Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book review: Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball - R.A. Dickey

The title of New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey’s autobiography, Wherever I Wind Up:  My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball (Blue Rider, 2012), holds a meaning of unpredictability that has followed him from his youth all the way to the mound at Citi Field. The metaphoric title refers to much more than the curious flight of his knuckleball, with Dickey bearing much of his soul in this unprecedented work.

R.A. Dickey - Wherever I Wind Up / Blue Rider
An All-American and Olympian from the University of Tennessee, Dickey was on a direct path to major league stardom when the Texas Rangers in the 1996 draft drafted him in the first round. Offered a bonus of $810,000, Dickey began to envision a life of financial security and a fast track to the major leagues; however, the same arm which enamored the Rangers’ top scouts, almost brought Dickey’s career to a screeching halt before even a pitch was thrown.

Noticing a slight irregularity in the angle of Dickey’s elbow from a baseball magazine cover, the Rangers wanted an MRI of his golden arm. A few hours later, the Rangers rescinded their offer. The culprit was Dickey’s UCL or lack thereof. The ligament, which keeps the elbow secure while pitching, was missing after multiple MRIs. It was a medical wonder that his arm stayed in one piece after all of those innings of 90+ MPH fastballs.

Labeled as damaged goods and ready to walk away from baseball, the Rangers made Dickey a take-it-or-leave-it offer of $75,000. Starting from baseball’s murkiest depths, Dickey embarked on a path toward the major leagues that was anything but direct and haunted by the demons of an unspeakable past.

Reaching into the darkest places where no child should ever visit, Dickey peels away layers of a child tortured by vagrancy, alcoholism and sexual abuse. In a bold move, especially for an active player, Dickey publicly reveals his victimization by a family babysitter at the age of nine. Opening the door to a place that he locked away before revealing it to his psychologist in his 30s, Dickey suppressed the anger and horror of a child whose innocence was taken too soon.

On top of the abuse he suffered, Dickey discovered in his teenage years that living with an alcoholic parent only compounded the dismay he faced, leaving him to seek refuge as a vagrant, spending many nights sleeping in vacated homes. Despite these tremendous obstacles that Dickey faced, he earned a scholarship to Tennessee, where he majored in English, a skill he was passionate about that is obvious from this work.

While it seems miraculous that Dickey garnered the necessary strength to continue to excel on the mound as an amateur, getting signed was only the beginning of a tumultuous relationship with baseball.

Trolling the minor leagues for five years, Dickey finally received the call from the Rangers in 2001. Four short appearances later, he was back in AAA with the Oklahoma City 89ers. He wouldn’t return to the majors until 2003. After three unremarkable campaigns with the Rangers from 2003-05 and a shoulder injury, a meeting with Rangers manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Orel Hershiser would once again change the course of Dickey’s career. They asked him to give up being a conventional pitcher and convert to throwing the knuckleball full-time. Realizing he was at a crossroads, Dickey accepted the challenge.

As with the uncertain nature of the knuckleball, Dickey experienced a hellacious ride back to the major leagues including giving up a record-tying six home runs in his first start as a knuckleballer. Looking for help that his major league coaches could not provide, Dickey sought advice from Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro, and Tim Wakefield.

Despite following the Rangers’ request to covert, they released him after the 2006 season. Dickey bounced around organizations more than a spinning knuckleball. Signed by the Milwaukee Brewers, Dickey lasted one year with their AAA club, before shuttling between the Seattle Mariners and the Minnesota Twins. Released by the Twins in 2009 after an unspectacular 1-1 record in 35 appearances, he was running out of time and options. Lost in the mix of his rapid change of uniforms, Dickey almost died trying to swim across the Mississippi River, and his wife moved to another house after discovering his infidelity. Desperate for a paycheck that would offer more than that of a sojourning baseball nomad, Dickey contemplated playing in Korea before the New York Mets offered him a shot to go to spring training in 2010.

Rejuvenated by a move to the National League and a struggling Mets club, Dickey liked his chances to play in New York City. To his great surprise, he was the first person cut from the major league club in spring training. Still, driven by his tremendous spirit, Dickey soldiered to Triple-A, determined to stand tall in Queens. After pitching a nearly perfect game early in his Mets minor league campaign, the Mets summoned Dickey to Flushing, where he has remained a fixture in their rotation, earning his first multi-year contract at the beginning of the 2011 season.

Dickey’s story reaches far outside the lines of the baseball diamond, touching widespread emotions unseen in any baseball autobiography. The courage he has displayed to tell his story in full leaves behind a human element that is sorely missing in this era of distant multi-millionaires.


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