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Path of the Pros: R.A. Dickey11/16/2010 10:00 AM ET
By Robert Emrich / Special to MLB.com
Like a typical knuckleball, R.A. Dickey's career took a long and twisted path to success.
Dickey was selected in the first round of the 1996 Draft by the Texas Rangers. After submitting to a physical prior to signing, it was discovered that he was missing an Ulnar Collateral Ligament. The UCL, located around the inner elbow, is necessary for basic things like opening the front door. The discovery led to the Rangers to cut their bonus offer to $75,000, which a disappointed Dickey accepted.
"The doctors said I shouldn't be able to turn a doorknob without feeling pain," Dickey recalled. "Imagine winning the lottery and losing the ticket. I wouldn't have been able to do this without my wife, Anne, by my side. She has always told me to go for it and not live with any regrets. Her support is undying."
Dickey struggled in the Minors, failing to record a winning record until 2001, when he was 11-7 with a 3.75 ERA with Triple-A Oklahoma City. The University of Tennessee product made his Major League debut that season, pitching four games out of the bullpen. It wasn't until 2003 though that Dickey was given a shot at starting for the Rangers.
Unfortunately, Dickey was unable to find any consistency, going 15-15 with a 5.33 ERA in 38 games with Texas from 2003-'04. At this point, some players might have given up. Facing an uphill battle with a fastball losing speed and having just turned 30, Dickey was faced with a choice. Adapt or call it quits.
"You know, I can't remember who gets credit for the platitude, but, one person once told me the mental to the physical is 5:1, and that's true," Dickey said. "Especially in this case, because I had to leave who I used to be -- a conventional pitcher -- behind so I could step in to who I was trying to become.
"That's a really hard thing to do, especially when it's something you had success at, but now it's not good enough. To leave that completely behind and try to adopt a new identity has taken some time. But, I've been fortunate enough that I've had a great support system in my family and friends that have really encouraged and not allowed me to quit ... and I think that's been a contributing factor to the consistency with which you've seen from me on the field."
Taking a suggestion during the 2005 season from then-Texas pitching coach Orel Hershiser, Dickey decided to work on throwing a knuckleball. Under the tutelage of Charlie Hough, who won 216 games in the Majors as a knuckleballer, Dickey started on the path that would change his career.
"I was losing velocity off my fastball and my career might have been at an end," Dickey said. "I owe it all to Orel Hershiser and Charlie Hough. Orel suggested I try the knuckleball and Charlie helped me perfect it and [taught] me the intricacies."
Dickey bounced around baseball, spending time with the Rangers, Brewers, and Mariners organizations from 2006-'08, but never spending significant time in the Majors. His career began to turn around with a dominant season with the Nashville Sounds, winning Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year honors with a 13-6 record and a 3.73 ERA.
"This is something I've always felt I was capable of doing," Dickey said. "It's been a journey -- a maturing process. It wasn't that one day I woke up and figured it out. It's been an evolution."
After pitching mostly out of the bullpen with Minnesota in 2009, Dickey signed with the Mets in the offseason. Sent down to Triple-A Buffalo out of Spring Training, he started strong for the Bisons, retiring 27 batters in a row on April 29. Dickey was called up by the Mets on May 19 to take the place of Oliver Perez.
Dickey then embarked on what most would call a career season. He was 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA, good for seventh in the National League. Dickey also won six games in a row before taking his first loss as a Met, striking out 5.4 batters per nine innings. He finished as the runner-up to Atlanta's Tim Hudson as the National League Comeback Player of the Year.
"It was fairly tumultuous in the beginning," Dickey said of his breakout season. "To be one of the first guys out of Spring Training, but still try to maintain the vision that I still had something very viable to offer, and going down there and being a professional and trying to do what I needed to do to get my work done so I would be prepared when they did need something, was a hurdle that needed to be leaped over.
"I was fortunate enough that I got time to prepare my body on the Minor League side for what would ultimately become a 238-inning season. So from there, to be called up May 19, to starting in Washington, I've just had so many incredible moments this year. ... The fans have been great. It's been a real nice experience and I've been humbled by it."