TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're ending 2012 by featuring some of our favorite interviews from the year. Pitcher R.A. Dickey had an incredible year in baseball. He won the National League's Cy Young Award, which is given to the best pitcher of the year in each league. He was the subject of a documentary film, published a memoir and this month he was traded by the Mets to the Blue Jays.
Dickey, is somewhat of a baseball curiosity, the only guy in the big leagues who relies on the knuckleball, a pitch that dips, dives and swerves in ways that make it hard to catch and harder to hit.
Dickey explains how he mastered the pitch in his memoir. He also writes about his troubled youth, being sexually abused as a child, and his retreat into the refuge of sports.
FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with Dickey in April, after the publication of his book. It's called "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball." Dave asked Dickey to read an excerpt describing a turning point in his career.
R.A. DICKEY: (Reading) I'm 31 years old and darn tired of being mediocre. Anne and I have two young daughters and a baby boy on the way. I'm living in a Hyatt and getting around on a borrowed bicycle because I don't want to spend money on a rental car. One part retread, one part restoration project, I am a decade removed from my years studying English Lit at Tennessee, forgetting a lot of Faulkner and firing a lot of fastballs.
I have become the quintessential 4A pitcher, baseball code for a player who is too good for AAA but not good enough to stick in the majors. I had already spent two full, extremely undistinguished years in the big leagues. I know that I cannot reasonably expect to get another shot if this doesn't work out.
You want to know how desperate I am? I have turned myself into the baseball equivalent of a carnival act, maybe not a two-headed turtle or a bearded lady, but close. I am trying to make a living throwing the ugly stepchild of pitches, a pitch few in the game appreciate and even fewer understand.
Almost nobody starts out planning to be a knuckleball pitcher. When was the last time you heard a 12-year-old Little Leaguer say: I want to be Hoyt Wilhelm when I grow up? You become a knuckleball pitcher when you hit a dead end, when your arm gets hurt, or your hard stuff isn't getting the job done.
Tim Wakefield was a minor-league first baseman with a lot of power and a bad batting average. That's when he made the switch. I made mine when the Rangers told me in the middle of 2005 that I was going nowhere with my regular stuff, an assessment that I could hardly argue with.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Well, R.A. Dickey, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about the knuckleball. Not many people throw it. Now, you know, most - there are a lot of pitches that pitchers throw, conventional pitches that are designed to break or dip or dive. What distinguishes the knuckleball from all those other pitches?
DICKEY: Well, the knuckleball is very unique in that as a conventional pitcher, you throw a fastball, a curveball, a slider, a change-up, and those pitches are all thrown with a certain amount of spin on them. You're trying to impart spin on the baseball in order to manipulate the break whichever way you'd like.
With a knuckleball, you're doing the opposite. You're taking spin completely off the baseball, and you're kind of leaving it up to the physics of air resistance and seams on the baseball and the way that the air impacts the leather, and the indentations on the baseball make the ball move.
And so when you throw a knuckleball, a perfectly thrown knuckleball has a little less than a quarter-rotation from the time that it leaves your hand until the time that it gets to the catcher's mitt. And that's a very tough mechanic to get down. It's a very hard pitch to be consistent. And so that's why you don't see a whole lot of knuckleballers around, I think.
DAVIES: Right. And if you execute that well and get the ball started toward the plate without spin, how does it behave? Why is it effective?
DICKEY: Hmm. Well, I've heard it said that, you know, a knuckleball is like trying to hit a butterfly in a typhoon. You know, it shakes side to side, it may go straight left on one pitch. It may go down and in to a right-handed hitter on another pitch. It may stay on the very same plane the whole way on one pitch.
So the thing that makes a knuckleball effective is that you cannot predict which way the ball is going to move, which makes it an extremely hard pitch to hit, as
DAVIES: Right. Now, how do you grip it?
DICKEY: Well, I grip my knuckleball in the way that Joe, Phil - Joe Niekro, Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield grip theirs, and I tutored under Charlie Hough, who was a longtime knuckleballer for the Dodgers and the Rangers, the White Sox and the Florida Marlins.
And I take my pointer finger and my middle finger, and I dig my fingernails beneath the horseshoe of the baseball. There's a seam on the baseball that runs over the circumference of the ball, and it makes a shape of a horseshoe on one particular part. I take my fingernails, and I dig them in the leather.
