MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
It's baseball's All-Star Week. Tonight, the Homerun Derby, tomorrow the All-Star Game. And among the National League pitchers who will try to spook the American League bats is a knuckleballer. R.A. Dickey plays for the New York Mets. He's 37. It's his first All-Star game.
And as NPR's Mike Pesca reports, Dickey's journey to the top has been as unpredictable as his signature pitch.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: R.A. Dickey is the best pitcher in the National League. R.A. Dickey, as Mets announcer Gary Cohen noted, has become...
GARY COHEN: Easily the most talked about player in baseball.
PESCA: Dickey isn't the best story in because he's the best pitcher. If anything, Dickey is the pitcher he is because of his story. Dickey believes there is a direct line between the pitches he throws and the person he is, which is the only time you'll ever hear Dickey's signature pitch, the knuckleball, used in conjunction with direct line.
KEITH HERNANDEZ: And he takes care of Pierre. That's seven strikeouts for Dickey. Pierre is having all kinds of difficulty figuring out R.A. You can tell the hitters that don't have a clue.
PESCA: Mets announcer Keith Hernandez there chuckling at the knuckleball's jumping, darting action.
Robert Allen Dickey was a first round draft pick of the Texas Rangers as a conventional flamethrower. He was 21 years old and about to be paid over $800,000 to play the sport he loved.
R.A. DICKEY: I flew down to Texas to sign my contract, throw out the first pitch, meet Nolan Ryan - do all the things that I dreamed about doing my whole life as a baseball player. The first thing I had to do when I landed was head over to the doctor's office to get a physical. And it was there that they kind of were alarmed at what they saw.
PESCA: What they saw, or more accurately didn't see, was a UCL. Dickey was born without the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. Doctors said Dickey should be in excruciating pain just turning a doorknob. In truth he had no trouble hitting 95 miles an hour on the radar gun.
But past performance didn't matter to his new club. He was damaged goods, and 90 percent of his signing bonus was revoked. It was a serious setback in the one area of his life that was supposed to be a refuge. Dickey's parents had divorced when he was a child. His father was distant as R.A. grew older; his mother loving but a drinker. He was, while still a boy, sexually abused by a babysitter and a teenager from his neighborhood.
Even as Dickey entered his 20s, he struggled.
DICKEY: I began to really hate who I was. And, you know, I was having suicidal thoughts and just all kinds of terrible things running through my mind. You know, I was using the unhealthy ways to escape pain.
PESCA: Eventually, Dickey found a few things that helped: his mind, his wife, his faith, and a pitch that's impossible to own but if you're dedicated, can be leased to great effect. A knuckleball is confounding, both going and coming, because it's thrown with almost no rotation. The baseball's laces interact with the air, turning it into a Godard jump-cut of pitches.
Currently, Dickey is the only regular knuckleballer in the major leagues. It's a hard pitch to learn, but there is a fraternity of knuckleballers who can offer advice.
DICKEY: The people that poured into me and lent me their wisdom and acumen were Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro. And so, speaking from that experience I can tell you that there's nobody on this Earth that knows more about it than they do.
PESCA: Dickey calls those former major leaguers the Jedi Council. In addition to throwing a quirky pitch, Dickey loves "Star Wars" and "The Lord of The Rings." He names his bats after swords in "Beowulf," and the music he has queued up over the stadium PA when he walks up to bat is the theme to "Game of Thrones." So, there's that side to Dickey.
There's also the literary side. Dickey's revelatory memoir is clearly written by a lover of language who entertained thoughts of becoming an English professor.
And then there's the side of Dickey who wants to teach others his recondite skill. Though Frank Viola is the pitching coach of the Savannah Sand Gnats and a former Cy Young award winning pitcher himself, to him, the knuckleball is as baffling as String Theory. But Dickey eagerly passed along what he knew to minor leaguer Frank Viola III.
FRANK VIOLA: He's amazing. R.A. invited him to the games he pitched, invited him to his side sessions to watch. They plan on having Frankie taped a couple workouts and then sending it to New York and having R.A. look at it, to critique it and get back to him. I mean, he just shared his wealth with Frankie.
PESCA: Speaking of wealth, Dickey is in line to be rewarded with the first truly huge contract of his career. Last off-season, Dickey scaled Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for exploited women in Mumbai, then came out with his memoir. In it, he dwelled on the interplay between his psyche and the knuckleball.
DICKEY: Oftentimes, the more cerebral you are about pitching, you know, the more apt you are to make small changes that might take you out of where you really need to be. So for me, there's a fine balance between being self-aware and really believing in what you can produce on the field organically.
PESCA: So far, Dickey has produced back-to-back one-hitters, 10-straight wins against only one loss, and his first All-Star invite. For opponents he's produced befuddlement. For the Mets, he's helped produce a winning record. And every fifth night, he produces the only extant link in the chain of a confounding and fascinating pitch.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.