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Knuckleballs and Hope

When I was studying in England, one of my teachers asked me if I was one of those American intellectuals who loves baseball. American? Absolutely. Intellectual? Hardly. Loves baseball? Well, that's complicated. You see, I'm a Mets fan, and so loving baseball means loving the Mets, which means hopeful Aprils and heartbreaking Septembers and lots of heartache in between. The perennial success of the hated crosstown Yankees with their rich history and big payroll doesn't help matters.

There have been a few bright spots this season. Johann Santana threw the first no-hitter in the franchise's history. (The beloved former Met Tom Seaver threw a no-hitter when he was a member of the Cincinatti Reds, and former Met David Cone threw a no-hitter as a Yankee.) All Star third baseman David Wright has returned to form after a sub par season last year.

There is also R.A. Dickey, the Mets knuckleball pitcher, who has won sixteen games thus far this season, has a 2.76 ERA, and has thrown 186 strikeouts. He has also written (with the Daily News's Wayne Coffey) an outstanding memoir, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity, and the Perfect Knuckleball. You don't even have to suffer as a Mets fan to enjoy it.

Real suffering, though, is at the heart of the memoir. Dickey recounts his parents' divorce, his mothers alcoholism, and his fathers absenteeism. He bravely discusses the sexual abuse he suffered at the hand of a female babysitter and a male bully. He recounts his own marital difficulties and the despair that comes with holding all the pitching records for a minor league baseball team. (If you hold all the pitching records for the a minor league team it means youre an excellent minor league pitcher but not good enough to a major league pitcher.)

Dickey understands his suffering in light of his Christianity. When Dickey was in high school, his baseball teammate (and future brother-in-law) invited him to an athletes' Bible study. The talk of forgiveness and community appealed to the teenager from a broken home who was in need of both. One night at this friends house, Dickey accepted Christ into his life. Throughout the book, it is clear that Christianity does not provide Dickey with the answers to all his questions. There is no smug satisfaction that everything will work out his way because of his faith in God. Instead, Christianity provides the language to formulate those questions, and it provides the context for the trust Dickey has in providence not that things will work out to his liking, but that things will work out in a way that is ultimately best for him and his family. There is no cheap grace in this narrative.

Of course one cannot have a Christian narrative without conversion, and Wherever I Wind Up has a few. There is Dickey's conversion to Christianity. There is acceptance of therapy and the effect it has on his ability to heal his relationships. And there is the remarkable story Dickey recounts about swimming across the Missouri River. He almost died in the attempt, but this unlikely baptism changed his outlook and made him a more confident pitcher.

There is also Dickey's conversion to becoming a knuckleball pitcher. Dickey studied at the University of Tennessee. The English major was a star pitcher for the university, and after his junior year the Texas Rangers offered him a contract. During a routine physical examination, doctors for the team discovered Dickey lacked the ulnar collateral ligament of his elbow joint, and offered him a revised contract for considerably less money. Dickey accepted the contract, and spent the next fourteen years shuttling between major and minor league teams. (He was a member of the 1996 US Olympic baseball team, which won a bronze medal.) In 2006 while he was still a member of the Rangers organization, the manager Buck Showalter and the pitching coach Orel Hershiser suggested that Dickey reinvent himself as a knuckleball pitcher.

But to be a knuckleball pitcher, the player needs to forget everything he knows about pitching. Instead of trying to throw pitches 90 mph, the knuckleballer throws pitches that are 55 to 80 mph. Regular pitchers worry about how they grip the baseball with their fingers; knuckleballers grip the ball with their finger nails. For regular pitchers, commanding the ball to move as they want it to is the key to their success. For knuckleballers, the fact that they are not sure where the ball will end up is key to their success. It says something about the transition that Dickey, who is by all accounts an excellent Major League pitcher, took more than four years to make the transition to a knuckleball pitcher. After brief stints with the Minnesota Twins and the Seattle Mariners, Dickey joined the Mets in 2010. In January 2011, Dickey signed a two-year contract with the Mets. Every Mets fan hopes that hell be around longer than that.

Thanks to Wherever I Wind Up, I have changed my view on what is baseballs closest analogue to grace. I had always thought the best analogue to grace was Game 6 of the 1986 World Series where Mookie Wilson hit a ground ball that travelled through the legs of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner and drove in a run, which won the game for the Mets. (The Mets won the Series in Game 7.) Yet I've come to realize that casting grace in terms of winners and losers doesn't work. The knuckleball, however, is better. First, Dickey describes the community that forms among knuckleball pitchers. Currently, only he and Tim Wakefield throw the pitch, but they have become friends and shared tips because of it. Dickey also recounts meetings with Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough, two retired players who threw the pitch. Second, just as grace changes one's outlook on life, the knuckleball changes your outlook on pitching. No longer does the pitcher worry about his pitch count or his age. He forgets about throwing pitches that are over 90 mph. Third, and most importantly, the knuckleball is the ultimate pitch of trust. Neither the pitcher nor the catcher knows exactly where the ball will cross home plate. The pitcher can only trust that he has the proper mechanics and the proper grip, and he leaves the rest up to the laws of physics. Yet, as Dickey shows, the work involved in perfecting one's delivery shows a trust not only in flight of the ball but also in one's ability to endure.

If the Mets have taught me anything, its that trusting in their ability to endure is a big part of what makes Mets fans love them.

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Great review! I really like the analogy drawn between the knuckleball and grace. One small correction: Tim Wakefield is now retired, leaving Dickey (as far as I know) the only knuckleballer in major league baseball. However, there is also a 20-year-old Japanese woman named Eri Yoshida (the "Knuckle Princess") who pitches for a minor league team in Hawaii in a small independent league (i.e., not affiliated with the major leagues).

Sami, thanks for the correction on Wakefield. I haven't paid attention to the Red Sox in a while. They're having an even worse seaon than the Mets are this year!

Thanks for the post, Scott. Like all Red Sox fans, I was sad to see Wakefield go. Beyond the excitement/terror of watching a knuckleballer trot out there every fifth day, it was a pleasure to witness Wakefield's unique blend of middle-aged paunch (he had a bit of a belly for at least his last 8 seasons) and surprising athleticism (he actually came up through the Pirates system as a first baseman, but couldn't hit enough to stick).Maybe the one good bit of news in an otherwise terrible season for the Sox is that, right before the trade deadline, we dealt Lars Anderson--another disappointing first base prospect--for Steven Wright, a 27-year old minor leaguer who turned to the knuckleball a few years ago. He's pitched pretty well in Pawtucket since then, and hopefully he'll be fluttering them in Fenway soon.