And I take my thumb, I put it on the side and my index finger on the other side, and I use those points as stability points, so that when I throw the baseball, I keep my wrist very stiff, and when I release it, I try to release it at the opportune moment where there's no spin on it.
And so if you can do that over and over and over again, then usually you're going to have a pretty good game. It's when the ball starts rotating a little bit or tumbling forward, and the hitter can pick up that tumbling and predict where the ball is going to end up and hit it very hard.
If you through a good knuckleball, you can make the best hitters in the world look very foolish.
DAVIES: Yeah, have you had particular moments that you enjoyed them flailing away at your - a good knuckleball?
DICKEY: Indeed, indeed. I've thrown a few times, a pitch, a knuckleball, to a left-handed hitter in particular where I've thrown the pitch and it had zero spin on it, and they've actually swung the bat, and the ball has broken after they've swung and actually hit them.
DICKEY: So they've swung, and it's hit them either on the back of the leg or the back foot. Or one time I hit a guy in the waist, and he swung at the pitch. And when they're swinging at the pitch, and it ends up hitting them, you know you've got some pretty good movement that day.
DAVIES: Yeah, and they often lose the bat, right? It's just so out of control?
DICKEY: Yeah, oftentimes they'll sling the bat into the stands, which has happened on a few occasions, as well.
DAVIES: Now, the conventional pitcher is always trying to hit a spot. I mean, you work the corners of the strike zone. You don't want to leave it in the fat part of the plate. The knuckleball is a pitch that, by design, is unpredictable. What do you aim for?
DICKEY: Well, I try to get it started at the right height. I think for me, that's what's most important. It's impossible in any knuckleball pitch - a true knuckleball pitcher will tell you it's impossible to, you know, be able to throw a knuckleball on the outside corner. You just simply get it started in the right direction, at the right height, and the ball's going to do what the ball's going to do.
I aim for about two baseballs above the catcher's helmet, and if I can get the ball going on that trajectory, I know, more or less, if it's going to fall within the strike zone. And the key to throwing a knuckleball, and Charlie Hough told me the first day I ever worked with him, he said it took me one day to learn how to throw a knuckleball and a lifetime to throw a knuckleball for strikes.
So you've got to be able to throw strikes with the pitch so that the hitter can - will respect you. That's the rub. And so I start my knuckleball about two balls above the catcher's helmet.
DAVIES: How many of your pitches these days are knuckleballs? Do you still have other pitch.
DICKEY: Yes, I do, and in fact, that's one of the things that helps me to pitch deep into games is when I have innings when I don't have a good knuckleball I can kind of rely on my sinker or my cutter or my change-up to help survive the innings when I don't have a good knuckleball going.
If I throw 100 pitches in a game, ideally I want 85 of them to be knuckleballs, and the other 15 will be other pitches; sinkers, fastballs, curveballs, change-ups, what have you. But it is important for me, and it can be a weapon for me, if a guy's thinking I'm going to throw a knuckleball, and I through an 85-mile-an-hour fastball inside. It's hard for him to pull the trigger, and that can be a weapon, as well.
DAVIES: Now, in addition to being hard to hit, the knuckleball is hard to catch. Do catchers hate having a knuckleballer on the mound?
DICKEY: Well, you know, if you're Bob Uecker, who said the best way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and go over and pick it up, then yeah.
DICKEY: But I have been blessed with some really good catchers, that have hands. You know, the key to catching a knuckleball is to try to let it get as deep as possible. Because when you go out and try to catch it before it kind of gets to you, it'll break, and you'll end up chasing it to the backstop.
So I've had a couple of guys who have really struggled with it, but for the most part, the guys really accept it as a challenge, and I work really hard at trying to do it well.
DAVIES: Now, can umpires accurately call balls and strikes with a knuckleballer? Is it harder?
DICKEY: You know, it is hard. But I have found that most of the Major League umpires really give me the benefit of the doubt because they don't want to miss a strike. It really reflects poorly on them if they missed a strike. So if there's a borderline pitch or a marginal pitch that could be a strike or a ball, a lot of times I will get that call because they don't want to be the guy who can't call a knuckleball right. They really take it as a challenge.
