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Dickey's life an open book

R.A. Dickey thinks of that night often. He sees it unfold in his memory, pitch after pitch. He can hear the sounds of a sparse crowd on one of those harsh Thursdays in April, when only the hardiest souls show up at Coca Cola Field. He can even feel it in his bones.

"It was really cold, really cold," Dickey said Friday by telephone from his home in Manhasset. "It was frigid."

He also recalls it with a warm fondness, as a night that was close to perfect. Two years ago, on April 29, Dickey gave up a bloop single to the first Durham batter. Then he retired the next 27 hitters in a 4-0 Bisons shutout. Ken Oberkfell, his manager at the time, called it the most dominating pitching performance he'd ever seen.

Dickey was gone a few weeks later. He and his fluttering knuckleball went to the Mets, where at age 35 he ended a 14-year minor league odyssey and became a mainstay in the big leagues. He has been the Mets' most dependable starter ever since. Still, that magical game in Buffalo is never far from his mind.

"It's a game I try to visualize in my head," Dickey said, "as a day when I felt mechanically in charge of my knuckleball. You have to find a way to repeat your mechanics without taxing your arm. One way is to repeat it in your mind. I do it quite a bit with that particular game. If the mind is a computer, that game is on my desktop.

"I remember the sensation of the ball in my hand," he said, "the way it felt on my fingernails, the feeling of mechanically being in the perfect place."

That has not always been easy for Dickey, finding a place where he can feel settled and safe in his career and his life. His was a difficult and painful journey, one he chronicles in his inspiring memoir, "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest For Truth, Authenticity And The Perfect Knuckleball," which is co-authored by Wayne Coffey.

The book has been favorably received. Sports Illustrated said it might be the best non-fiction baseball book since Jim Bouton's "Ball Four." They do have the knuckleball in common. But in some ways, Dickey's book is better. Bouton's baseball diary pulled back the curtain on the baseball myth and showed the players as flawed humans.

Dickey writes about the struggle to become a better man, husband and father. He has to confront a troubled past, which includes his parents' divorce, his mother's alcoholism, and the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of two separate tormenters when he was 8 years old.

He also has to deal with his own infidelity and distant behavior toward his wife, Anne, a high school sweetheart who stood by him during countless stumbles and rejections in his baseball career. They have four children.

"I never wanted to write an athletic autobiography," said Dickey, who studied English literature at Tennessee. "I knew that was part of what would sell it to a publisher, but that's not the story I wanted to tell. Wayne was the perfect collaborator. He knew the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to write a lot of it myself. I just wanted to put out a piece of literature. I wanted to write a book that could be appreciated by a baseball player, a fan, by any human being.

"That's what's great about the written word," he said. "There's always something you can take and apply to your own story. I'm fascinated by narrative form, the telling of a story. You take something simple, like 'Of Mice And Men' or 'My Name Is Asher Lev'. Any good piece of literature is a story that can relate to more than one population of people, and that was my goal."

Much of Dickey's story reads like fiction. He is 8 years old when a babysitter takes him to his room, sweeps the stuffed animals off the bed and sexually abuses him. It happens several other times. Years later, he sees the girl, who pretends to have no memory of it.

Dickey gets drafted 18th overall by the Rangers and pitches on the 1996 Olympic team. Texas is ready to offer him an $800,000 signing bonus. But a doctor is troubled by the way his right arm hangs at his side in a photo on the cover of Baseball America. The Rangers discover he has no ulnar collateral ligament and cut the bonus to $75,000.

Dickey bounces around the minor leagues. He becomes a knuckleballer, with uneven success. Teams keep giving up on him. He begins having self-destructive thoughts and contemplates suicide. In 2007, on a road trip to Omaha, Dickey tries to swim across the Missouri River. His teammates root him on, make wagers. He drifts down the river, gets caught in the nasty current and nearly drowns. Teammate Grant Balfour is smart enough to run down the riverbank and pulls him from the river.

A change comes over Dickey after his brush with death. He realizes he needs to be truer to himself, more open and authentic. He reconciles with his wife, gets therapy, reaffirms his Christianity. After years of silence, he reveals the shameful secret he's been carrying around since he was a boy: The sexual abuse.

When he comes out of that river, he realizes it's time to flow with life, to stop being afraid of really living. In the book, he quotes the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, who said, "By letting it go, it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond the winning."

Let it go. That's what you do with the knuckleball, right? Let it go and trust the air currents. It's an ideal metaphor. Dickey said his life and his knuckleball were in a simultaneous state of chaos. You might say that when he got control of his life, the truth set his knuckleball free.

"My transcendence as a baseball player completely parallels my growth as a human being," Dickey said. "There wasn't a more perfect metaphor. In my eyes, it was a very divine occurrence. It was almost too perfect. I know it. It's crazy how it fit so perfectly.

"You have to be able to risk quite a bit to throw the pitch well," he said. "You stand out there and throw 68 miles an hour to the best hitters in the world. It's a scary thing. And it's a risk to trust another human being for a lifetime, it really is. It's a poetic relationship."

You learn to trust yourself, trust the pitch, conquer your fears. Around the time he hit Buffalo, Dickey was thinking of becoming an English teacher. He even called Lipscomb University in his native Nashville to talk about going back to college to complete his degree. But deep down, he knew he was close.

The game here two years ago was a turning point. Soon after, he went to the Mets, where he started 6-0 and finished seventh in the NL in ERA. He threw a one-hit shutout against the Phillies. Last year, he finished with 12 straight quality starts. Today, he takes a 3-1 record into his start against Arizona. Dickey is in the second year of a two-year, $7.8 million contract with the Mets.

"In no way do I view myself as having arrived," said Dickey, who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last November to raise money for victims of human trafficking. "I am still in the midst of my journey as both as a knuckleballer and a human being. I don't know if you ever arrive, if you ever get to your destination. Maybe small ones along the way.

"Whether I'm in the middle of a two-year contract or pitching in Buffalo, I treat it like it may be my last game ever. I always felt that was the way to play and I'm learning that's the way to live, too."

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com