Monday, March 31, 2014

The Best On The Worst: R.A. Dickey

Some men dare to dream.  And when they do, it's amazing what they can accomplish.  For example, Jim Abbott was born without a right hand, but despite the obvious hardships he faced as a pitcher, he still managed to remain in the big leagues for ten seasons and pitched one of the most unlikely no-hitters in history.  Similarly, William "Dummy" Hoy played 14 seasons professionally, collecting over 2,000 hits and stealing nearly 600 bases.  Hoy was able to have a successful career despite being legally deaf.

Both Abbott and Hoy overcame physical obstacles to become two of baseball's most inspiring success stories.  But not every player has had to persevere through those types of challenges in order to achieve success in the big leagues.  Some players have to conquer mental obstacles, while others have to deal with repeated bouts of rejection.  Many players can't handle those pressures.  But some do.  And in conquering those demons, those players not only make their own baseball dreams come true, but help others achieve their dreams as well through their stories.

One such player was told he couldn't succeed so many times, he had to reinvent himself as a baseball player, suffering through constant failure and disappointment before his patience finally paid off.  And in doing so, he became one of the most beloved and respected players in the history of the New York Mets.

That grip means you're about to get knuckled by a beloved former Met.  (Photo by Ed Leyro/Studious Metsimus)

Robert Allen Dickey, for all intents and purposes, had a great year in 1996.  He was drafted in the first round by the Texas Rangers and was a member of the United States Olympic baseball team that won the bronze medal.  The future looked quite bright for the Tennessee native, and quick stardom (not to mention a growing bank account) was all but assured for the All-American pitcher.

Texas had offered Dickey an $810,000 signing bonus, which the right-hander was happy to accept.  But the arm attached to that right hand became a bit of a concern for the Rangers after the team trainer noticed it was dangling at an odd angle in a photograph published on the cover of Baseball America.  Before long, Dickey's offer of $810,000 had shrunk to $75,000.  What was the reason for the steep drop in signing bonus money?  A physical revealed that Dickey's right elbow did not have an ulnar collateral ligament.  In plain English, Dickey's elbow should have gone kaplooey every time he threw a baseball.

Eventually, Dickey did sign with the Rangers for the reduced amount, then spent half a decade toiling in their minor league system waiting for his first call-up to the major leagues.  That call finally came in 2001, with Dickey making the long-awaited jump to the Rangers in late April.  Dickey pitched well in relief in two of his first three appearances, but took the loss on May 7 when he allowed six runs against the Chicago White Sox.  The defeat came four days after manager Johnny Oates had resigned from his position.  His replacement, Jerry Narron, wasn't as supportive of Dickey as Oates was.  Dickey was sent back to the minors immediately after the loss.  He would never pitch for Narron again.

Jerry Narron continued to manage in Texas through the 2002 season while Dickey watched from Oklahoma as a member of the Rangers' Triple-A affiliate.  Although Dickey pitched well for the RedHawks, going 19-14 with a 3.92 ERA, he was never promoted back to the Rangers during Narron's tenure as the team's skipper.  But once Narron was fired and replaced by Buck Showalter prior to the 2003 campaign, Dickey was afforded a second chance.  Showalter was the Rangers manager for four seasons, and Dickey spent time with the team in each of those seasons.  However, he never quite became the star the Rangers expected when they selected him with the 18th overall pick in the 1996 draft, going 16-17 with a 5.49 ERA from 2003 to 2005.  Dickey made one and only one appearance for the Rangers in 2006, and it was one for the history books - for all the wrong reasons.

On April 6, 2006, Dickey was removed from his first start of the season after coughing up six home runs to the Detroit Tigers, tying a major league record.  The rough outing came a year after Dickey had converted from a conventional pitcher to a knuckleball pitcher at the behest of Showalter and pitching coach Orel Hershiser.  Ten years after seeing his bonus money drop from $810,000 to $75,000, Dickey was seeing his odds of remaining in the big leagues drop as well.  The knuckleballer was demoted once again to Oklahoma and never pitched again for the Rangers.

