first-round draft pick by the Texas Rangers in 1996, his big rookie bonus was reduced by more than 90% after the club discovered he was born without an ulna collateral ligament in the elbow of his pitching arm, thus diminishing his prospects. He toiled as a conventional pitcher in the minors and majors, then as a knuckleballer, for more than a decade, before landing in New York last year, where his fortunes changed dramatically.

Dickey was also an academic All-American at the University of Tennessee, majoring in English literature. Much has been made of his interest in books. On a long bus trip this month, for example, he was described as flipping through Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. When asked for other recommendations from recent reading, he listed My Name is Asher Lev, Grendel, and The Odyssey. He regularly cites as influences the Bible, Frost, Shakespeare, and Hemingway. To see him interviewed is also a departure from the norm. He delivers thoughtful, intelligent, honest, direct responses not seen from many public figures—never mind from pro ballplayers.

Now Dickey has a contract with Penguin to write his memoir (with assistance from sportswriter Wayne Coffey). For the past five seasons, Dickey has kept a journal and he plans to draw from these writings. He says he will not spare himself in the memoir, baring all, and predicts a combination of Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle and Ball Four, the landmark and controversial memoir by Jim Bouton—also a knuckleballer—that was the first to reveal the behind-closed-doors details of major-league life.

“I’m definitely throwing myself under the bus,” Dickey told the Times. ‘‘That doesn’t feel great all the time, but it’s inevitable in any good narrative that there’s conflict…my past is littered with such narratives. I started to unpack some things from the past that made me who I was, both good and bad…there was a lot of brokenness and trying to rebuild a life. Some of it coincided very appropriately with my journey as a knuckleballer.”

As a New York Post headline summed it up: Knuckleball, yes. Knucklehead, no.

Kevin Nolan writes essays and fiction. More from this author →