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Pitcher R.A. Dickey on his love of literature and why he wrote 'Throwing Strikes' for young readers

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Image Credit: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Man, that photo stings.

Knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey was one of the few bright spots for the fourth-place New York Mets last season, winning 20 games and the Cy Young Award as the National League’s best pitcher. So of course, when the 38-year-old pitcher couldn’t come to new terms with Mets management in the off-season, he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays, where he’s bound to be even better in 2013. (It’s a Mets thing.)

Dickey was an amazing story even before last season’s heroics. Once a blazing fireballer whose professional career seemed stalled in the high minor leagues, Dickey became a knuckleballer out of sheer desperation. It took years to master, years that dragged him and his growing family across minor-league ballparks in places like Tulsa, Tacoma, and Rochester. When he finally landed in New York in 2010 as a 35-year-old castoff, little was expected of him. But in three seasons, his darting knuckleball that had had a mind of its own finally began to cooperate and he became one of baseball’s most formidable hurlers.

But that wasn’t even half of the real R.A. Dickey story. Before the 2012 season, the former English Literature major co-authored a memoir titled, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball. Along with the myriad of challenges he faced in his baseball career, Dickey wrote about dark episodes of his childhood when he was sexually abused. He was only 8 years old when the alleged crimes occurred, and he never said a word to anyone about them — not to his divorced parents, to the police, to his wife — until he was 32 years old. The reception to his autobiography was positive, but Dickey wanted to adapt it for readers who can benefit most from his life lessons: children who might be enduring similar experiences and not know where to turn for help. Throwing Strikes: My Quest for Truth and the Perfect Knuckleball comes out today. The Blue Jays’ new ace pitcher checked in with EW after pitching eight spring-training innings against the Phillies on Friday to talk about his life and love of literature.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you think to adapt your memoir, Wherever I Wind Up for a younger audience?
R.A. DICKEY: When I was putting together the first four or five chapters [of the first book], I felt like it was going to be something I wanted to do because when the stuff that happened to me happened, I was young, and I didn’t necessarily have a resource of any kind that would have helped equip me to make different choices, and this book will do that. So, for ages 7 to 14, basically, if you’ve been a victim of sexual abuse, or if you’ve grown up in a divorced home, or had an experience with alcoholism, it gives you real tangible things that you can do that might help your journey. That, to me, may be more important than the first book.

You mention in the new book that you’re a dedicate journal keeper. When did you start putting your thoughts on paper?
I started writing when I was 14 or 15. There’s something very permanent about the written word. Even then, I was drawn to the dynamic between what I was feeling inside and how I would write about it.

I assume you went back to the journals to help write these two books. Did you find the experience of re-reading your thoughts during the toughest times of your life and career — like when people doubted or gave up on you — cathartic or difficult?
It was difficult. I think I eventually got to the point of catharsis, but when I began, it was hard to write about the most difficult parts of your life and kind of baring your self to people. You take a big risk in doing that. You’re right to say that there were a lot of people who would doubt [me]. I did have people say, you know, “You don’t throw the ball hard enough,” or “You come from this family,” and “You shouldn’t be able to do this or that.” But what a great lesson. And I got to tell you, I also had people at very key moments of my life supporting me in a way that was transforming.

Not only your extended family, but the Jedi Council of Knucklers, as you called them in the book: Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, and Tim Wakefield. They all helped you learn the finer things about the elusive pitch that helped you became an All-Star. Now that you’re a Cy Young Award winner, do you find other pitchers approaching you the same way with questions? Are you now a Jedi Master?
If we’re going to stick with the Star Wars metaphors, I see myself much more as a Padawan. I still have a lot to learn and am constantly questing to try to learn all that I can.

Your book is full of Star Wars references. Are your children fans of the trilogies?
My oldest son is 6, and he and I have watched them together. Not all of them [yet]. It’s kind of like a gift to get on your seventh birthday, your eight birthday — you get to watch the next installment. It’s like a coming-of-age type of thing. He’s seen a couple of them and really likes them, and we do light sabers and play with the figures and do all that stuff. I really enjoy it. More than that, I enjoy getting to talk to him about the dichotomy of a human being, you know, that there’s an evil in us and a good in us and how that manifests. Star Wars teaches us so much about the human condition.

