Tue Mar 15 05:42pm EDT
It's like Mel Gibson crying havoc in "Braveheart" and then releasing a swarm of butterflies, or Gerard Butler in "300" shouting instead: "This is Queens!"
The right-hander, coming into his second season with the New York Mets, has mixed feelings about the expression on his face.
"It's an involuntary reflex; I'm just trying to execute a good knuckleball," Dickey said after a recent bullpen session. "And my face is going to do what it's going to do. I wish I could control it because I've seen some nasty pictures on the websites. But some of them are pretty sweet. It's not intentional, that's for sure."
It's also been hard to get a read on Dickey's pitching career. With three teams, he had a 5.43 ERA in 442 2/3 career innings coming into 2010. The 18th overall pick in the 1996 draft by the Texas Rangers, who had played every season on one-year contracts with no guarantees, seemed out of chances and time to prove himself.
Oh, well, right? At least Dickey has an education to fall back on. He's a few credits short of a degree in literature from Tennessee (he has half-jokingly compared himself to the lead character in Homer's "The Odyssey"). And there's always coaching.
But then his knuckleball, which he started to learn in 2005 after Rangers pitching coach Orel Hershiser suggested throwing it, started to dance with discipline. In 26 starts with the Mets in '10, Dickey had a 2.84 ERA (seventh in the league) and finished with strong secondary numbers.
All of a sudden, Dickey and his family — wife Anne and three kids with one on the way — didn't have to worry about living year to year anymore. In the offseason, Dickey and the Mets agreed on a two-year contract with an option for a third.
"We didn't really celebrate hard, but we did have some rejoicing," Dickey said. "We didn't go out and buy a new car or anything. I bought a couple of iPhones. We had never had an iPhone and we had wanted one for a long time. Now it allows us to do FaceTime (video conferencing) with the kids. It's great. But that was our indulgence."
Dickey turned 36 in October, but estimates that his arm is "probably closer to 27" years old because knuckleballers like him are "operating at about 75 or 80 percent capacity" of conventional pitchers.
"It's kind of like dog years, you know, but in reverse," Dickey said. "You do feel like you can keep going for quite some time."
So he's just getting started. And yet, Dickey already has become quite popular in New York, to the point that some of the city's famous residents want to meet him.
That's actor/comedian Robert Klein talking with Dickey in the dugout. Klein didn't want to shake David Wright's(notes) hand or that of Jose Reyes(notes) or Jason Bay(notes) (perhaps because he already has). He wanted to meet R.A. Dickey.
Dickey has an idea why people have taken to him.
"There's a common bond that I feel I share with a fan," Dickey said. "Because [I] do something that's hard to do, but I think it's the one thing that the average fan can see done and think to themselves, 'I might be able to do that!' And then they go home and practice in the backyard. There's a real kind of underlying bond there."
But being a knuckleballer makes him different from other pitchers — and not just in terms of endurance. Dickey is sensitive to inconsistencies on a baseball's surface that other pitchers wouldn't notice or mind.
"Whether it's a flat spot on the ball or a scuff or what have you," Dickey said. "I don't want a scuff because I can't control it. It's hard enough to throw a knuckleball for a strike with a perfect sphere, much less a sphere that's got a scuff on the side."
Conversely, most pitchers smile inside when they find a ball with a scuff.
"Most conventional pitchers, if they get a ball back with a scuff on it, they should know what to do with that in an effort to help amplify the movement," Dickey said.
Such differences make it hard for Dickey, or any knuckleballer, to relate to other pitchers.
"I tell you what, it is a small fraternity and because it's small, it can sometimes be a lonely place," Dickey said. "Because I can't turn to Mike Pelfrey(notes) or Jon Niese and talk about mechanics or pitching because I do something so different. So it's important that I have people in my life that I can lean on when I'm scuffling or in a funk of some kind."
"Those are the three guys I've leaned on the most," Dickey said. "I sure have been able to glean a lot of wisdom from the guys I have talked to."
Dickey, appreciative for the help, already is passing on what he's learned to other aspiring knuckleballers.
"That's what was done for me and modeled for me," Dickey said. "I would consider it an honor to do that for someone else. In fact, I've had a couple of guys contact me already. I threw with a guy who's playing independent ball trying to do it."
Hopefully, Dickey the instructor can pass on what he has learned, along with what seems to come naturally: His knuckleball face.