And the guys up there are so good, the umpires are so good that most of the time, you know, they might miss four or five a game, but over the course of a 250-pitch game, that's pretty remarkable.
DAVIES: Right. OK, so umpires, if you're listening, R.A. Dickey says you're great. So this season, give him a break.
DAVIES: You know, a knuckleball is hard to master, but the one great thing is that it's less punishing on your arm, and you see some guys throw it into their 40s, right, I guess maybe even 50s?
DICKEY: Yeah, yeah, you can certainly throw it into your mid-40s, and a lot of knuckleballers, their best years come from ages 38 to 44, right in that area. Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield all won a great number of games during that age period.
You're able to do that because I'm out there as a knuckleballer operating at about 75 percent capacity, whereas as a conventional pitcher, you're full-tilt all the time. As a knuckleballer, you know, it's much better for you to operate at 75, 80 percent capacity. That's when you get the most movement on your pitch.
So it enables you to recover a lot better. It's a lot easier on your body. So if the other parts of your body hold up well, there's no reason to think that you can't pitch as long as you want to pitch.
GROSS: We're listening back to pitcher R.A. Dickey speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This week, we're featuring a few of our favorite interviews of the year. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded in April with pitcher R.A. Dickey, who won the Cy Young Award this year and was just traded by the Mets to the Blue Jays.
DAVIES: You grew up in Nashville, you tell us in this book, and your dad left your mom early, and your mom had a drinking problem, used to take you to a bar called Joe's Village Inn. And, you know, it's gotten a lot of attention in the book that you revealed that you were abused sexually in your childhood, you know, once - well, repeatedly by a teenage girl who was your babysitter when you were eight years old and then on another occasion more brutally by I guess a 17-year-old boy. This is tough stuff. Did you tell anybody about these incidents at the time?
DICKEY: No, I didn't. In fact, it wasn't for 23 years until I uttered a word of it to anybody. I think one of the tough things about being sexually abused is you - you know, right away you feel like you've been a part of something incredibly wicked, that you've had something to do with it even. I now know it has nothing to do with any fault of your own. But you certainly feel like it was partially your fault. And so, I always just stuffed it away and would build up mechanisms for dealing with that pain.
DAVIES: Yet you became a great athlete. I mean, you were a great athlete, and you played, you know, sports, many of them, well in junior high and high school. Did you think much about the abuse at the time, or had you repressed it or thought you'd repressed it?
DICKEY: Well, I certainly had repressed it, but there's not - you can't really repress something like that to the extent that you never think about it. One of the mechanisms that I had developed was pouring myself into athletics - the baseball field, the basketball court and the football field were all kind of my refuges, places I would take sanctuary from the pain of feeling like, you know, I was a fractured, less-than-human person, you know? I mean, and that's when you're given.
When you're sexually abused, that's what you feel like. You feel like you're not worth anything. And so I would try to gain back some of that worth by pouring myself into athletics.
DAVIES: You'd become a first-round draft choice for the Texas Rangers. This was a big deal, right? I mean what did it mean to you to get that kind of an entree into the big leagues?
DICKEY: Well, it was what - immediately what it meant was that I was going to be able to sign a contract that was at least on the frontend in the way of a signing bonus worth close to $1 million. And that was, you know, we came from a low to middle income type situation when I was growing up, so I had plans for the money to do things with and, you know, I think I took for granted the fact that I was going to be a professional pitcher, which is something that I'd always, had always wanted to be from an early age. And when I was drafted I was the 18th pick overall by the Texas Rangers in 1996. And I'd made the Olympic team and we went to Atlanta in '96 to compete for a gold medal, we ended up winning the bronze, and then that's when I went down to Texas to sign my contract and get on with my big league career.
DAVIES: And we say 18th pick. That's in the first round. I mean that is a really high quality - that's a prestigious place to be for a kid entering the big leagues. So your dreams are coming true. You're going to be financially secure in a way you never have been and then it all falls apart. What happened?
DICKEY: Well, when I flew down to take my comprehensive physical, which all first rounders do, they did this test called the Valgus stress test, where you put your elbow into this apparatus and they apply pressure from the back and they take an X-ray from the top.
And it revealed that I had a little bit extra laxity in my right elbow in that joint than my left elbow. By the time I had left the doctor's office and got to the general manager's office to sign my contract in Arlington, Texas, the doctor and the general manager had talked.
