Wednesday, December 5, 2012

R.A. Dickey: Knuckleball + Persistence = Sportsman of the Year

Being described as "unconventional" can be a death knell for a professional athlete. In an era where athletes are being groomed from future athletic glory as young as middle school, outliers don't usually get much attention. The familiar is comfortable. 

Or they get the wrong kind of attention. Basketball players refuse to emulate Rick Barry's "granny shot" free-throw, even though he was an 89 % from the charity stripe for his career. If it looks different, it's weird. And weird doesn't equal success in today's sports world. 

That's why R.A. Dickey deserves to be the 2012 Sportsman of the year.He embraced an unconventional and often ostrcized method of pitching, the knuckleball. Dickey mastered that perplexing and bewildering pitch. Pittsburgh Pirate Willie Stargell described the pitch's oddness. "Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox," he said.

Yet, Dickey mastered it this season. He is the first pitcher to ever throw back-to-back one-hitters. He also pitched 44 1/3 innings without giving up an earned run. From May 27 to June 24, not a single runner scored on him. 

 Even though LeBron James, the SI's Sportsman of the year, had a fantastic 2012, people knew about his greatness. He seemed destined for success at a high level since he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of seventeen.

Nobody knew what to make of R.A. Dickey. He was a ho-hum middle of the rotation starter  with the Texas Rangers for the first four years of his career. His career started to fizzle and it didn't look like he would be in the league much longer by 2005.

Then he transitioned to pitching the knuckleball. It wasn't easy. He gave up six home runs in his first start. He tied the MLB record for most wild pitches in an inning with four while he was pitching for the Twins. Those are earth shattering missteps for less confident pitchers. He stuck with it and became one of the best pitchers in baseball.

There is a scene in the documentary Knuckleball that shows Dickey meeting with fellow knuckleballers Phil Neikro, Charlie Hough, and Tim Wakefield. They are a guild of men who practice an unconventional craft. One that doesn't have much traction in the world of Major League Baseball. 

That's a great scene because it's something you don't see often enough in pro sports. There are lots of talented athletes, but not a lot of athletes who have succeed doing something so odd so successfully.

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