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R.A. Dickey's Incredible Cy Young Path Shows the Bright Side of Baseball

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R.A. Dickey's Incredible Cy Young Path Shows the Bright Side of Baseball
Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

You know what the best part about baseball is?

For me, it's the fact that baseball is a sport that anyone and everyone can play. Baseball comes with relatively few physical prerequisites compared to other sports.

You need to be big and/or fast in order to play American football. You need to be tall and/or quick to play basketball. You need to be able to skate in order to play hockey. You need to be a world-class endurance athlete to play soccer.

In baseball, it doesn't matter if you're tall, short, fat or skinny. You see little guys hit the ball just as hard as the big guys, and there are more than a few short pitchers who throw just as hard as Randy Johnson used to. Even Dustin Pedroia can win an MVP award, and the Cy Young award can be won by pitchers of all shapes, sizes and roles.

We found out on Wednesday that it can even be won by a knuckleballer. New York Mets ace R.A. Dickey became the first knuckleballer to ever win the CY Young, taking home the honors after going 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA and National League highs in innings and strikeouts in 2012.

There are always complaints to be made whenever an award is handed out. There will always be people who will say that this guy should have won or that that guy should have won. Case in point, just wait until the AL MVP award is handed down on Thursday.

But there are no complaints to be made about Dickey winning the NL Cy Young award. He had the numbers to back up his victory, and he presumably got a few extra points for being undoubtedly the most consistent starting pitching in the Senior Circuit this year (see his league-high 27 quality starts).

Besides, even if some people want to argue that Clayton Kershaw, Gio Gonzalez or maybe Johnny Cueto or Craig Kimbrel deserved the Cy Young more than Dickey, it seems many or all of them are holding their tongues. This surely has everything to do with the fact that there's so, so, so much more to Dickey's Cy Young story than just his numbers.

Deep down inside, every baseball fan is just as sentimental about the come-one-come-all nature of the sport as yours truly is. Dickey's success story speaks to anyone who has true love and appreciation for baseball, and it's an affirmation that the love baseball fans have for the game is not misplaced. 

Dickey is on top of the baseball world right now, but he really shouldn't be there. He was lucky to be given a chance to make it in the league in the first place. Once he did finally arrive, the league did its best to chew him up and spit him out as just another failure. The sport may be great, but Major League Baseball as an institution is undeniably cruel like that.

Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images
Dickey starred at Tennessee and was an Olympian in 1996.

If you're unfamiliar with Dickey's major league story, it began when he was drafted 18th overall by the Texas Rangers back in 1996. Normally, being a first-round draft pick means the lucky draftee in question stands a pretty good chance of being successful in the majors before long, but the Rangers soon noticed that their 18th overall pick in 1996 didn't have a career path worth betting too much on.

As recounted by Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated, the Rangers took a closer look at Dickey after they drafted him and realized that his right elbow was missing an ulnar collateral ligament. This is the ligament that is repaired when a pitcher has Tommy John surgery, so suffice it to say, it's not exactly a ligament that most pitchers can live without.

The Rangers didn't take Dickey's chance away upon noticing his lack of a UCL, but they did withdraw the signing bonus they offered him. They were still willing to see what Dickey could do, but, you know, not for a lot of money. They figured he wasn't worth paying until he proved himself.

And it took Dickey a long time to do that. He didn't make his major league debut until 2001, and when he did, he only logged four appearances. He didn't reappear in the big leagues until 2003.

The 2003 season was a struggle. In 38 appearances (including 13 starts), Dickey posted a 5.09 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP. He got off to a decent start in 2004 with a 4-1 record and a 3.48 ERA in his first five starts, but he ultimately ended the year with a 5.61 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP.

The 2005 season brought more of the same, and Dickey's lone start in the majors in 2006 saw him give up seven earned runs on six home runs in 3.1 innings. At that point, Dickey was in his early 30s and clearly nothing special as a pitcher.

I'll be honest. I remember watching Dickey pitch when he was with the Rangers in those years, and what I saw was a pitcher who downright sucked. I recall a fastball that couldn't touch 90 and mediocre breaking stuff. About the only intriguing thing he had to offer was appropriately called "The Thing," which was essentially a modified forkball.

The Thing wasn't good enough to make Dickey even a league-average pitcher, but the story goes that it was The Thing that eventually became Dickey's knuckleball. With the blessings of then-Rangers manager Buck Showalter, pitching coach Orel Hershiser and bullpen coach Mark Connor, Dickey began his transition into a knuckleballer in 2005.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
"Have you ever thought about a knuckleball, R.A.? What you have kinda sucks." -Orel Hershiser, probably.

We may see more pitchers go this route now that Dickey has been so successful with the knuckleball, but at the time, his transition was an act of desperation. And given the constant shortage of knuckleballers at the major league level, it may as well have been a kiss of death for his career.

And for several years, it looked like it was. Dickey's lone start in 2006 with the knuckleball as his primary weapon was a complete disaster, and he wasn't much better in the minor leagues that year either. He spent the entire 2007 season in the minors with the Milwaukee Brewers organization, and he also spent some of the 2008 season in the minors with the Seattle Mariners organization.

