SAN FRANCISCO – When Ramon Ortiz spiked his baseball glove in frustration, in fear, in sadness, in despair, R.A. Dickey wasn't far. When Ortiz sat on his haunches in front of all those people and wept, Dickey curled up a little inside.
"Empathy, more than anything," Dickey said.
Three days ago, Ortiz, just a guy anymore, threw a pitch, felt something bad and permanent in his arm, and didn't want to go. Ortiz is 40. He's a No. 7 or 8 starter in a league that generally goes with five. A few steps from a pitcher's mound in San Diego, he sagged into inconsolable mourning.
That he would care so much, it was heartbreaking. In a way, it was sweet. He wanted to stay. He wanted to pitch. He wanted to play.
From the dugout rail in San Diego, not a hundred feet away, Dickey watched. How many times, for so many reasons, he'd believed he was done. How often he'd wanted to do the same, to fall upon his own shadow and grieve.
"It's not often in a situation like that you can say you've walked a mile in another's shoes," he said. "But there's a lot I shared with him, grinding it out, getting back to the big leagues. The feeling is, an opportunity that's wasted."
Dickey winced at the thought of Ortiz, a good enough guy who'd pitched 45 times in the major leagues since 2007, and many times more than that in the minor leagues, and for a while in Japan. And then maybe it was over.
"It was tough," Dickey said.
Dickey is 38. He'd resurrected his career from nothing, a story retold so many times it might not feel like his own anymore, like he himself was part-man, part-manuscript. And then a man about his age believes his passion has been taken away, and Dickey is back in a gym jamming his fingernails into a baseball, thinking it might not be much but it's slightly more productive than a good cry, or at least better than the stacking boxes in a warehouse or making donuts. He'd tried that.
"The perception," he said, "is that we don't pour our hearts into what we do. And nothing could be further from true."
Ortiz might actually be OK, turns out. To everyone's surprise, most certainly his, his elbow appears to have survived. It doesn't mean he'll pitch in the big leagues again, or even pitch at all. But he will have a chance to recover.
Really, it's about all the game ever offers.
Three days later, Dickey took the ball on a sunny afternoon at AT&T Park. A strangely cool breeze swept toward right field and McCovey Cove beyond it. The Toronto Blue Jays have been terrible, Dickey right along with them. Along with Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes, Dickey was going to make the Blue Jays relevant again, and instead they've been disappointing again. He'd suffered from neck and back spasms, and so his knuckleball suffered right along with him, as did his ERA, which was 5.18 at first pitch.
Matched up with Barry Zito, so that the game at times seemed to move in slow motion, Dickey rediscovered a reliable knuckleball, if indeed there is such a thing. He threw it soft for strikes. He threw it hard for strikes. It broke sharp and late. By the time manager John Gibbons came to get him with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, Dickey had allowed only two hits and two walks and no runs in what would be a 4-0 win over the San Francisco Giants that the Blue Jays sorely needed.
"I didn't even know where the ball was going to go," Giants leadoff hitter Gregor Blanco said. "A lot of movement. It was unbelievable."
Dickey threw 103 pitches, is all.
"He was just about perfect today," Gibbons said. "He had it all going on. That's him at his best right there."
Johnson had pitched seven strong innings the night before. It was in a loss, and it was only his fifth start all season, his first since April 21. But if the Blue Jays are going to make anything of 2013, it will have to be like this, with Johnson pitching well followed by Dickey pitching well and then Buehrle. Their starting pitching has been the worst in the American League, which is why they are in danger of being dismissed from the AL East so soon.
They'll have to recover, which is exactly what the game grants. No more.
"From a team standpoint," Dickey said, "I don't think anybody in here has lost hope that we can get back into this thing. There are so many games left. Baseball is a beautiful game like that. You know, we're hopeful we can play better baseball, but we can't keep saying that. Sometime soon, we gotta strap it on and pull it out of the mire."
It'll be the pitching. It'll have to be. Dickey grinned.
"I would go on to say," he said, "I don't think we've seen the last of Ramon Ortiz."
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