From 2007 to 2009, Dickey would pitch in the Brewers, Mariners and Twins organizations, but continued to rack up more frequent flyer miles than innings pitched at the major league level.  Dickey spent time in the minors in all three seasons before the Twins decided that they would not re-sign him at the conclusion of the 2009 campaign.  At the age of 35, Dickey had won a grand total of 22 games at the major league level and had posted a lifetime 5.43 ERA.  But he was now at a crossroads in his career, having fared poorly as a conventional pitcher and as a knuckleball pitcher.  Would any team be willing to take a chance on a pitcher in his mid-30s who had never been a consistent major league pitcher regardless of how he threw the ball?  One team would.  And that decision ended up changing Dickey's life forever, only this time it was finally in a good way.

How could Omar Minaya say no to this face?  (Photo by Jeff Roberson/AP)

Ten years is a long time for a player to get a second chance at success.  By the time the 2010 season rolled around, R.A. Dickey had gotten third chances, fourth chances, almost as many chances as he had wins.  Cast aside by the Rangers, Brewers, Mariners and Twins, the New York Mets became the latest team to give him a shot to achieve his lifelong dream.  The Mets had just come off a forgettable 2009 campaign in which they were decimated by injuries and poor play, finishing the year with a 70-92 record - their first losing season in five years.  Eleven pitchers started at least five games for the Mets in 2009, but just one pitcher (Mike Pelfrey) made more than 25 starts.  Clearly, Dickey had as much a chance as any pitcher had to make the Opening Day roster.  That is, until he became the first player cut in spring training.

Dickey opened the season not in New York, where the Mets opened the season against the Florida Marlins, but in Buffalo, as a member of the Triple-A Bisons.  Dickey started eight games for Buffalo, but his most memorable start came on April 29 against the Durham Bulls, when he allowed a hit to leadoff batter Fernando Perez, then proceeded to retire the next 27 batters.  The near-perfect game caught the eyes of the Mets' front office, and when the struggling Oliver Perez was removed from the starting rotation in mid-May, Dickey was called up to take his place.  He would never be sent back to the minors again.

After posting a 4-2 record with a stellar 2.23 ERA at Buffalo, Dickey proved his minor league dominance was not a fluke, going 6-0 with a 2.33 ERA in his first seven starts with the Mets.  Dickey's hot streak was contagious, as the Mets won 24 of 34 games after he made his debut.  But the 2010 Mets were a very streaky team, and just as soon as they became unexpected contenders, they regressed back to their 2009 selves.  This time, it was the offense that failed to wake up after hitting the snooze button one too many times.  Dickey had a brilliant month of July, posting a 1.51 ERA in six starts and holding opposing hitters to a miniscule .259 on-base percentage.  But as great as Dickey was in July, his teammates were the exact opposite, scoring just 13 runs in the six starts.  A month that should have produced many victories for Dickey saw him and his teammates emerge victorious just once, and Dickey needed to shut out the Cardinals into the ninth inning to earn that one win.  Three starts later, not even an anemic offense could prevent Dickey from earning a near-historic win.

The Mets had been a season-high 11 games over .500 as late as June 27.  Six weeks later, they were back at .500, struggling to stay relevant in the National League wild card race.  On August 13, the Mets hosted the three-time defending NL East champion Phillies at Citi Field, with Dickey squaring off against Cole Hamels.  Both pitchers brought their A-games to the mound, putting zero after zero on the scoreboard through five innings.  But in addition to the zeroes under the "R" column for both teams, the Phillies also had a zero under the "H" as well, as Dickey had held Philadelphia hitless through five.  The 35,440 fans in attendance were all aware that no Met had ever tossed a no-hitter as Dickey and the Mets entered the sixth, an inning that would begin with Dickey striking out the light-hitting Wilson Valdez.  But a soft single by Dickey's mound opponent, Cole Hamels, ended his quest for baseball immortality.  Hamels' hit would be the only one produced by the Phillies all game, as Dickey went on to pitch a complete game won by the Mets, 1-0, on a sixth-inning, RBI double by Carlos Beltran.  It was the first complete game and first shutout for Dickey since August 20, 2003.

