R.A. Dickey’s Knuckleball

InRetro Magazine/Radio Archives
[avatar user=”jporter” size=”medium” align=”left”]J.S. Porter, Writer, Poet[/avatar]

(for my son Daniel)

Imagine devoting your life to mastering an unpredictable pitch – the art of throwing a topsy-turvy knuckleball, notoriously hard to throw, catch and hit.

A great knuckleballer comes along once in a lifetime, and R.A. Dickey, last years Cy Young award-winner, is a great knuckleballer although he’s off to a slow start with the Blue Jays this season.

This pitcher of an unruly, mind-of-its-own pitch, thrown from the nails and finger tips, is also an author. He’s a student of English literature, likes to quote St. Paul, Lao Tzu and Thomas Merton, and has a missing ulnar collateral ligament in the right elbow of his throwing arm. “I am different,” he says in the book.  “I am damaged,” he confesses.

Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest For Truth, Authenticity, and the Perfect Knuckleball is as good a baseball book, and as good a spiritual book, as I’ve come across. Dickey’s writing voice is the same as his speaking voice: open, honest, philosophic.

He’s attempting to live an authentic life under the canopy of his wife Anne’s love and alongside his four children. The quest is genuine and, as a reader and a baseball fan, you find yourself cheering for him.

His life has had its ups and downs. His mother was an alcoholic (now a recovering one and very supportive). His father remains emotionally distant (one of the hurts of the book is Dickey reaching out to him, but his dad, so far, not reaching back). He wants to share his credo with his father: “I want to be in a place where hearts are open.  I want to sit around the dinner table and listen to people talk about their day and share their feelings and concerns. I want to pray together as a family. Now that I am a Christian, I want more. I don’t want to be a tenant in my own house.”

He fondly remembers his father’s motto: “Keep doing the work. You always have to keep doing the work.”  Is Dickey’s work pitching, writing or living or some personal combination of all three?

Dickey as a young boy was molested by a teenaged girl and later, while still in his youth, raped by a young man. He has known adversity. He’s been down, poor, and lost. After an act of unfaithfulness to his wife where his behaviour collided with his self-image, Dickey fell into depression, resulting in a suicidal swim in the Missouri River to punish himself.  He hit bottom: “I feel a deep hopelessness, and brokenness, sweep over me, a man completely humbled by his vast limitations…”

Thankfully along the way Dickey met people who helped him to pitch and to live.  He also grew in his faith through acts of thoughtfulness and kindness. He lives St. Paul’s words about suffering leading to endurance and endurance leading to hope. There is no preaching in this book, but there is an emphasis on the interdependency and interconnection between one person and another.  There’s a sense of “we” being more important than “me.”

Dickey also gives you a firsthand account of what it’s like to live at sixty feet six inches –

the distance from the pitcher’s mound to the batter’s box.

The book is a tribute to “baseball’s most mysterious, most misnamed, and most unappreciated pitch.” The knuckleball doesn’t seem to be a pitch that you control so much as it’s a pitch you surrender to. You don’t so much aim it as you release it as if letting go of a butterfly fluttering its way to the plate. You want the ball to float, rotation-free, “wobbling and wiggling and shimmying and shaking.”  Dickey has learned – he would say “is learning” – to throw phantoms. You think the ball is in one place when it’s in another. Instead of hurling a 90 mile an hour fastball, he flutters a 70 mile an hour floater. He’s a “flutterballer” instead of a “fireballer,” experiencing daily “the capricious soul of the pitch.”

As Lao Tzu says in the English translation Dickey selects, “By letting go, it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond the winning.”

J.S. Porter

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