If R.A. Dickey the person were a pitch, he would be the knuckleball. The fastball is overpowering. The curveball is beguiling. The cutter is conniving. The changeup is tempting. The splitter is deceiving. But the knuckleball? It's nothing but black magic or voodoo. And it's completely individual; every knuckleball is unique, just like a snowflake. And that's certainly what R.A. Dickey is, at least in the cookie-cutter world of baseball.
Dickey's articulateness and intelligence stands out in a sea of Nuke LaLoosh clones, who day after day spit out: "We gotta play 'em one day at a time. I'm just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ballclub. I just want to give it my best shot, and the good Lord willing, things will work out." In a recent Q&A with the New York Post's Steve Serby, when asked if he has any fears, Dickey replied, "Sure. Every day. I fear that I won't be the kind of father I need to be. I have a lot of fears, and they mostly surround my inadequacies as a human being. And the difference between what I want to be, and what I actually am." What baseball player says thing like? Only Dickey. His missing ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow makes him a freak of nature, at least when it comes to pitching. And the New York Mets pitcher is even unique amongst knuckleballers, as he somehow features Greg Maddux-like control, with an unbelievable strike percentage (70%; Maddux's best season was 71%) and strikeout (103)/walk (21) ratio that is confounding, considering he throws that usually uncontrollable pitch. He's named his bats for literary swords (Orcrist and Hrunting). He's climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. He's penned an autobiography. Yes, there's no one quite like Dickey.
What about the knuckleball itself? It's not quite clear who invented the pitch (as it wasn't patented, of course), but in the early 20th century, there were four pitchers who threw it and they're thought to be the first: Nap Rucker, Lew Moren, Ed Summers and Ed Cicotte. Yes, that Ed Cicotte, the one, who, after beginning his career with the Tigers and Red Sox, was sold to the White Sox and was a member of the infamous Black Sox, and was one of the banned players from the 1919 thrown World Series (he was played by David Straithairn in Eight Men Out). The early practitioners of the pitch actually gripped the ball with their knuckles at first, before switching to the fingernails soon after, as it's thrown today.
The Washington Senators of the 1940s are the only team to feature a starting rotation of all knuckleballers -- Dutch Leonard, Johnny Niggeling, Mickey Haefner, Roger Wolff -- and in 1945 they combined for 60 wins and 60 complete games, helping their team to a second place finish, only a game and a half behind the world champion Tigers. Phil Niekro has the most career wins of any knuckleballer, with 318, and his brother Joe is second, at 221. Charlie Hough won 216 games, Cicotte 208 and Tim Wakefield 200. Hoyt Wilhelm was the greatest knuckleball-throwing reliever, with 143 wins and 227 saves. Wilbur Wood famously started both ends of a double header. Jim Bouton's tell-all book, Ball Four, caused an uproar for his locker-room secret-revealing, but in the background was the day-to-day struggles of a knuckleball pitcher. And then there are the poor catchers, who have to attempt to catch the uncatchable pitch, or as Joe Torre once lamented, "You don't catch a knuckleball, you defend against it."
The knuckleball is the pitch of the desperate. It's a last-chance pitch. It's a career-saver, as it was for Wakefield and Dickey, who turned to the pitch in 2005 when he was with the Texas Rangers at the suggestion of manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Orel Hershiser. The pitch baffles, it flutters, it sinks, it soars, it does whatever it damn well pleases -- it's a rebel without a cause. There's also a loneliness to it, and it's a misunderstood afterthought -- sort of the Ringo Starr of pitches.
But the pitch and R.A. Dickey are the perfect match, an ideal marriage. And what he's doing with it is remarkable. With Monday's complete-game one-hit shutout against the Baltimore Orioles (in which he whiffed a career-high 13 batters), Dickey's the first Met to throw back-to-back one-hitters, the first major leaguer since Dave Stieb of the Toronto Blue Jays did it in 1988 and the first National Leaguer since Jim Tobin of the Boston Braves accomplished the feat in 1944 (though one of his gems was a no-hittter). Dickey's the first pitcher this year to reach 11 wins, his 2.00 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 103 strikeouts all lead the majors (or are tied for the lead). He's not given up an earned run in his last five starts, which ties Dwight Gooden's team record, and his 42.2 innings pitched without letting in an earned run is second to Gooden's streak.
There's a new phenomenon in town, and it comes in the form of a bearded intellectual who throws a Wiffle ball-like pitch that no one can hit. Dickey and the knuckleball? Unique. And almost perfect.