"And then one day
a carrot came up
just as the little boy
had known it would."
– "The Carrot Seed," 1945
The strangers in the van looked sideways at the large man taking off his shirt. R.A. Dickey had spent almost an entire day in January flying halfway around the world to arrive in Tanzania. He couldn't see Mount Kilimanjaro in the darkness, all 19,341 feet of her to conquer, so Dickey stripped off his top to feel just that much closer to his latest adversary.
He'd read "Snows of Kilimanjaro" early in his teenage years. Hemingway spoke to Dickey. The opening image of a frozen leopard carcass felt mystical. One day, he told himself, he would go there. Marriage and children and his career as a baseball player always kept him from making the trip. Now life was different. Finally different. And it was time.
A career with no hope had found traction thanks to a pitch every bit as magical as that leopard, the knuckleball. Dickey survived more than a decade in the major leagues without an ulnar collateral ligament, the collagenous band that holds together the elbow, and he found success with a pitch considered gimmicky until hitters started swinging, missing and marveling.
Even less hopeful was Dickey's life, unpacked in a fearless memoir, "Wherever I Wind Up," which horrifies, amuses and enraptures for 340 pages. Dickey's parents divorced. His mom drank to excess. A female babysitter molested him. So did a boy on vacation. He suffered through a listless relationship, cheated on his wife, considered suicide, enlisted a therapist, prayed and saved his career, marriage and future. He learned vulnerability and openness, found the courage to throw a pitch with no rhyme or reason and tell his painful story. Still, as he drove to slay one of God's wonders, shirtless, ripe and ready, some familiar feelings returned.
"The fear of not making it. The fear of the symptoms choking you. The fear of failure," Dickey says. "All of those are present, sure. … You just try to walk through them and hold what's scary about them and hold what's potentially beautiful about them at once. I'm not without fear. The real answer to that is: I'm thankful I'm in a place in my life where I'm able to take risks that I never had the equipment to take."
The cathartic manuscript and success with the New York Mets emboldened him to embark on the hike with Cleveland Indians pitcher Kevin Slowey, Mets bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello and a dozen guides. Mets officials urged Dickey to reconsider. He couldn't, not after using the climb to raise more than $100,000 for Bombay Teen Challenge, a group that tries to rescue women from sexual slavery in the red-light district of Mumbai.
As much as this was about a cause, the climb engaged Dickey's adventure gene. He'd spent his youth getting in fights. As a minor leaguer trying to claw back to the majors, he'd dared himself to swim across the Missouri River and almost drowned. Kilimanjaro brought together pieces of his lives old and new with the curiosity that spanned both.
"Being caught up in something that the world had to offer, that unless you took the risk you would never see – that's living," Dickey says. "This mountain is here. It's ours to climb. What's it going to be like? We can do it – maybe. It was a quest."
And that quest was for a feeling, a moment, something that he could bottle forever at the highest point in his life, just in case he ever again sees the low ones.
They say this is improbable. And it certainly seems that way. R.A. Dickey, who for the first seven years of his career carried a 5.43 ERA, leads the major leagues with 11 victories. He's averaging a strikeout an inning, opponents are batting .196 against him, his ERA is 2.31 and his knuckleball sashays in ways physics cannot explain. Not only has Dickey taken an almost-impossible-to-master pitch and done so at 37 years old, he is controlling it better than any of his knuckleballing predecessors.
Here's the thing: It's not that crazy, this perfect marriage of man and craft. To throw a knuckleball is to be desperate, to have this primal instinct of subsistence. Nobody turns to the knuckleball unless everything else is irreparable. It is the last-ditch pitch. Dickey lived that. As he rescued himself from his past, he abided by the idea that with time, something good will grow. Except his time in baseball was waning, and he needed that something.
He had made a career of a defective arm. He could make one of a singular pitch.
"Survival was the impetus," he says. "From the onset, it's all about survival. It's about the only thing you've ever known being taken away and you fighting tooth and nail. And I surrendered."
The first time Robert Allen Dickey threw a knuckleball was in seventh grade. He and his friend Tiger Harris used to play a simple game of catch: Whoever dropped the ball first lost. After some experimenting, Dickey felt a knuckleball leave his right hand true. A perfect one joyrides through the air without rotating and breaks however it pleases. A fastball goes straight. A sinker rides armside. A slider does the opposite. A changeup dips. A curveball arcs. A cutter jiggles gloveside. A knuckleball can dance left or right, big or small, early or late, its whims left to fate.
