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The Knuckler: R.A. Dickey

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The Knuckler: R.A. Dickey

 “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.” — Psalm 69:1-3 (ESV)

The muddy, rushing waters washed over the nearly lifeless body. It sank into the murky depths—a dirty, chaotic baptism of death.

It was June 9, 2007, and R.A. Dickey had hit rock bottom in every way—spiritually, relationally and vocationally. His marriage and professional baseball career were both on life support, and the emotional baggage of a traumatic childhood felt like a millstone around his neck, dragging him into a spiritual abyss.

Dickey, a 32-year-old career minor leaguer at the time, had jumped into the Missouri River in a moment of impulsive, ill-fated hubris to prove a silly point to himself and some teammates, believing he could cross the great divide. But the river’s strong currents and undertow are no respecters of persons or situations, and soon he was sinking. Then his feet hit bottom.

Impossible to sink any lower. Nowhere to go but up. Something to push off from.

So he pushed.

Dickey didn’t die that day. As he re-emerged from the darkness, a saving hand extended toward him. One of his teammates, Grant Balfour, had tracked him for hundreds of yards along the riverbank.

The two hands interlocked. New life.

God mercifully saved Dickey from himself—and not for the first time, either. The Almighty’s plan for Dickey did not involve a drowned corpse washing ashore in Council Bluffs, Iowa. No, it involved an incredible rebirth in all respects—personally and professionally. It involved a vibrant faith, a wonderful family, a best-selling memoir, a Cy Young Award, and much more.

“Only God’s imagination,” Dickey says now, “can script a story like mine.”

The Nightmares of 1983

Robert Allen Dickey was born on Oct. 29, 1974, exactly five months after his parents, Harry and Leslie, were married in Nashville, Tenn. For many years, life was hand-to-mouth. (And fork-to-pocket. Once, to furnish their dining table, Dickey’s parents relieved the local Western Sizzlin of some of its silverware.)

Leslie and Harry struggled to make ends meet, their living conditions were far from ideal, and the marriage collapsed before R.A. turned 5.

Over the years, Harry became less involved in his son’s life, while Leslie sank into alcoholism. For R.A. and his younger sister, life was anything but harmonious in the Music City.

But the worst was yet to come.

In the summer of 1983, when Dickey was 8, a 13-year-old female babysitter sexually abused him about a half-dozen times. Later that September, an older teenage boy molested Dickey behind a rundown garage. The horrific assaults changed Dickey’s life forever.

“One of the things that happens when you’re abused, you feel less than human,” he said in an interview with I Am Second. “For me, that’s what I felt like. ‘Do I even matter?’ ‘Why should I be here?’ ‘If that can happen to me, then I surely must be less than an ant.’ All my [life] was built on trying to forget it, not tell anybody.”

Dickey was terrified and confused. How do you describe the overwhelming feelings of sadness, guilt, shame, inadequacy, loneliness, filthiness and anger that wash over you like sewer water?

Dickey didn’t know how. He thought sharing his terrible secrets with others would only bring more hurt, disgrace and rejection. So he padlocked them deep within his soul for the next 23 years.

Says Dickey now: “It’s the great lie the devil wants to perpetrate on us.”

Hope Blooms

In seventh grade, Dickey met a boy named Bo Bartholomew at his school. Soon, Bartholomew invited Dickey to an FCA Huddle and later to his house.

Dickey soaked in the gospel message he heard at FCA meetings and marveled at the love and stability he saw in the Bartholomews’ Christian household—a far cry from his dysfunctional upbringing. Later that year, Dickey put his faith in the Lord.

“I felt like He had a stronghold in my heart from then on,” Dickey says. “Whether I always pursued that was something else, but He always pursued me.”

Then, of course, there was Anne, Bo’s younger sister. From the moment he saw her and her long, blond hair, Dickey was smitten. Anne, on the other hand, remembers thinking R.A. was “goofy.”

“He told me in seventh grade that he wanted to grow up and play baseball and marry me,” says Anne, who wed Dickey in 1997.

Dickey earned state prep player of the year honors as a senior in 1993, became an All-American at the University of Tennessee, and a Team USA starter during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. That same year, the Texas Rangers made the 6-foot-3 fireballer the 18th overall draft pick.

Dickey quickly agreed to the Rangers’ $810,000 signing bonus offer—an astronomical figure for a kid who grew up using five-finger-discount silverware. All that remained was a physical examination before signing the contract.

But X-rays revealed a staggering anomaly: Dickey’s flame-throwing right arm had no ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), the elbow tissue that connects the humerus and ulna bones. The Rangers reduced their offer to $75,000.

