There is something timeless about fathers and sons and knuckleballers. Flying to New York City to visit my parents, I pondered the question of how to help my about-to-turn 79 year old father celebrate his birthday later that week. A suitable gift is always easiest to find for one who has little or wants a lot.
My father has all of the few things that he needs. He is an unassuming man who is content with what he already has: a comfortable home, a small plot of green with tomatoes ripening in the sun, a vast collection of archaic books and the company, love and respect of his family and a circle of friends.
The answer loomed outside the cabin window as we flew above Citi Field, the recently constructed home of the New York Mets. I had taken an interest in following the rather sudden and unexpected appearance of R.A. Dickey due to injuries and the poor performance of some of the Mets' starting pitchers.
Dickey was a first round draft pick of the Texas Rangers in 1996. On the brink of signing a $810,000 contract with the Rangers, a team physician viewed a photo of Dickey and noticed that his right arm hung at an odd angle. The Rangers discovered that Dickey lacked the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm and cut the team's offer to $75,000. Dickey spent years shuttling between the minors and short stints in the majors, showcasing unremarkable stuff and experiencing arm trouble.
In 2004, former Dodger great Orel Hershiser suggested to Dickey that he could prolong his career if he became a knuckleball pitcher. Dickey had not known that his forkball pitch was actually a hard knuckleball in disguise. He came under the tutelage of Charlie Hough, who earlier had been a successful knuckleballer for the Dodgers and Rangers.
In 2006, the Rangers named Dickey their fifth starter. However, his earliest distinction as a knuckleballer was to tie the dubious record of another knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield, by surrendering six home runs in his first start.
Like an errant foul ball bouncing amongst empty seats, Dickey moved from Texas to Milwaukee to Minnesota and then onward to the Seattle Mariners. His only distinguishing accomplishment occurred on August 17, 2008, when he managed to tie the major league record for the most wild pitches in an inning.
Consistent with their penchant for seemingly pointless signings, the Mets inked Dickey to a minor league contract on January 5, 2010 and invited him to Spring training. On May 19, 2010, the Mets called him up from the Buffalo Bisons and he made his first start the same day.
He went six intriguing innings, surrendering only two earned runs against the Washington Nationals. He followed that with a six shut-out inning performance as the winning pitcher on May 25th against the Phillies. The weeks turned into months, with one rock-solid performance after another by the 35 year old pseudo-rookie attracting a growing cult following amongst Mets fans looking for meaning in yet another season of escalating disappointment.
My father had told me tales of Waite Hoyt, the aptly named Hall of Fame knuckleballer who was the Yankees most dominant pitcher of the 1920s. Hoyt had finished his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938, when my father was seven and already a rabid Dodgers fan, having been born in Brooklyn and raised four short blocks from Ebbets field.
During my childhood, I was similarly fascinated by the handful of knuckleballers who came and went, such as Hough, the Niekro brothers, Tom Candiotti and, particularly, Wilbur Forrester Wood, Jr. The portly Wood started more games than any American League hurler between 1972 and 1975 and is the last A.L, pitcher to have won and lost 20 games in the same season.
On July 20 1973, he started, and lost, both games of a doubleheader. There is a workmanlike and everyman quality about the knuckleballer, who throws at roughly the same speed as us average Joes, yet manage to be a professional on the biggest stage in sports due to the mystical properties of a pitch that not even a veteran knuckleballer, or physicist, can explain or fully harness.
I relayed the tale of R.A. Dickey's career and floated the idea to my father of treating him to a Mets game on a night when Dickey was the announced starter. He swung and connected. I researched the seating map on his computer and noticed that Section 142, the Big Apple Reserved Seating overlooked the Mets and visiting teams' respective bullpens.
On Friday night, August 13, 2010, the eve of my father's birthday, we took the Long Island Railroad to Willets Point, as we had the last time I had treated him to a Mets game in the mid-1970s. I had used money I had earned cutting lawns to treat him to a Mets game on his birthday when Tom Seaver was still in his prime.
Just like then, we heard the rhythmic patter of the fans' feet as the throngs walked across the boardwalk towards the stadium and had our conversation continuously interrupted by the roar of jets taking off from LaGuardia. I bought tickets in Section 142, Row 3, and we melted into the flow of the crowd and found our seats.
Having arrived early, we witnessed the emergence of R.A. Dickey from the Mets bullpen accompanied by his catcher of choice, Henry Blanco. They were engaged in conversation and began to stretch. Soon they were joined by Phillies star left-hander, Cole Hamels and his catcher Brian Schneider.
Both pitchers began to throw close in and then moved further out. There could not be a starker contrast in styles. Hamels is a 6'4" lanky fireballer, who appears to have walked off the pages of Gentleman's Quarterly, handsomely modeling his uniform with chiseled good looks. His left arm flashed with each pitch and the ball picked up velocity, exploding into Schneider's mitt with an alarming thwack. He kept moving further and further from Schneider as he loosened up, his left-handed cannon firing. His velocity magically kept pace with the growing distance.
