Name That Knuckleballer

It’s 1996. Just out of school, he is a first-round draft pick of a Major League baseball team.

He is offered a signing bonus of $810,000.

092513 Knuckleballer on a roll

Then a medical examination determines that he lacks a ligament near his right elbow without which, the doctor says, one should not be able to painlessly turn a door knob.

The bonus offer is slashed to $75,000. He doesn’t begin his Major League career until 2001. His pitching proves less than stellar.

In 2005, he decides to perfect his knuckleball as a last-ditch way to achieve pitching excellence. “I am thirty-one years old and tired of being mediocre.”

He is tutored by the great knuckleball pitcher Charlie Hough. On Hough’s recommendation, he changes his grip and modifies other aspects of his knuckleball. Reinvents himself. “When I started throwing the knuckleball, I threw maybe two good ones out of ten. Now I am throwing five or six good ones out of ten.”

It’s 2006. He’s getting one more chance at Big League success, this time as a full-blown knuckleballer, with his club’s blessing. “I know that I cannot reasonably expect another shot if this doesn’t work out.”

It doesn’t work out. The batters, six of them, one after another smack his knuckleball out of the park. He is sent back down to the minors.

The years pass. By his own tally, he has spent a total of seven of them in the same town as a minor league pitcher. The locals like him. Some want him to run for mayor.

He doesn’t want to run for mayor.

The day is April 29, 2010, and our knuckleballer is still in the minors. This is the day that, after giving up one hit, he retires 27 batters in a row while pitching for the Buffalo Bisons. The Mets are watching. He is again invited to play in the Major Leagues. He wins a two-year contract with a million-dollar signing bonus.

He’ll earn $2.25 million in 2011, $4.25 million in 2012.

It’s 2012. He’s on a roll. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” says his team’s manager. “Never. I’ve seen some dominant pitching, but nothing like what he’s going through right now.”

On November 14, 2012, our knuckleball pitcher wins the Cy Young Award. He is 38 years old.

Yes, it’s R.A. Dickey, whose story is partly told in the documentary “Knuckleball!” and in more detail in his own memoir about his quest for the perfect knuckleball.

During the wilderness years, Dickey was in a bookstore leafing through a preseason guide when he came across the following passage: “In the farm system, the Rangers’ alleged prospects include former first-round draft pick R. A. Dickey, a marginal right-hander who has given no indication that he’s ever going to amount to anything.”

“Learn how to accept losses without being defeated.”
─Phil Niekro

“Skinny kids, non-athletes, they’re gonna be out there, playing catch with their father, to see if they can throw a damn ball that doesn’t spin. ’Cause if they can, they have a shot at going from nowhere to the Big Leagues.
─Jim Bouton

“Be patient with it, and don’t give up because you’ve had a couple of tough outings or you see a few knuckleballs that don’t spin right…. Being a knuckleball pitcher is something that you live and die with. But you can’t ever give up on it.”
─R. A. Dickey

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