"I knew right then I was never going to stop throwing it," Dickey says. "I may not get it just like that one came out, but I was always going to play with it."
In high school, he never needed it during a game. Dickey threw it once in college at Tennessee. On the 1996 Olympic team, with which he won a bronze medal, he mixed in a few. The Texas Rangers drafted him 18th overall in 1996 and expected him to move through the minor leagues quickly with his power sinker. A team trainer noticed a magazine cover on which Dickey's arm was bent awkwardly. The Rangers ran tests, found no UCL and cut its $810,000 bonus offer to $75,000. He signed anyway.
Dickey threw three or four knuckleballs a game in the minor leagues and with the Rangers' big-league club. "I just wanted them to see something that looked spooky," he says. It was little more than a show-me pitch, there to distract hitters from a fastball that over nearly a decade lost most of its velocity. In April 2005, the Rangers' staff asked to meet with Dickey. His manager, Buck Showalter, proposed the idea of him going exclusively to the knuckleball, and pitching coach Orel Hershiser was trying to sell Dickey on it.
"He was the ideal candidate," says Showalter, now the Baltimore Orioles manager. "He was a failed starter at a high level. He had a short stride. He had the knuckleball already. You can't just take anybody and convert him into a knuckleballer. It doesn't work that way."
Dickey didn't know if it would work this way, either. To him, the knuckleball was like a lunch break during a long business day. He was 30 and would be starting over, a luxury only baseball affords. In no other sport can a player undergo a wholesale reinvention midcareer. Dickey's wife, Anne, was at home with their two daughters, and even though she knew it meant more time in the minor leagues, she supported his knuckleball-only endeavor. Dickey, too, needed to believe this was going to work – to believe in God, believe in himself, believe in something. He read a lot. Not just Hemingway. Dickey liked adventure novels, books that lived in fantasy worlds where special things happened.
More than all of those, he admired a children's book called "The Carrot Seed," by Ruth Krauss. Its first page read: "A little boy planted a carrot seed." Then: "His mother said, 'I'm afraid it won't come up.' " And: "His father said, 'I'm afraid it won't come up.' "
The knuckleball was Dickey's carrot seed. He threw thousands of practice knucklers against walls and in batting cages, retraining an arm that knew only one way to pitch. He studied his index and middle fingernails, finding the perfect length on each. (Index about a millimeter longer, neither showing too much white.) Dickey kept both pristine with the glass file given to him by his mother-in-law, lest he fray an edge and become the first pitcher ever to lose his career to mismanaged fingernails.
The nails cooperated. The pitch didn't. It was too inconsistent, too ornery. The Rangers sent Dickey to Triple-A after one miserable start in 2006. He couldn't wrangle the pitch there, either. His seed wasn't growing. Anne was pregnant with their first son. Dickey was depressed, and it worsened with his unfaithfulness. He returned home and considered quitting. He would enroll at Tennessee, finish his degree, study to become an English professor. Only one team reached out to him that offseason: the Milwaukee Brewers, whose general manager, Doug Melvin, had drafted Dickey in Texas.
"I tell all our scouts to watch the movie 'Seabiscuit,' " Melvin says, "and then go out and find him."
Dickey, one scout reported back, liked to call himself "Seabiscuit." And Melvin had an affinity for knuckleballers. He remembers one named Daniel Boone, a 5-foot-8 left-hander and direct descendant of the frontiersman. Boone was a former player turned construction worker who paid to participate in an amateur league. Five years earlier, when Boone was finishing out his minor-league career, Phil and Joe Niekro, the modern godfathers of the knuckleball, taught Boone its intricacies. Melvin, then Baltimore's farm director, signed Boone and saw him crack the Orioles' roster that September.
"I believed in R.A.," Melvin says. "I guess I just didn't believe in him enough to put him on our roster."
An entire year with the Brewers' Triple-A affiliate in his hometown of Nashville fulfilled Dickey's needs nonetheless. He strengthened his marriage with Anne. He started seeing a therapist named Stephen James, in whom he confided his darkest secrets. His feel for the knuckleball improved enough that he spent most of the next two seasons in the major leagues with the Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins.
When the Mets called in 2010, Dickey's equipment was finally fine-tuned. His candidness with James imbued in him an ability to throw his knuckleball with pluck. He found that added oomph didn't worsen his control, and he started to shed his journeyman tag with a 2.84 ERA, seventh in the National League. The Mets guaranteed him nearly $8 million for the 2011 and '12 seasons, and his sequels have been worthy of a contract far bigger. A strong outing Friday against the Los Angeles Dodgers would bolster his case for starting the All-Star game.