Dickey's one-hitter - the 35th in Mets history - pushed the Mets' record to 58-57.  The team would spend just three more days above the break-even point the rest of the season, finishing the year with a 79-83 record.  Dickey's final numbers (11-9, 2.84 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 104 strikeouts, 174 innings pitched) were all easily career-bests and earned him his first multi-year contract, giving him financial and job security for the first time in his 14 professional seasons.  It also guaranteed he would start the 2011 season in a team's starting rotation for the first time in five years.

The 2011 campaign - his second as a Met - would begin with Dickey allowing an unearned run in a victory over the Marlins.  But that was as good as it got for Dickey during the first two months of the season, as the right-hander was inconsistent over his next ten starts, going 1-6 with a 4.90 ERA and 1.50 WHIP.  Dickey finally turned things around on June 5, pitching eight innings of one-run ball against the Atlanta Braves to earn his third victory of the season.  But once again, the Mets' bats became dormant whenever Dickey took the mound, only this time it lasted for more than just one month.

Beginning with his fine performance against the Braves, Dickey posted a 2.74 ERA for the remainder of the season and had an exceptional .285 on-base percentage against him.  But despite regaining his ability to keep his opponents off the scoreboard, the Mets weren't doing much to put wins in his pocket.  Dickey won just five of his last 20 starts in 2011, even though he allowed two runs or fewer in 12 of those starts.  Here's a perfect example of how frustrating it must have been for the veteran pitcher in 2011.  He allowed no more than six hits in 11 of his final 20 starts, but earned the victory in just one of those games.

The Mets didn't earn many victories either in 2011, completing their third consecutive losing season with a 77-85 record under first-year manager Terry Collins.  The 77 wins represented a two-win drop-off from the previous season, Jerry Manuel's last as the team's skipper.  Although Dickey surpassed 200 innings for the first time in 2011 and finished the year with a respectable 3.28 ERA, he could only manage an 8-13 record.  It was the first time Dickey had reached double digits in losses in a single season.

Although the Mets had a quiet off-season leading into the 2012 campaign, it was far from quiet for R.A. Dickey.  Dickey embarked on a quest to scale Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness for women and girls in Mumbai who had been sexually abused or were at the risk of being exploited.  Soon after he successfully completed the long trek, Dickey released a tell-all memoir, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest For Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball.  The book touched upon his ascension from minor league journeyman to his time with the Mets, as well as his own sexual abuse he suffered as a child.

Dickey's time as a media darling did not stop there, as he was prominently featured in the documentary, Knuckleball!  By the time the curtains had opened on the 2012 season, the whole country knew about R.A. Dickey, not just baseball fans in New York.  Dickey's off-season exploits thrust him into the spotlight for the first time in his career.  His performance on the field made sure he stayed there.

Dickey won his first two starts of the year in 2012, defeating the Braves at Citi Field and the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.  But his third start, also against the Braves, was a disaster.  Pitching at rain-soaked Turner Field - soggy conditions are like kryptonite to Dickey's super pitch - Dickey allowed eight runs in 4 innings, the most runs Dickey had allowed in a game since August 20, 2008, when he gave up an eight-spot as a member of the Seattle Mariners.  It was also one more run than he allowed in the record-tying six-homer game against the Tigers in 2006.  Looking back on his effort, Dickey had one thing to say about pitching in adverse weather conditions.

"I hate the rain," Dickey said matter-of-factly.  "I'm like the Wicked Witch of the West.  Water is no good."

Three days after his poor start against the Braves, Dickey attended the premiere of Knuckleball! at the Tribeca Film Festival, where he mingled with fans and taught children of all ages how to throw his signature pitch.  He did not seem like a man who had just pitched his worst game in four years.  Rather, he was at peace with himself and his effort, and seemed eager to get back on the mound to erase the bad taste left by the Braves.

Yeah, that's me (a child of all ages) getting knuckleball lessons from Mr. Dickey.  Jealous?