Dickey was crushed. But he had never been a quitter, and thus began a baseball odyssey of Homeric proportions. For the first 14 years of his career, Dickey was the quintessential baseball nomad, a spirit on a seemingly endless quest to break free from the netherworld between Triple-A and the big leagues. Over his career, he and Anne have lived in more than 30 places, including Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington, Minnesota, New York and Toronto.

While R.A. plied his trade, Anne took all sorts of jobs—from senior citizen aerobics teacher to bookstore clerk—to help make ends meet.

“Those early years, I’m thankful for the journey,” Anne says. “We learned how to survive and be optimistic.”

In 2001, Dickey finally made his major league debut with Texas at age 26 but quickly got optioned back after four unsuccessful relief appearances. By April 2005, he was at a career crossroads. Both his fastball velocity and confidence were fading. The Rangers presented Dickey with a choice: become a knuckleballer or stay in the minor leagues ad infinitum.

At that point, Dickey was 30 years old with a wife, two young kids and a 5.48 ERA in 72 career major league appearances. The choice was clear: Knuckleball, here we come.

Failure and Forgiveness

After the 2005 season, Dickey spent lots of time with former knuckleballer Charlie Hough, who won 216 games in a career that spanned a quarter century. (Dickey later sought the advice of fellow knuckleballers Tim Wakefield and Phil Niekro, a Hall of Famer.) Hough helped Dickey learn the nuances of the knuckleball, a slow pitch that is only effective when the ball doesn’t spin. A knuckleballer’s greatest weapon is the sheer unpredictability of the ball each time it leaves his hand.

Dickey made the 2006 Rangers roster as a starter, but he gave up six home runs in his only major league start that year. Texas demoted him the next day.

Emotionally and spiritually, Dickey had reached rock-bottom. Both his career and marriage were floundering. In his troubled, unhealthy state, he committed marital infidelity.

Wracked with guilt and shame, Dickey contemplated suicide, once even rigging a car to asphyxiate himself with exhaust fumes. Ultimately, he never turned the key. In 2007, God again preserved Dickey’s life during his ill-fated foray into the Missouri River. As Dickey writes in his 2012 memoir, Wherever I Wind Up:

The Missouri may not be holy water and people may not go there to be baptized and seek absolution of their sins, but nobody can tell me that God didn’t use it to humble me and help me and recharge my faith and reset my focus. I jumped in to prove my worth and failed spectacularly, but wound up with one of the greatest gifts of my life. What a deal. What a day—the day God’s grace showed me how to stop clinging … and start living.

God’s love is a redemptive love. It’s a love that showers broken sinners with compassion and unmerited favor. It’s a love that sacrifices greatly for the good of another.

This is the kind of love Anne Dickey ultimately showed her wayward husband.

“When my son [Eli, now 8 years old] was born in the midst of that, I said, ‘He looks just like his daddy,’” Anne recalls. “That was so redemptive to me, and I was thinking, ‘He needs a dad.’ God is big enough to repair our marriage and give our son what my husband didn’t have [growing up]. It was all God saying, ‘I’ve got you. I’m here for you.’ … Things don’t get better with divorce.”

The Dickeys’ healing process was years in the making. R.A. began meeting with his pastor, Carter Crenshaw, and a local Christian therapist named Stephen James. In one of his counseling sessions with James, Dickey finally opened up about his sexual abuse history. The admission brought a wave of emotional liberation. Slowly, the thick, protective walls Dickey had built around his soul were beginning to crumble.

Meanwhile, he was still attempting to master a particularly persnickety pitch. He cycled through three more organizations before signing with the New York Mets as a free agent in December 2009.

Five weeks into the 2010 season, the 35-year-old proved to be a revelation for the Mets, going 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA in 27 games. He performed well the following season too.

Then came 2012.

Reaching the Summit

“In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.” — Psalm 95:4 (ESV)

Four years and seven months after he sank to abysmal depths in the Missouri River, Dickey reached astounding heights.

In January 2012, Dickey crested Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness for the Bombay Teen Challenge, a non-profit that fights human trafficking in India. As he stood atop Africa’s highest peak, he surveyed God’s breathtaking creation at 19,336 feet and felt his Creator telling him, “This world is much, much bigger than you.”

Three months later, his book was published during the opening week of the season. It is a startlingly candid, introspective account in which he pulls back the curtain on all the dark corners of his life.

He ends one chapter like this:

Once I kept secrets and hid and ran from the truth and ran from intimacy. Now I am about as close as you can get to being an open book, feeling called by God to tell the truth and be authentic and love my wife and children with everything this imperfect man can summon. Once I lived in almost terminal shame, knowing why but never wanting to unpack it. Now I live in God’s mercy and I want to unpack everything, no matter how messy and hurtful it can be. (The unpacking, ultimately, includes this book.) Do you think it’s a coincidence that when I was finally able to stop hiding as a human being, I also stopped hiding as a pitcher? I don’t.

