Elusive Knuckleball Gives Pitcher Chance at Majors After the discovery that pitcher R.A. Dickey lacked a key ligament derailed his major league career, he learned how to throw the unconventional pitch known as a knuckleball. Now, Dickey has signed as a prospect for the Seattle Mariners.
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Elusive Knuckleball Gives Pitcher Chance at Majors

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Elusive Knuckleball Gives Pitcher Chance at Majors

Elusive Knuckleball Gives Pitcher Chance at Majors

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We read in the paper this week, the story of R.A. Dickey, a 33-year-old pitching prospect with the Seattle Mariners. He's a knuckleballer that means he throws a pitch that meanders the home plate at low speed and flutters unpredictably in the strike zone. Batters who can get there bat around on a 95-mile-per-hour fastball or even hit a major league curveball can be absolutely baffled by a good knuckleball. But what really cut my interest about R.A. Dickey was the story of a medical diagnosis by photograph that almost ruined his hopes of being a major leaguer.

R.A. Dickey joins us from the Mariners' training camp in Peoria, Arizona. welcome to the program.

Mr. R.A. DICKEY (Pitcher, Seattle Mariners): Thank you.

SIEGEL: Now, what intrigued me about your story was your photo this week that I saw reproduced in The New York Times. It's reprinted from the cover of "Baseball America's" Olympic Preview in 1996. You're there with the four other starting pitchers on the U.S. Olympic baseball team, and I want you to describe what happened with that picture.

Mr. DICKEY: Well, you know, I was standing there in a photo kind of trying to be as big as the guys around me, and I think there was discovery made by one of the trainers for the Texas Rangers organization which was the team and I was drafted by that my right arm - my right arm was bent kind of funny. And it set off an alarm in their heads, so when I went down for my physical, obviously, they put me through some pretty comprehensive tests to see if, in fact, I was injured.

SIEGEL: And they discovered something quite remarkable, you were…

Mr. DICKEY: Yeah.

SIEGEL: …you are not about to pop a ligament in that arm?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKEY: Yeah. The diagnosis eventually was - you know, because I had been all my test there in Texas and I was going to sign my contract on that day and throw out the first pitch and kind of realized those childhood dreams that I had always had. And I got there and the general manager pulled me in the office, post-physical and said, you know, we're taking that off the table, we want you to go down and get a second opinion. We think something is wrong with you. And of course, I had never been hurt a day in my life. So I never missed a game, never missed a bullpen or practice, so I went down and saw Dr. James Andrews who's a world renown in orthopedic and when I took that MRI, it revealed that I didn't have the existence of an ulnar collateral ligament on my right elbow. So could Tommy John ligament that everybody has replaced, I didn't have one at all. I…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKEY: He really couldn't explain it.

SIEGEL: So the good news was, this kid is - never going to need Tommy John surgery. The (unintelligible) is that he doesn't have the ligament to begin with.

Mr. DICKEY: Yeah, and you know from a business standpoint, in a Major League organization, saw a situation where they thought they were getting damage goods in me as a draft pick.

SIEGEL: So the offer that had been on the table and came off was for?

Mr. DICKEY: $810,000.

SIEGEL: And the amount that you ultimately signed for is a minor leaguer?

Mr. DICKEY: Yes, $75,000 was eventually what I signed for the night before I was supposed to report back to school. You know, I think I really got that out of sympathy. I think that the general manager for the Texas Rangers just kind of had a heart and at the last minute because originally they weren't going to offer me any and I was just going be stuck - going back to school with the prospect of never being able to chase a dream.

From then on, I was just, you know, kind of had that label on me and had to try to pitch well enough and perform well enough where I wouldn't be the guy with no ligament. I would be the guy that could get big league hitters out. I did that from years '97 to 2005 when I started the journey for the knuckleball, and I will throw conventionally a fastball that would be 88 to 91. I would throw a good changeup and a curve ball and occasional knuckleball. And that's how I got up to the big leagues pitching conventionally. I pitched at every level, single A, double A, six years in triple A and then finally made it to the big leagues, and have been, you know, parts of four seasons, five past seasons in the big leagues.

SIEGEL: How did the transition from being a fastball pitcher to being a knuckleball pitcher came about?

Mr. DICKEY: Well, when I was pitching conventionally, I'd always had one on my repertoire. I would throw it every so often, in fact, through 100 pitches in a start, I would throw six or seven knuckleballs. And when I was in the big leagues with Texas and had made it up as a conventional pitcher, Orel Hershiser was my pitching coach. And he suggested that one point that if I want to go to that knuckleball fulltime as in 80 or 90 percent of the time when I'm on the mound, that I could really prolong my career. It was about a year after that conversation that I embarked on that journey and had been on ever since.

SIEGEL: For the Zen of the knuckleball, if it's some idea about throwing a knuckleball that you've been able to crystallize on your own mind over these past few years, what is it?

Mr. DICKEY: Well, if knew the research on knuckleball pitchers, you'll see that there's - they have most of their success between ages 31 and 41. I think there's something to that - I think there's a real maturity that comes with having to endure the ups and downs of throwing a knuckleball because it can be a very painful pitch to throw - and I don't mean physically but I just mean visually - how you throw up - you can throw up some big numbers.

When it's ugly out there, it can be really ugly. You've got to catch it or can't catch it, and you can't throw strikes with it. So the outings are really hard to stomach sometimes, and having to weather the ups and downs of that, has been something that - as I have been able to do better - have gotten better with the pitch. When I kind of thinking of the fact that I'm a knuckleballer now, I'm not a conventional guy to let - it kind of freeze me up to be me. And because of that I can really compete at a high level with it.

SIEGEL: Sounds like the knuckleball is the thinking man's human growth hormone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKEY: That's good.

SIEGEL: Well, good luck to you this season.

Mr. DICKEY: Thank you. I appreciate it.

SIEGEL: Good talking with you.

R.A. Dickey, speaking to us from the Seattle Mariners' camp in Peoria, Arizona.

And you can read the mysteries surrounding the knuckleball at npr.org.

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