Four days after the film premiere, Dickey was back on the mound to face the Marlins at Citi Field.  This time the weather conditions were far more knuckleball-friendly, as Dickey held Miami to one run in seven innings to earn his third victory.  Dickey continued to roll along, and by mid-May, he was 5-1 with a 3.75 ERA.  But beginning with his start on May 22, Dickey's efforts were becoming superhuman, proving that the liquid kryptonite he endured in Atlanta was just a thing of the past.

From May 22 to June 18, Dickey won all six of his starts, allowing two runs (one earned) in 48⅔ innings for a microscopic 0.18 ERA.  Dickey wasn't just keeping opposing teams off the scoreboard with his knuckler.  He was keeping opposing hitters off-balance as well, using impeccable control not usually associated with an erratic pitch to strike out 63 batters while walking only five.  Included in his sizzling stretch were back-to-back complete-game one-hit shutouts.  Dickey became the first pitcher to accomplish that feat since Toronto's Dave Stieb, who threw his consecutive gems in September 1988.  In addition, Dickey became just the second Met to manufacture three complete-game one-hitters in his career and the first since Tom Seaver, who pitched five one-hitters as a Met.  (David Cone participated in three one-hitters, but needed relief help in one of them.)

Dickey's dominance took a brief early summer hiatus from June 24 to July 24 as he allowed five runs or more in four of his six starts.  He also gave up two runs in an unexpected relief appearance.  But Dickey did have one memorable outing during this period, appearing in his first All-Star Game.  The knuckleballer pitched a scoreless inning in the Midsummer Classic, striking out the Angels' Mark Trumbo and inducing an inning-ending double play from eventual Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera.

After his one-month "slump", Dickey returned to his early season form.  From July 29 to August 31, Dickey allowed just 36 hits in seven starts while striking out 51 batters.  He also produced a 1.73 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and earned four wins.  Included in this stretch was his fourth and fifth complete games of the season and his third shutout.  Dickey would end up leading the league in both categories.  Dickey's first September start produced his 18th win of the season, making him the Mets' first pitcher to surpass 17 victories since Frank Viola in 1990.  Viola won 20 games that year, becoming the fifth pitcher in Mets history to attain that lofty win total.  By season's end, Dickey would become the sixth.

On September 27, as the Mets closed out their home schedule, Dickey took the mound against the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, who were on their way to a record 20th consecutive losing season.  Dickey struggled early, allowing run-scoring hits to Rod Barajas and Jordy Mercer in the second inning and a solo homer to Barajas in the fourth.  But Dickey recovered quickly, striking out five of six batters soon after the Barajas blast.  The Mets, meanwhile, did everything they could to give Dickey a lead to work with, scoring a total of five runs in the fifth and sixth innings.  The big blow came in the sixth, when David Wright launched a tiebreaking three-run homer off Bucs starter Kevin Correia.  Dickey went on to pitch seven and two-thirds innings, matching his career high by striking out 13 batters.  But Dickey's landmark win was very much in jeopardy in the ninth after reliever Jon Rauch gave up a two-run homer to Alex Presley.  With the lead down to one, manager Terry Collins summoned Bobby Parnell to close out the game and preserve Dickey's victory.  Parnell retired both batters he faced, eliciting a massive roar from the crowd (which only slightly drowned out the fans who were finally able to exhale) and earning Dickey his well-deserved 20th win.

Dickey, being an expert wordsmith as well as a talented knuckleball artist, had much to say after achieving what no one thought possible entering the 2012 campaign.

"Growing up, you just want to compete, and then once you have the weaponry to compete, you want to be really good, and then when you're really good, you want to be supernaturally good.  For me, there's been this steady metamorphosis from just surviving to being a craftsman, and then, ultimately, the hope is to be an artist in what you do.  This year is kind of representative of that for me."

The 2012 Mets finished the year with an unspectacular 74-88 record, but Dickey's season was one for the ages.  Dickey posted a 20-6 record, to go with a 2.73 ERA and 1.05 WHIP.  Dickey also led the league in strikeouts (230), innings pitched (233⅔), complete games (5) and shutouts (3).  Not bad for a pitcher who worked his magic for a sub-.500 team.  In fact, Dickey became the first 20-game winner on a losing team since 1997, when Roger Clemens won 21 games for the 76-86 Blue Jays and Brad Radke earned 20 victories for the 68-94 Twins.