Is your locker stall the clubhouse library?
Well, let’s look. I’m standing in front of my locker… There’s a book that’s facedown, about a third of the way through, trying to keep my page, a memoir called This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff that I’m enjoying. I’ve got the Best American Short Stories from 2009. I’ve got a book that I’ve read somewhat called Arrows of the Night by Richard Bonin, about a guy in Iraq. So I’ve got a few things going.

Do you notice other teammates reading as much as you, or are you the PhD of the group?
Well, I wouldn’t go that far. But this is my time to do this, because there’s some downtime where I can read a few pages. It really helps me get centered. I enjoy it. It’s very calming to me. It just enriches my life. I’m not saying these other guys don’t have a very rich life — I don’t know what they do with some of their free time — but I don’t see a lot of people reading. Let’s just say that.

Is your son and his siblings starting to share your interest in literature?
I have two sons. One’s 6, one’s 2. My daughters are 11 and 9, and I read them The Hobbit when they were 7, 8 years old. And I read to them The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, and some books like that. Now my oldest in particular has a real passion for reading and she’s reading all kinds of young-adult books. So we’re able to have good conversations about literature and it’s real fun for me.

Before you broke through with the Mets, you had periods of success that were often dismissed because there was a conventional baseball wisdom that knucklers can’t be trusted. Has that changed after last season?
I think there’s camps around the industry of baseball that still discount it, that don’t think it’s legitimate or dependable. But I’ve seen a sway in the stereotype that I had to overcome when I first became a knuckleballer, in that people now give me the benefit of the doubt. If you’re struggling, it’s not an immediate “I-told-you-so” now. It’s more like, “He’ll eventually get it; we know what he can do.” It’s not a doomsday any more. That’s nice.

I have to ask you about the World Baseball Classic, in which the Americans were recently eliminated early for the third consecutive time.
We’re no better than a .500 baseball team in the WBC.

Which I think surprises people. You played for the Olympic team in 1996 and then again for Team USA this spring. Is there something the U.S. program needs to be doing differently structurally?
Well, it’s tough, the timing makes it difficult. A lot of the teams that we’re playing against have been playing winter ball for a long time. I think there’s something to the timing of that tournament that kind of makes it tough on some American guys who don’t necessarily play winter ball or feel like they need to get their bodies ready in time. Because as much as your heart wants to step on the gas in that tournament, your body just can’t catch up — especially if you’re older. You have a set routine and regiment that gets your body where it needs to be over a course of spring training, and here you are forced to step into a place that’s really intense.

The answer to your question: How do we do it better? I’m not sure. I’m really not sure. I’m willing to spend some time to think about it because I care about us making a good impression on the world. We’re kind of against the 8-ball: If we win, we should have. If we don’t, it’s an embarrassment because it’s the great American pastime, right? But the thing about baseball is, in tournament play, especially international tournament play, talent doesn’t always win out. It’s heart, spirit, desire. If you saw any of the games, you saw the Dominicans and the Puerto Ricans on the field from the first inning on celebrating every strikeout. And that’s just not necessarily the culture of baseball in the U.S.

You’re now 38, correct?
38.

That’s only about 26 for a knuckleballer.
[Laughs] It’s kind of like dog years, except reverse.

How many more years can you see yourself pitching?
Well, I have a three-year contract here with Toronto, with an option, so I’m going to cross that bridge when I get there. If you’ve read any of the book, you understand that something that is very important to me is trying to live in the moment as best I can, and that means I try not to project out where I’ll be in four or five years. I’m surely getting older, and I will tell you that I owe it to my family, especially my oldest daughter who will become a teenager soon, to be around for those years, and I don’t know how that will manifest. But I’m willing to say that I’m going to play out this contract and see where we are.

Read more:
R.A. Dickey talks ‘Knuckleball documentary
‘Knuckleball’ trailer

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