CLEVELAND -- In another life, in another time, R.A. Dickey was a hard-throwing No. 1 Draft pick offered an $810,000 signing bonus by the Rangers. He was not, however, supremely confident in his abilities. "As a conventional pitcher," Dickey said, "I should have never made it to the big leagues."
But if we've learned anything about Dickey, the man whose knuckleball rescued his career and has helped rescue the Mets' rotation, it's that his success is anything but conventional. That $810,000 signing bonus fluttered away like a wild knuckler, a result of a photo op gone awry. When a Rangers team doctor noticed Dickey's right arm hanging at an awkward angle on the cover of Baseball America, an evaluation was conducted to reveal that Dickey was missing the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Texas offered him a revised, $75,000 bonus, more out of guilt than belief in his potential. Dickey, who gets the starting nod in tonight's 7:05 p.m. ET series finale against the Indians, found it a bit difficult to believe in his potential, too. But that didn't lead him to listen to the doctors or trainers who predicted his arm would break down as a result of the missing ligament. "There are a lot of dream-busters out there," he said. "I've had a lot of practice in not caring what other people think." The reinvention People thought Dickey was crazy when he turned to the knuckleball as a last-ditch option to save his career. Shoulder issues threatened to bring that career, which was troubled enough already, to a screeching halt in 2005. By that point, Dickey had played parts of four big league seasons with the Rangers, but his fastball had lost velocity and he was losing faith in his abilities. "I never felt, even when I was there, that I was keenly equipped to have big years," Dickey said. "A lot of times, to be perfectly honest, I felt real mediocre." Dickey, though, had this knuckleball. He was throwing it a handful of times a game and knew, if practiced properly, what an equalizer it could be. Not everybody shared his belief. The naysayers chirped again. And had he not had the backing of his wife, Anne, Dickey never would have tried to develop the knack for the knuckleball that has seen his career not only survive but, in recent weeks, thrive. "My wife has been a very stable, consistent force, as far as support systems go," Dickey said. "If it weren't for her saying, 'I don't want you to have any regrets,' I wouldn't be here. I'm married with three kids. Toiling away in the Minor Leagues another three or four years was not an option. It helped to have a mate who allowed me to do what I do and do it passionately, without making me feel guilty about it." Dickey passionately embarked upon his career as a knuckleball-tosser with an almost academic mentality. He studied the history of the pitch and its success ratio, and he sought the advice of guys like Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield, who made a living off the pitch. For most ballplayers, turning 30 dictates that inevitable decline in skills that eventually leads to retirement. For Dickey, this reinvention at the age of 30 was a rebirth, of sorts, and the knuckleball numbers bore that out. "When you look at the numbers," Dickey said, "Joe Niekro, Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough... those guys won over 100 games from the time they were 35 to the time they were 40." Over time, though, Dickey learned that, for all the advice he received from those guys and for all the inspiration their success could provide, he is his own man. "Sure, I respect what they've done with the pitch," he said. "But my mechanics are different. My style is different. My velocity is different. My arm angle is different. When I started embracing the uniqueness that I bring to the pitch, I started having more success. It's a scary adventure, fun adventure and rewarding adventure all at once." The reward The adventure had a bumpy beginning. Dickey pitched mostly in Triple-A in 2006, making just one appearance with the Rangers. His numbers were largely pedestrian, and he was still finding his feel for the pitch. He signed with the Brewers in 2007 and spent another year in Triple-A. The Mariners gave him his first sustained opportunity to use the pitch in the Majors in 2008, when he split his time between the bullpen and the rotation. Last season, Dickey was a workhorse out of the Twins' bullpen. With no UCL to feel the strain of regular work, his arm never tired. "If you look back and do the research of what [the knuckleball] potentially could be," Dickey said, "you'll see it can be a pitch that can eat up a lot of innings, save bullpens, win a lot of games and really prolong the life of a lot of pitchers, in particular. You can grind out 200 innings, no problem, and then go in the bullpen. It's a real formidable weapon to have, on paper, if the guy you have throwing it can throw it for strikes." Fear of the wildness that can come with the knuckleball generally scares teams away. The Mets, however, bought into what Dickey was selling during the offseason, albeit with a Minor League contract. Dickey went to Triple-A Buffalo, where, on April 29, he earned the distinction of pitching a perfect game ... after the first batter of the ballgame. He gave up a leadoff single, then retired the next 27 in a row. "It was the imperfect perfect game," he quipped. "I didn't think about it until I came out for the ninth inning and realized I hadn't been in the stretch since the first inning." The Mets noticed. And with a need in the rotation, the club called Dickey up in mid-May to make a spot start against the Nationals. Five outings later, he's still here, holding a 4-0 record and 2.78 ERA. A sign that Dickey might become a more permanent presence in the Mets' rotation came Tuesday, when catcher Rod Barajas received a package from Rawlings containing a new, oversized mitt used to catch knuckleballs. Dickey had been carrying around a tattered black mitt from team to team over the last five years. Barajas hated that glove almost as much as he hates trying to predict where each knuckler Dickey tosses will end up. But Barajas recognizes what that pitch brings. "If I'm miserable and having a hard time back there," Barajas said, "the hitters are going to have an even harder time trying to hit it." They've had an awfully tough time hitting it so far. And Dickey, both excited and humble about his success this season, has finally found his footing with baseball's most unconventional pitch. He feels mediocre no more. "I feel like I have a weapon," he said. "If I treat it with respect and diligence, as far as my work ethic goes, and aptitude, as far as learning on the fly with it, I have something that can last a while."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.