Dickey's five complete games were the most by a Mets pitcher since Dwight Gooden completed seven games in 1993 and his three shutouts were more than any Met had produced in a single season since 1992, when David Cone also twirled three such gems.  But no pitcher in Mets history can match one aspect of Dickey's stellar campaign.

By winning 20 games for a 74-win team, Dickey earned 27.0% of the Mets' wins in 2012.  Although not quite on par with Steve Carlton's 1972 campaign (Carlton earned 27 of the Phillies' 59 wins in 1972), Dickey's feat allowed him to become the pitcher who accounted for the highest percentage of his team's wins in club history, surpassing Tom Seaver's record of 26.8%, accomplished in 1975 when "The Franchise" earned 22 of the Mets' 82 wins.

Dickey's 20th win was just the chocolate sauce on his ice cream sundae of a season.  The cherry on top came in November, when Dickey won the National League Cy Young Award in a landslide over Clayton Kershaw and Gio Gonzalez.  Dickey became the third Met to win the award, joining Tom Seaver (1969, 1973, 1975) and Dwight Gooden (1985).  But like all satisfying desserts, eventually we reach the end and are left wanting more.  Only with R.A. Dickey, Mets fans never got another taste.

After picking up Dickey's $5 million option for the 2013 season, the Mets traded the popular pitcher to Toronto for catcher Travis d'Arnaud and pitcher Noah Syndergaard, two of the most valuable minor league jewels in the Blue Jays' organization.  Since the trade, d'Arnaud has become the Mets' No. 1 catcher.  And by the summer of 2014, he should be calling pitches at Citi Field for Syndergaard, whose vast repertoire has impressed all those who have watched him pitch.

Although Dickey's first year in Toronto produced a mediocre 14-13 record, it was still two more wins than any Met earned in 2013, as Dillon Gee led the team with a dozen victories.  One thing that didn't change as a result of Dickey's departure was the Mets' win total, as New York posted its second straight 74-88 season in 2013.  Ironically, that was the Blue Jays' record as well in Dickey's first season with the team.

In just three years with the Mets, R.A. Dickey went from being a reclamation project to a Cy Young Award winner.  He began his career in New York as a relatively unknown player to Mets fans, and ended it as one of the most beloved personalities in franchise history.  Dickey charmed fans with his approachability and candor.  He was also a media darling, eschewing the clichés of the modern athlete for well-thought-out responses that were both refreshing and unique.  Needless to say, the erudite pitcher was missed by all those who crossed paths with him on and off the field.

One such person who had a strong connection to the former Met is Taryn Cooper, a highly respected Mets blogger and podcaster who has been a fan of the team since she was a young girl.  Both Dickey and Ms. Cooper majored in English literature as collegians, making Ms. Cooper's connection to the pitcher extra special.  Here is her story.

"Friend and fellow blogger Jason Fry (one half of Faith and Fear in Flushing) probably said it best, when he said, 'If R.A. Dickey didn't exist, Mets fans probably would have made him up.'  And if you are a Mets fan, and don't get that, you may need to be schooled in some Mets history.

Because I got that statement.  Though Sidd Finch was an April Fools' Joke, the idea of a French horn playing, yoga enthusiast, quiet, reflective man who threw a 160+ mph pitch appealed to Mets fans, and still does to this day.  Why is that?  Because Mets fans like the underdog.  That's why stories like the Hendu Can-Do walk off home run still resonates 30+ years later. 

And R.A. Dickey was the underdog, the guy with a hard luck story who faced obstacles every step of the way, yet persevered and won.  Not only did he win, he certainly was the best on the worst.  He won 20 games for a 4th place team.  He not only won 20 games, he did so with a quirky pitch AND in a year that he published an autobiography where he stated that he would probably never WIN a Cy Young Award.  He did that year as well.

Even the story of R.A. Dickey couldn't be fully savored by Mets fans though.  That's why he sticks with us.  We wanted to celebrate his accomplishments Opening Day 2013 at CitiField.  But we were not allowed that opportunity because he was the centerpiece in a trade in what could possibly be one of the best trades in Mets history.   He wasn't bitter.  He took the high road as Dickey normally did.  What else could he do?