That season, at age 37, Dickey became the first knuckleballer to win a Cy Young Award. He went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA, leading the National League in innings pitched (233.2), strikeouts (230), complete games (five) and shutouts (three).

Dickey—an English literature major at Tennessee who quotes Hemingway, Socrates and Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu in his book—views his knuckleball in allegorical terms.

“It’s a really good metaphor” for his life, he says. “I can be mechanically perfect, but when I release it, I have to surrender to the outcome. I wanted to control everything. When I couldn’t, I would spiral down to these places where no one wanted to come. With the knuckleball, you really have to surrender that. When it leaves your hand, it could do a million different things. You have to trust you’re not in control. I was trying to control a pitch I can’t. That goes deep down the rabbit hole.”

Capitalizing on Dickey’s rising value that offseason, the Mets traded him in a seven-player swap to Toronto. Since then, Dickey has been mostly steady, if unspectacular, for the Blue Jays. He finished with identical 14-13 records in 2013 and 2014 but started slowly this season, posting a 2-6 record and a 5.53 ERA through his first 11 starts.

“I’m trying not to panic,” says Dickey, a typically slow starter. “But at the same time, you want answers. The only thing with answers, you have to be patient and work hard in between starts. Once I get into a rhythm, I get better. It’s just like my spiritual life: Can I be consistent?”

Dickey is now 40 years old, an age when most major leaguers have traded their cleats for golf clubs. Yet, if anyone in baseball has found a fountain of youth, it’s knuckleballers.

But just because Dickey can keep pitching doesn’t mean he will.

“How far I think I can go and how far I’m going to go are probably different,” he says. “I don’t know when I’m going to hang it up, but I feel like my body can go until then. My family has endured a lot.”

Dickey has experienced amazing highs, terrifying lows and everything in between. Who else has overcome the horrors of sexual abuse, 14 seasons of minor league exile, a complete pitching overhaul, marital crises and suicidal thoughts to become a best-selling author, a 37-year-old Cy Young winner and, most importantly, a maturing Christian, devoted husband and loving father of four?

You just can’t script this stuff—well, actually, yes, you can. Hollywood is currently adapting Wherever I Wind Up for the silver screen.

Dickey, though, is taking everything in stride. He sees divine fingerprints all over his incredible life story.

“Yeah, I am amazed—and I’m not,” Dickey says. “I know that sounds funny. I feel loved, sure, and His grace is abundant in my life, but I also feel a responsibility. He’s given me things to do. It makes me feel like a tool in a good sense of the word, like he’s using me to make a difference this side of eternity. I feel a real purpose in that. That’s just His way. It also helps me to believe in a God that big. I’m never hopeless.”

Bringing It Home: Grace, Power & Weakness

Ready:

"I was made a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of His power.” – Ephesians 3:7

Set:

You could say Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey’s life has followed an erratic path similar to the pitch for which he is now known: the knuckleball.

From the depths of abuse and suicidal thoughts to the heights of professional and philanthropic success and familial happiness, it has been by God’s abundant grace that the seemingly unpredictable conduit of his life led him directly to a place of influence. It’s a place where he can impact the lives of others, and he doesn’t take that responsibility lightly.

"[God’s] grace is abundant in my life, but I also feel a responsibility," Dickey says. "He’s given me things to do. It makes me feel like a tool in

a good sense of the word, like He’s using me to make a difference this side of eternity. I feel a real purpose in that.”

Pain can make purpose possible. The same pain that we all endure to some degree in our own lives reveals the sovereignty and majesty of our Savior, who came to Earth to carry all of our burdens and become the sacrificial lamb in our place.

If Dickey—or any of us for that matter—hadn’t experienced the pain of life we are all prone to face, God’s power would be purposeless. It’s in our weaknesses that God’s power is perfected and we are made whole.

As God said to the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

His abundant grace and power is available to all of us if we’ll just surrender to Him and let Him meet us in the depths of our weakness. It’s there that we’ll find Him.

Go:

• Are you willing to identify your weaknesses?

• How can you invite God’s power into the places of pain and weakness in your life?

• Share your weaknesses and struggles, and how God is meeting you in the midst of them, with a trusted friend.

Workout:

• Acts 20:24

• 1 Corinthians 15:10

• 2 Corinthians 4:15

Overtime:

Heavenly Father, even in the middle of pain and weakness, I know You are working in my life. Reveal Yourself to me in new ways and encourage me to give up my striving and rest in You and Your love.

Amen.

-Joshua Cooley