When Dickey threw back-to-back one-hit shutouts earlier this month, he pushed the Yankees off the back pages of the tabloids. He was a miracle man throwing a miracle pitch, and the relationship he'd cultivated with her – he has indeed taken to personifying it with a female pronoun – paralleled the growth in his personal life.
"I appreciate its beauty," Dickey says. "I appreciate that it can be moody. That's why I always refer to it as a she. She feels more like a sister in a lot of ways. You don't always get along, but when you do, it's harmony. I like thinking about the knuckleball like that. It makes for a very rich experience.
"I had a head start. A lot of my story was about adversity. Being a knuckleballer, that's inevitable. Most people turn to the knuckleball out of desperation. They're having to accept they're no longer who they once were."
Seven hours from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, R.A. Dickey forgot the guides' warning. Things don't operate the same at nearly 20,000 feet above sea level as they do on terra firma. Keep everything close, they were told. Slowey took that literally; he fell asleep with his iPod flush against his skin, underneath three layers of clothing. Dickey left his out to the elements, and 10 minutes into the final ascent, it froze.
Instead of the perfect playlist providing the soundtrack to their final hike, Dickey would have nothing but his own thoughts. He was tired and thirsty and beginning to question himself. Should he do this? Could he make it? And what would differentiate him from the people he saw coming down toward him, unable to do on the seventh day what they'd done the previous six?
The existence of a knuckleball pitcher is one of total consumption, and Dickey's mind wandered to baseball. Nothing wiled time away quite like his game. So he began to think about the 2012 season, about the lineups he would face in the NL East. He visualized his opponents, one through nine, every pitch another step, every out a triumph of his will, every win a seed sprouting from the ground.
Nobody got a hit.
Anyone who tries to climb Mount Kilimanjaro learns several truths. About 40 percent of people stop shy of the peak. A few people a year die attempting the summit. Almost everybody suffers from altitude sickness. The cold chokes. The wind lashes. Sleep comes by accident. It is a test far more mental than physical. The mountain forces you to ask why, and Dickey satisfied himself with three answers. For the girls of Mumbai. For his family, who he called daily from a satellite phone. For himself.
He remembered those three things every morning when the lead porter, a man named Joshua, unzipped Dickey's tent and said: "Tea time!" Every day was the same. Tea in the morning, soup and crusty bread at mealtime. Zucchini soup, potato soup, leek soup – it all tasted the same as the altitudes and stakes grew taller.
Off they'd go for climbs that lasted most of the day. They talked a lot at the beginning of the week. Toward the end, air became currency and words became sparse. Never did they stray from their order: Dickey in front, Slowey patrolling the middle, Racaniello the caboose.
"It just made sense to the three of us," Slowey says. "R.A. asked us to come. This was his thing. We were a part of it, but it was very much his. We wanted him to be the first guy who was up. He deserved that."
Two days before the group was supposed to reach the summit, Slowey remembers crawling out of his tent and looking down. He saw clouds beneath him. They were close. Altitude sickness started to suffocate them, too. They weren't hungry. Their thirst was voracious. Slowey woke up one night certain it was morning. He checked a clock. It was midnight. Up was down. Forward was backward. Helicopters circled the mountain to pick up those who couldn't make it. That wasn't going to be them. It couldn't be.
On summit day, the porters woke up the three at 10 p.m. If they wanted to see the sun rise, they needed to leave when it was pitch black. Others were doing the same. Just down the mountain, Slowey saw trains of tiny headlamps bobbing in the darkness. The closer they got to the top, the fewer lights they saw below.
The porters kept reminding Dickey: "Pole, pole" – slowly, slowly. He fought the altitude. It started to win. Dickey sat on a rock. He was less than 1,000 feet from the summit. A porter poured him a cup of tea. Dickey tried to grab it and couldn't. He chewed up a Diamox, medicine to combat altitude sickness.
"I thought I was moments away from surrendering," Dickey says. "I didn't. Once I stood up and took a couple deep breaths, I was ready."
They climbed another 400 feet to Stella Point. People were on the ground vomiting. They would get credit for the summit. Another 600 feet up, however, was Uhuru Peak, the true summit, and neither fatigue nor altitude sickness was stopping Dickey, Slowey and Racaniello.