The Mariners used Dickey as a reliever and as a part-time starter in 2008, and the Minnesota Twins used him in largely the same capacity in 2009. He was mainly being used as a mop-up man and a late-inning last-man-standing reliever.

Dickey was, in essence, just another mediocre journeyman clinging to life in the majors. With his late 30s fast approaching, it wasn't going to be long before he was out of the big leagues for good. He would have gone into the books as just another grunt who gave life in baseball his best shot, one that wasn't nearly good enough.

But still, at least the chances were there. Nobody was taking a look at Dickey's track record and his silly goal of becoming a knuckleball pitcher and moving to have him kicked out of the league forthwith. He surely had plenty of teams say thanks but no thanks, but his story goes to show just how hard it is for players to bomb out of the big leagues completely. Those who truly want to keep striving will always be able to find a place to do so.

Dickey certainly kept striving, and we know how his story pans out after the 2009 season came and went. He joined the Mets in 2010 and came through with a 2.84 ERA in 27 appearances, including a career-high 26 starts. He then posted a 3.28 ERA in 33 appearances (32 starts!) in 2011, and this year, he won the Cy Young.

All told, Dickey is 39-28 over the last three seasons with a 2.95 ERA. Per FanGraphs, there are only 10 pitchers with better ERAs than Dickey over the last three seasons. 

Think about that for a second. In a span of only three years, Dickey went from being an over-the-hill scrub of a pitcher to being one of the best hurlers in the game. That he managed to find success at an age when he should have been getting his retirement papers in order is nothing short of a miracle.

The best part is that there was no taking the easy way out for Dickey. He probably won't admit it, but the thought of taking performance-enhancing drugs must have crossed his mind. We know that it does with many minor leaguers, as PED busts are significantly more common in the minors than they are in the majors.

Hey, you can scold minor leaguers if you want, but many critics would do the same thing in their shoes. The conditions and the pay are both terrible, and they know that upticks in performance don't go unnoticed up top.

Instead of taking the easy way out, Dickey continued to put his trust in a pitch that only few before him had actually managed to master. He was trying to do the baseball equivalent of capturing a unicorn, and he was trying to do it while the clock was ticking.

His story would have been humbling enough if he had only managed to master the knuckleball. What Dickey did was totally reinvent the pitch itself.

Elsa/Getty Images
Yeah, he looks angry to me.

Dickey may not be on steroids, but his knuckleball definitely is. In his own words, via Scott Miller of CBSSports.com, Dickey throws an "angry knuckleball." It doesn't float across the plate at "hit me" speeds in the 60-70 MPH range. He throws it in the mid-80s, and he makes life all the more tougher for hitters by also showing them a fastball in the 80s and a curveball that he re-introduced into his repertoire in 2012.

Dickey is not just another knuckleballer. He is a knuckleballer perfected.

No doubt this is why Dickey's baseball success story resonates with so many baseball fans. We've seen rags-to-riches stories play out many times before, and they're great every time, but Dickey's rags-to-riches story is something legitimately new. If baseball was Hollywood, Dickey's story would be a truly original game-changer rather than just another awesome sequel.

And you'll notice that I haven't even talked about the trials and tribulations Dickey has gone through as a person, which dwarf the trials and tribulations he's gone through as a baseball player.

Dickey's book—Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball—tells tales of his having to endure sexual abuse as a child, and he also claimed to have thoughts of suicide as an adult. His soul is still very much intact, but it's not without scars.

Presented without comment; photo via Mets360.com

Not that Dickey's life outside of baseball is a total sob story, mind you. I consider him a fellow nerd due to his known love of Star Wars and fantasy novels, and the fact that he weighed being an English professor if baseball didn't work out very much agrees with the English major in me.

Plus, any man who can climb Mount Kilimanjaro deserves a good old-fashioned hat tip. Any man who does so to raise awareness for human trafficking is worthy of a full bow.

This is what's so very great about Dickey. He is the keeper of the most fascinating pitch in baseball, and the man behind the pitch is as fascinating as any contemporary sports figure. He's certainly more fascinating than Tim Tebow, LeBron James and all the other guys who hog all the SportsCenter headlines. Other guys may get the hype, but they all seem boring next to Dickey.

Not that any of this matters to baseball fans. Many of them cherish Dickey, and he deserves to be cherished not only for the kind of pitcher he is and the kind of man he is, but because there's no separating him from baseball itself.

Only baseball could have possibly given us something as amazingly satisfying as R.A. Dickey's story. It may be the only sport in which he could have ever succeeded in the first place, and it's certainly the only sport in which he could have still had a shot at glory even as he was beginning to push 40.

Baseball takes a lot of flak in the public domain. Many people still haven't forgiven MLB for the steroid era, or even for the strike in the mid 1990s, for that matter. Many people love to mock the league's financial system, which doesn't give teams like the Oakland A's a chance to compete on the same level as the New York Yankees and other rich teams. Some fans of other sports choose to mock baseball for being a relic, as the declining World Series ratings clearly prove.

Goodness knows every baseball fan has his or her own minor gripes. That will never change. But true baseball fans will always come back no matter what happens because they simply love the game too much.

And from now on, baseball fans will always love R.A. Dickey because of what the game did for him and what he did for the game, not to mention for the man he is.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. 

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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