Dickey is as square as Hamels is angular. As opposed to the rest of the Mets, who wear their uniform pants down to the ground, Dickey hikes his blue socks up to nearly his knees in old-school fashion. His long dark curly hair flowing behind his cap, bearded face and stocky build exuding sea captain turned knuckleballer taking a break between voyages from Cold Spring Harbor to the whaling grounds to play in the beer league.
He grimaces with each stub-fingered delivery, displaying the pain that my mother's face exhibited due to a tiring forearm when sifting flour for the coffee cake earlier that day. Each pitch floated in different directions, like an aimless butterfly straining to reach the nearest flower by the most circuitous fashion. Every offering had a mind of its own seeking to discover, on the fly, which way it would break, dip or dart.
Dickey's windup and concentration suggested a man who had had too much to drink and now sought to overcompensate via a fierce determination to stay upright during the delivery of the pitch, and beyond all odds, get the ball to Blanco without sailing it over his head or beneath his feet.
Against the backdrop of the continual fireworks of Hamels' pitches exploding into Schneider's mitt, Dickey's pitches arrived in an inaudible fashion to be, if they arrived, plucked out of the air in slow motion by Blanco using his mitt like a pair of salad tongs.
I viewed my father's profile during the national anthem, his cap clasped to his chest as the sun began to set. Dickey climbed the mound and began to work. The Phillies batters were jumping out of their shoes at pitches that floated in front of their eyes at a glacial speed, ranging from 70 to 79 miles per hour. Their toes dragged in the dirt as they corkscrewed and fouled off, completely missed or popped Dickey's pitches into foul play. Two struck out in the first.
Hamels came to the mound and his crackling 94 mile per hour fastball dominated the Mets. An old-fashioned pitching duel was under way.
The twilight yielded to night as the stadium lights focused the near sell out crowd on the field. The innings began to pass by and the game seemed to take on extra dimensions. Hamels threw fireball after fireball past Mets hitters. Dickey's knuckleball floated and waffled and sailed left and right and up and down, keeping the Phillies hitters off balance.
Aside from a few good early stops by Reyes on well-struck grounders, the Phillies' greedy swings yielded pop ups, soft flies and weak grounders. By the sixth inning, the Phillies had only managed one walk. After a force out, Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies' shortstop and a strong base running threat took first.
My father commented that a weakness of a knuckleballer is that a decent base stealer will have second stolen before the catcher has a chance. But Dickey accounted for this with several deceptive pickoff attempts that nearly nailed Rollins and kept him pinned to first.
By the sixth inning, I had the temerity to mention to my father that "he's working on a no-hitter!" The large crowd buzzed in anticipation, and we felt that we were becoming part of a mythic baseball experience. We followed Dickey's every pitch as they floated at varying velocities, alternatively dipping and sailing. His sea captain comportment coupled with the mystery of his knuckleball, and his earlier cup of coffee with the Seattle Mariners brought Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poetic imagery to mind:
At first it seemed like a little speck,
And then it seemed a mist;
It moved and moved, and took at last
A certain shape, I wist.
A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!
And still it neared and neared:
As if it dodged a water-sprite,
It plunged and tacked and veered.
And, as often happens in life, imperfections come from unexpected quarters. The opposing pitcher, Hamels, uncorked a slow, looping swing, and hit a clean single over second base into right field, which seemingly hung as long as a Dickey knuckleball, undoing the no-hitter. This lengthened the Mets' streak of no-hitter futility that began upon the teams' founding in 1962, the year of my arrival.
Old R.A. continued, however, to weave his magic. Hamels ultimately wavered, very briefly, yielding a single run on consecutive doubles by David Wright and Carlos Beltran in the sixth. Later in the game, Dickey confronted Phillies pinch-hitter, the power hitting rookie hot shot, Dominic Brown, who swung so mightily we imagined we felt the breeze from his effort in centerfield.
Brown shook his head, discovering that it was the Flying Dutchman who had uncorked an illusory pitch that he had not a chance to touch. In the ninth inning, we stood along with the tens of thousands of faithful, fearing the unwinding of a 1-0 miracle, but bearing witness to the cradling of the final out in a welcoming glove.
Later, as the LIRR train slid and shimmied along the convoluted tracks towards Great Neck, my father spied the young woman reading a book across from us studying us, perhaps trying to determine whether the similarity between the middle-aged bearded man in the Mets cap and the older man next to him was familial.
"Father and son," my father said, not realizing that she had mini-headphones on and could not hear what he said. She removed them and said, "Excuse me, sir?" "Father and son," my father repeated. She nodded and smiled, and my father nodded back, with a knowing twinkle in his eye.