That didn't stop Mets fans from loving him and supporting him, no matter what the team.  If you think about it, Robert Allen Dickey was his own self-made media mogul.  He was on several television shows, he wrote a book, he was in the center of a documentary based on the pitch he threw, and he was a Twitter personality.  What Mets fans truly appreciated was his likability and accessibility to the fans.  He is a self-proclaimed Star Wars geek, which is a faction in and of itself.  He wasn't a cliché-ridden interview, he had carefully thought out responses and talked literature with his fans.  Heck, he and I even talked about Shakespeare and Hemingway, and I told him at a book signing that I'd love to take a class on Faulkner that HE taught.  See, no other baseball player let alone any Met would know what the heck I was talking about.  He did, though.  

This fanbase may be cynical at times.  But R.A. Dickey brought out the best in us.  He made us see that even in darkest times, we could believe that good times were around the corner.  I just wish he was around to share in the very bright future of the team."

Dickey celebrates his 20th win in 2012.  The fans, to this day, celebrate him.  (Photo by Barton Silverman/NY Times)

Over the years, the Mets have had several extended stretches of success.  But they have also suffered through their share of lean years.  And when the team has played poorly, fans have latched onto individual players.  After all, it's much easier to root for an athlete who plays hard than for a team that hardly plays.  During the Mets' seminal years, Al Jackson, Jim Hickman and Ron Hunt gave fans a reason to believe in the team, even as they were losing at an unbelievable rate.  When Shea Stadium was mockingly referred to as Grant's Tomb, Lee Mazzilli, Hubie Brooks and Dave Kingman shared the last laugh.  And during the time when the Mets were the worst team money could buy, Todd Hundley and Rico Brogna gave fans more bang for their buck.

The current incarnation of the Mets has produced five consecutive losing seasons.  Attendance has dropped steadily at Citi Field since it opened its doors for the first time in 2009.  But in the three years R.A. Dickey called the park home, fans had a player they could easily root for. 

Walt Disney once said, "If you can dream it, you can do it."  R.A. Dickey was a dreamer who always believed in himself and his ability to perform on the mound, even as the game was telling him otherwise.  Setback after setback would have quashed many player's dreams.  But not Dickey.  A competitor since birth, Dickey refused to stop dreaming.  And after many years of hardships, his dreams finally came true.

R.A. Dickey is a great American success story who just happened to write his greatest narrative as a member of an unsuccessful team.  In 2010, the Mets took a chance on the struggling knuckleball pitcher, trying to find lightning in a bottle.  Within two years, Dickey guaranteed that his story would have a happy ending.  Stories like that are the stuff dreams are made of.

Note:  The Best On The Worst was a thirteen-part weekly series (that's "was", as in you just read the final chapter) spotlighting the greatest Mets players who just happened to play on some not-so-great Mets teams.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 6, 2014: Todd Hundley 
January 13, 2014: Al Jackson
January 20, 2014: Lee Mazzilli
January 27, 2014: Steve Trachsel
February 3, 2014: Rico Brogna
February 10, 2014: Skip Lockwood 
February 17, 2014: Ron Hunt
February 24, 2014: Craig Swan 
March 3, 2014: Hubie Brooks 
March 10, 2014: Joel Youngblood 
March 17, 2014: Jim Hickman 
March 24, 2014: Dave Kingman


Anonymous said...

Nice post! RA will always be one of my favorite Mets!
Phil Groh

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

Thanks, Phil. The whole series was working up to Dickey. I hope the Blue Jays play in New York next year and Dickey gets to pitch in the series. I wouldn't be surprised if he gets the same type of ovation Mike Piazza did when he came back in 2006 as a member of the Padres.

metsfaninparadise said...

RA Dickey certainly wasn't the greatest Met player ever, but he may have been the best person who was ever a Met. As a literate man (and a Star Wars fan, to boot) and tired of cookie cutter (Derek Jeter) interviews, RA is probably my all-time favorite Met (sorry, Keith). My fanaticism, by the way, dates from 8/31/73.