And my agent was there and we were going up the elevator and, you know, I'm thinking I'm about to throw out the first pitch of the game, meet Nolan Ryan, who was my boyhood idol, and sign my contract for $850,000. Doug Melvin was the general manager at the time called my agent into the office and I went on and stood out on the balcony and watched batting practice take place while my agent and the general manager talked.
Well, the agent comes out of the office and gets me and he's got kind of a pale look on his face and says, you know, we need to go in here right away. And I sit down across from Doug Melvin. And Doug Melvin commenced to say that they were going to take the offer off the table because they felt like there was something wrong with my arm.
And in that moment, you know, I was having a million different emotions, least of which was to jump over the table and choke him to death. Because I had spent a lifetime trying to get to that very point and he was taking it all away. At least that was what I thought.
But I quieted my spirit, and thankfully I didn't burn a bridge in that moment and I went on to see Dr. Andrews in Birmingham, Alabama, the next day and he advised that I get an MRI. So I got in an MRI and sure enough, the MRI came back that I didn't have the existence of an ulnar collateral ligament in my right elbow at all, which is the ligament inside the elbow that keeps that joint stable.
In my mind I was thinking this is great, we should get more money. I'm never going to have to have that ligament replaced.
DAVIES: Because that's a typical injury for pitchers, the...
DICKEY: That is - yeah - the Tommy John surgery is a typical injury for a Major League pitcher. But, of course, the Rangers did not see it that way. They thought they had drafted damaged goods. And I went back to Nashville, Tennessee, thinking that I may never throw for a professional team ever again because with that kind of hanging over you, you never know what's going to happen.
So my options became go back to school for my senior year and try to play well enough to get drafted again - albeit, it would not have been in a high round because of the condition that I had. And about 24 hours before my first class at the University of Tennessee, the general manager, Doug Melvin, called my agent and said we'll give him $75,000, take it or leave it.
And I prayed about it and talked about it with Anne, who is my wife now, and felt led to take the contract. And so I did and started my professional career as kind of this freak that didn't have the ulnar collateral ligament.
DAVIES: So with this bizarre injury, I mean, your dream is shattered. You don't get the $850,000 signing bonus. In the end they give you I guess a $75,000 contract. And you go to their minor league system. And you start there grinding away in the minor leagues.
DICKEY: Port Charlotte, Florida, initially then you spent a lot of time in Oklahoma City toiling away in the minors. Do you remember when you first went up to the big leagues that first game? I'm sure you do. Tell us about that.
Oh, certainly. Certainly. I had spent parts of five seasons in the minor leagues and played everywhere from Port Charlotte, Florida, to Venezuela to Puerto Rico and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then finally Oklahoma City before I got called up to the Texas Rangers in 2001. My first outing was against the Oakland Athletics in Texas and I just remember it being almost surreal.
So many people thought that I would never get there simply because of the condition I had in my elbow and I had made it and I was able to celebrate that with my family, and they were there in the stands. And I had a three up, three down inning against the Oakland A's in the ninth inning and it was just a fantastic experience all around.
DAVIES: But in the end it didn't go well, did it?
DICKEY: Well, not as a conventional pitcher. You know, I kind of was up and down for the next four years as a conventional pitcher and I was very mediocre by my own admission. You know, I never could get to that next place that I wanted to get to. You know, I wanted - I felt like I was capable of so much more but the guys in the big leagues are just so good, you know?
If you're not pinpoint your weaknesses will be revealed very quickly and mine were often revealed. And so I had to come up with something else if I wanted to hang onto the dream of being a Major League pitcher and that's in 2005 when I made the transition to being a full-time knuckleball pitcher.
GROSS: We're listening back to National League pitcher R. A. Dickey speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. We'll talk more after a break this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: You describe the moment that you made this transition to being a knuckleball pitcher. I mean two greats of the game, you know, Buck Showalter and Orel Hershiser tell you we think, you know, you've been fooling around with this pitch, you can do it well. And then you begin in a way in this second pitching career learning it.
And it's a hard craft to master and you went up to the big leagues a few times and got - did well but also got knocked around plenty and when it isn't working it's a rough day on the mound.
