The R.A. Dickey Story

R.A. Dickey, being perhaps the best pitcher to come out of Nashville, will be a subject of updates on this site.  I’ll probably call the feature “Dickey Watch” or try to pun “R.A.” somehow but in the meantime I’ve written up a brief history of the man.  For further (and better) reading, check out recent NYT and NPR pieces on R.A. (I quoted Dickey out of the Times article)

After a precipitous fall out of playoff contention last season, the Seattle Mariners resolved to make major improvement to their weakened pitching staff this winter. They paid out an estimated 48-million dollars for Minnesota Twins right-hander Carlos Silva and traded five players, including top prospect Adam Jones, for Baltimore ace Érik Bédard. Yet a less-heralded new hurler is attracting the attention of teammates and media at the M’s training camp. Nashvillian R.A. Dickey is competing for a spot in the big leagues, on a team now deep in starters, and may have his best shot yet.

Some Nashvillians may remember R.A.’s early playing days as a flame-throwing pitcher who lead MBA to the 1993 state championship. After this incredible 1993 campaign, the Detroit Tigers selected R.A., already labeled a top prospect, in the 10th round of the MLB draft. He chose to pitch for the University of the Tennessee, where expectations remained high. According Mike Anderson, Dickey’s best friend and catcher throughout high school and college, “He was labeled from the very get-go one of the top 3 pitchers at UT.”

He didn’t disappoint, winning an unheard of fifteen games his freshman season (for reference, ex-Vanderbilt stud David Price won 2 games his freshman year). Following an All-American college career, Dickey was selected by Texas in the 1st round (18h overall) of the 1996 amateur draft. Shortly before he could sign with the Rangers, however, it was discovered he lacked an ulnar collateral ligament. The ulnar collateral ligament, made famous as the tendon repaired in Tommy John Surgery, is essential to the stability of the elbow and accordingly, pitching. Unable to undergo surgery on a non-existant ligament, Dickey signed with the Rangers for a drastically reduced sum. As he describes it now: “Imagine winning the lottery and then losing the ticket.”

R.A. Dickey didn’t dwell on his misfortune for long. Anderson remembers a deliberate change in R.A.’s attitude: “He started thinking, ‘This is going to drive me. This is going to make me work a little harder’”

During his time with Texas, Dickey worked mostly in the minors; occasionally making spot starts for the big league team. Taking the advice of coaches, he began to develop a traditional knuckleball, a low-effort pitch more suited for his mechanics. A knuckleball is a achieved by deadening all spin upon release the ball, allowing air currents to determine its erratic path to the plate. Dickey’s knuckleball evolved out of knuckle-curve he threw in college and an unknown knuckleball-esque pitch he toyed with in the minors.

The transition wasn’t easy. As Anderson remembers it: “He’s a power pitcher his entire career. He’s throwing fastballs, after fastballs, after fastballs, and now he has to learn a new pitch, especially a knuckleball, which is incredibly different to control or to take care of.”

Dickey gained that control after signing a minor-league contract with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2007. Assigned to AAA, he returned to Nashville, a welcome but hopefully temporary homecoming. He finished his season with Sounds 12-6 with a 3.80 ERA. His success earned him the PCL Pitcher-of-the-Year honors (think AAA Cy Young) and the attention of major league teams.

This winter R.A. signed a minor-league deal with the Minnesota Twins in hopes of cracking the big-league rotation. Not protected by the Twin’s 40-man roster, he was selected by the Seattle Mariners in the Rule-5 Draft, held this year in Nashville. Fortunately for R.A., the Mariners are required to keep him on their 25-man roster major-league roster, unless they chose to “sell” him back to the Twins. Dickey’s chances of making the staff, rotation or bullpen, are the best of his career.

Even without a decision this spring about his immediate future with Seattle, R.A. does not mind thinking long term. “The majority of knuckleballers have most of their success from ages 32 to 40, and win most of their games,” said Dickey at camp. His long-time catcher and friend shares his optimism: “Charlie Hough retired when he was 45, I believe, and Charlie Hough was a knuckleballer. So hopefully his career will be very long.”

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