|Knuckleball fits the unpredictable life of Seattle's R.A. Dickey|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 27 February 2008 17:05|
Imagine an auto mechanic without a wrench. A painter without a brush.
``A running back who doesn't have an ACL in his knee,'' Seattle Mariners trainer Rick Griffin said. ``He goes to plant and cut, and he has no stability in the joint.
``The stability component in an elbow for a pitcher is that ligament.''
That ligament is the ulnar collateral ligament. Dickey, Seattle's new right-hander, was either born without one in his right elbow or it dissolved after a tear. That's the theory some perplexed doctors have given him since his condition was discovered 12 years ago during a routine physical with the Texas Rangers.
``It was unresearched, undocumented,'' Dickey said Wednesday. ``No one had ever seen it. No one had ever heard of it.''
Yet here he is, in his 12th spring training. The former No. 1 draft choice is the reigning Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year, throwing a hard knuckleball 85 percent of the time, at up to 80 mph. He thinks he has just now perfected the dancing pitch, after 2 1/2 years of learning from knuckleball guru Charlie Hough.
Dickey is the wild card on Seattle's staff after the Mariners selected him from Minnesota in December's winter meeting draft (Rule 5). Now, he is vying for a job as a long reliever and spot starter with Horacio Ramirez, who flopped in the rotation in 2007.
Yet Dickey knows his missing ligament is ``something that defines me,'' even though it has never caused him any elbow pain.
``It's a sad thing, because a lot of people see me through those lenses,'' he said. ``And I have had to try to work real hard to get beyond that label, to get beyond the guy who doesn't have a ligament.''
Many people are rooting for Robert Allen Dickey to stick with Seattle. To become, against medical convention, the next successful pitcher relying on the unpredictable knuckleball, a list that includes Phil Niekro, Hough and Boston's Tim Wakefield.
They see the 33-year-old with a bushy beard and a warm, Southern twang as one of the sport's good guys. He has three kids - ages 6, 4 1/2 and 18 months - with wife Anne, his high school sweetheart from Nashville, Tenn. He starred at the University of Tennessee and won a bronze medal with the 1996 United States Olympic team.
``He just never gives up,'' said Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin, who drafted Dickey 18th overall while in Texas. ``If he were to now become the next Tim Wakefield, I wouldn't be surprised.''
In the summer of 1996, Dickey went to Arlington, Texas, for a physical with the Rangers' medical staff before he was to sign a contract that Melvin said included an $850,000 signing bonus.
No sweat; Dickey had never so much as missed a game while a prep pitcher and quarterback at Montgomery Bell Academy.
A half hour before the Rangers were to begin a press conference introducing their No. 1 draft choice, Melvin summoned Dickey into his office. The GM told Dickey he had failed his physical. The Rangers rescinded their contract offer.
``I was a half hour from throwing out the first pitch at a game and meeting Nolan Ryan,'' Dickey said, shaking his head. ``It's sad.''
Melvin still feels bad about it.
``In 13 years as a general manager, one of the hardest calls I've had to make is telling R.A. Dickey he had failed his physical,'' Melvin said from Brewers camp in Phoenix. ``Here's a kid a half hour away from getting $850,000. Here's a young kid who'd pitched his heart out to get to that point. I just felt bad for him, you know? ... His dream had just shattered a little bit.''
Angry and abandoned, Dickey took the only road he saw. He returned to Tennessee for his senior year. He thought his dream was gone. No team would ever draft him again without that ligament.
Hours before Dickey was due in class to start his final season at UT, Melvin called. He offered Dickey $75,000 to sign.
``It was not a lot of money, but at least he could make his decision or go through his rehab for a year without having to get a job,'' Melvin said. ``We weren't very encouraged that he would pitch. Probably there was some form of sympathy in the offer, yeah. ... I had broken his heart.''
Dickey accepted. He never needed rehabilitation or the ligament implant surgery Texas was sure was coming.
He went from Class-A in 1997 to Triple-A by '99 and reached the Rangers in 2001. In '05 with Texas, pitching coach and former Dodgers star Orel Hershiser suggested Dickey feature the knuckleball. Dickey had been using it sporadically since summer league games as a teenager. Hershiser thought it might give Dickey's sagging career hope.
Dickey continued to pitch conventionally through the '05 season. He went 16-19 in 77 games, including 33 starts, with Texas through April 6, 2006. That day, Detroit hit six home runs off him in 3 1-3 innings. Five were on the new knuckleballs. It tied a major league record for homers allowed in a start.
Dickey hasn't pitched in the majors since.
Before last season, Melvin gave him a minor league contract with the Brewers. Finally harnessing the hard knuckler and better using his fastball and curveball, Dickey went 13-6 with a 3.72 ERA at Triple-A Nashville in 2007.
Thursday, he begins his quest to make the Mariners, with a charity exhibition game against San Diego.
``We will give him a good look,'' Seattle manager John McLaren said. ``He's a versatile guy that has a trick pitch that is hard to hit. We like what we've seen. And we're anxious to see him in a game.''