DAVIES: And you ended up back in the minors again. And there's this bizarre - I don't know if we could call it a turning point in your career - that involved you trying to swim across the Missouri River in Iowa. What happened?
DICKEY: Oh, man. What didn't happen? That's exactly right, what happened. Well, you know, I had been coming - like I said, I spent so much time in Oklahoma City. One of the places we would always play was Omaha. We would play the Royals, and the Omaha Royals, which was the AAA affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.
And I had been going through there for years and we always stayed at this hotel and it overlooked the Missouri River. And for years I would go up the elevator looking out over the river thinking I wonder if anybody can swim across that. Well, in 2007 I thought I'm going to do it.
You know, I've spent a lifetime of not taking any risks. I'm going to take one and try to do it. And so word spread around the clubhouse and all my teammates got out there and they watched me de-robe and get down onto the shallows of the Missouri before I took off and tried to traverse it.
DAVIES: That's a big, fast-moving river, right? What happened?
DICKEY: Well, it is big, it's dirty and it's fast-moving. And come to find out it has a significant undertow. I set out and I'd always been a pretty good swimmer. I felt like I was going at a pretty good clip. And, you know, I had gone about 100 yards upriver so that I felt like if I got across, you know, I would kind of be in the place I needed to be that would look right across the hotel to the hotel from the other side.
And I thought after I had been swimming for about, you know, what seemed to be four or five minutes, I thought I'd come up and take a peek. And so when I did, I realized all of the sudden that the river had swept me very far downriver. And my teammates who were once standing right in front of me at six feet tall just about, were now looked like little ants on the horizon.
I mean, it was a really scary moment. Well, I get out almost to the middle and by this time I'm thinking I have zero shot at getting to the other side. And so I turn around and I know at that point when I turn around that it's going to be a fight just to stay alive and things took on a much less jovial feel.
Every stroke was, you know, a determined stroke to try to survive an experience where I may drown. And so I got close to the shore and I had kind of given myself over to the fact that this was it. You know, I wasn't going to make it. And I closed my eyes and started to sink.
And I remember writing a line in the book the sensation of weeping underwater was a real interesting sensation and I was praying that God, you know, would protect my family and all that. I had come to grips with dying and started sinking.
And right as I was about to open my mouth and take in all this water just to end it quickly, my feet hit the bottom of the river. And it kind of renewed my adrenaline and I surged up and I was probably about 14 feet high. Of course, the water is so deep - I mean dark. You don't really know where you are.
And I boosted myself up and did that repeatedly, dog-paddled a little more and then made one more furious attempt to try to get to the side. And one of my teammates had followed me all the way downriver, named Grant Balfour, and if it weren't for him I wouldn't be talking to you today, Dave. He stuck out his arm and I reached up and grabbed it and he pulled me to shore and I survived.
DAVIES: Now this was a near-death experience. I mean, you almost didn't get out of that river alive. And it's fascinating that after that experience your pitching got better. Why do you think?
DICKEY: I know. You know, I certainly look at it as almost a baptism of sorts. You know, I mean, I went into the Missouri River. I was hanging on by a thread professionally. I was like one in four at the time with a six-something ERA, which is not very good in baseball at all.
And I was one phone call from the general manager away from being released and never playing baseball again, maybe. And when I came out of the river, I ended up going 11 and two with like 2.80 ERA and became the PCL Pitcher of the Year.
DAVIES: That's Pacific Coast League. Yeah.
DICKEY: Yeah. The Pacific - yeah, Pacific Coast League.
DAVIES: Terrific season. Yeah.
DICKEY: Yeah. Terrific season. And I say that only to emphasize the point that, you know, I think when I came out of the river I was so consumed with just wanting to live in the present well that I think that carried over directly into my pitching. And I just cared about each pitch singularly.
And so, you know, if one pitch didn't go well, forget it. Here's this pitch. What am I going to do with this pitch? And when I did that over and over and over again, I was able to look back and all of the sudden I was putting together a pretty incredible run. And I decided that that's how I wanted to live my life.
DAVIES: Well, R.A. Dickey, it's been really interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
DICKEY: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: R. A. Dickey spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies last April after the publication of Dickey's memoir. Tomorrow we'll continue our end of the year series featuring a few of our favorite interviews from 2012.
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GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.