"We got up there right as the sun was rising over the eastern edge of the mountain," Dickey says. "For a moment, for a split second, you felt like you were the only person on earth. I removed myself from the group. My hands were freezing. I couldn't even hold a camera. I just remember feeling so small, and it feeling so good to feel so small, like there was something in me that could connect with the majesty of what I was seeing in a way I've never been able to connect with anything in nature before."
His quest was complete. The feeling, the moment – this was it. For so long, R.A. Dickey had been searching. He'd found his family. He'd found professional success. He'd found himself. He wanted to shout it out from atop a mountain, only his body wouldn't let him. And that was OK.
Today he embraces the fear. It's not about the knuckleball, a pitch that at any moment can disappear, nor is it about his childhood, which consumed Dickey for so long he had no choice but to abandon it. He worries instead about his misgivings as a person, the small things that differentiate good from bad.
"I'm afraid that the man I want to be may not necessarily match up with the man that I am," Dickey says. "I'm always growing, but ultimately I have this picture of who God wants me to be. I know myself well enough to know I'm one mistake away from being in a bad place.
"I feel like I spent a lifetime living somewhere else – down the road five years, in the past with abuse, with mistakes. Today is what I have left to accomplish. If I do that, there is no way I'll look back and be dissatisfied. The fear doesn't monopolize me. "
He's got four happy and healthy children now. Lila turned 9 last week, and Dickey took her tubing. He's bringing her and his eldest daughter, Gabriel, to India this offseason. He wants to visit a Bombay Teen Challenge campus outside of Mumbai and show his girls an unfamiliar world. They're bound to see it at some point. He'd like to be there to explain things like sex trafficking and abuse, to help them grow as people like he has.
Dickey's relationship with Anne just hit 25 years. The Mets love him. He appreciates New York. His mom, now sober, is part of his family's life. He gets along well enough with his dad.
"When I think of the accomplishments both ephemeral in terms of striking someone out and spread out and more significant in being a great husband and father, the way he has described it to me is a willingness to be open about who he is," Slowey says. "That's something I've tried to learn how to do. His idea, the way he has thought about his life in the last decade or so, is being who he really is. Not being afraid of failure or how someone might react. When you're that way in your life, it's easier to be that way in any endeavor – and on the mound – than it is otherwise."
Since the beginning of the season, Doug Melvin has received about 30 emails from people whose kids throw knuckleballs. They've seen R.A. Dickey. They believe they can be like him. Never mind that about one pitcher a generation succeeds with the knuckleball. Stories like Dickey's trigger legions of dreamers.
There is no revolution afoot. Dickey is a freak. He throws his knuckleball like nobody else, with vengeance and authority. If Tim Wakefield's knuckleball was a butterfly, Dickey's is a bumblebee. It hums along at 77.1 mph. He threw one 81.9 mph. A good knuckleball already is unfair. A hard knuckleball is criminal.
And as much as he wants to credit his phalanges – "I have two of the nicest fingernails in baseball," he says, "two I'd put up against anybody's" – the reality is much simpler: The old Dickey, the broken one, never could've thrown this pitch with the requisite confidence to thrive. This is no chicken-and-egg debate. Success didn't find Dickey until Dickey found success.
It shouldn't be fleeting, either. Wakefield pitched until he was 45, Tom Candiotti until he was 41, Phil and Joe Niekro until they were 48 and 43, respectively. And to think: The same pitcher who six years ago tied a major-league record by giving up six home runs in a game could be in the midst of the most dominant season ever by a knuckleballer.
Dickey remembers that day. It prompted his meeting with Showalter, Hershiser and the Rangers' bullpen coach, Mark Connor. His knuckleball wheezed over the plate at 67 mph, and the Detroit Tigers hit a half-dozen home runs off him in 3 1/3 innings. Showalter couldn't help but remember it as Dickey was pitching his second one-hitter, a 13-strikeout masterpiece against the Orioles on June 18.
Before Baltimore left town, Dickey wanted to give Showalter a thank-you gift. He went to buy a copy of his book and inscribe it. That felt cheesy. Anne suggested something else. Dickey meandered over to the children's section. He picked up a copy of "The Carrot Seed."
"A clubbie came in and said, 'R.A. wants to see you in the runway,' " Showalter says. "We went back into an enclave. He basically just said, 'This book says it all.' "
It's not just his parents who tell the boy it's not going to grow. Everyone does. He doesn't listen. The boy waters the land and picks the weeds because he believes underneath the soil something is growing, something special and different and uniquely his.
And then one day a carrot came up just as the little boy had known it would.
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