The first time I vividly recall R.A. Dickey as anything more than an unfortunately named journeyman was June 2008. I was on the back end of a misguided baseball adventure, having driven from Long Island up to Fishkill, NY, to take in a Hudson Valley Renegades game. There, at Dutchess Stadium, I was supposed to watch a tilt between the Renegades and the visiting Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets’ short-season Class A affiliate with whom then-Mets right fielder Ryan Church was scheduled to make a rehab outing. He was recovering from the now-infamous concussion that effectively ended his Mets career; what I didn’t know then was that there was no recovery from his general lack of baseball skills.
Lucky me: Church didn’t even play with the Cyclones that night, and so I seemingly drove up there for naught, having suffered the additional indignity of being told by some wise-guy stadium employee — surely a sports management major interning there over his summer — that I looked like the love child of a sleazy paparazzo and Jake Gylenhaal (because I was carrying a large camera and was wearing a beard, I suppose?).
All, however, was not lost, because I was listening to the Mariners-Mets game on WFAN during the drive home on the old roads of I-84, which had browned and cracked into a rustic state of disrepair not unlike stretches of the Ocean Parkway. The volume on my stereo was cranked to deafening heights so as to overcome the roar of my boxy, 10-year-old truck, and that’s when I heard first heard the announcers marveling incredulously about this Dickey character. The Mets had just recently transitioned from Willie Randolph to Jerry Manuel then, and they had yet to begin the second-half tear that saw them own first place for a sizable chunk of the season. The paranoia and sense of impending doom resulting from the collapse of 2007 had yet to subside — that wouldn’t occur until Carlos Delgado awoke from his sandbagging of Randolph — but the humiliation of being mastered by this no-name knuckleballer was off set a bit by the sheer novelty of it all.
Dickey shut out the Mets for seven innings in an 11-0 M’s romp (Oliver Perez, fittingly, was Seattle’s punching bag that night). And I took little from this game or from Dickey’s impressive performance except that it planted a seed — if not for the Mets to acquire him two years later, certainly for his name to be more than a sophomoric punchline in my head while I scraped the bottom of my fantasy league’s wire in search of that always elusive pitching help.
And really, we heard little from Dickey after that outing. He had a pretty unremarkable year with Seattle for the balance of 2008 (81 ERA+), was equally unremarkable mostly in relief with the Twins in 2009 (95 ERA+), and began 2010 on the Mets’ farm. By the time he was finally called up by the Amazin’s on May 19, no one thought much of it other than to crack a joke about his name or the state of the seemingly devoid-of-talent farm. The most I could say of the guy was that he conjured memories of my fruitless trip to sleepy Fishkill, which, barring an unforeseen stay at its prison, I may never visit again.
As it turned out, Dickey was this year’s Omir Santos, the unlikely feel-good story, except that Dickey has yet to taper off as did his predecessor. The Mets have been mired in perpetual .500-ness since their fluky midseason hot streak subsided, and they’re unlovable in nearly every way imaginable, but Dickey has been a refreshing plot wrinkle and a minor revelation as a baseball commodity (impressive 157 ERA+ through his last start). There’s poetry in the ugliness of his bread-and-butter pitch, the mythical knuckleball, because it’s slippery in every way — to predict, quantify, define, scout, evaluate, catch and, most importantly, to hit. Dickey’s game laughs in the faces of advanced metrics like xFIP and those who love them — myself among them. And it’s especially fitting that Dickey would be among the most compelling and uplifting stories in this lost season for a Mets team that will be remembered alongside the ranks of the 1975 squad (82-80) — which is to say it won’t be remembered at all.
Dickey, for his part, has relished the limelight. He, along with the Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista and a couple others, is this year’s resident out-of-nowhere star. Dickey’s story is easy to appreciate. He’s a former hard-throwing first-round pick who turned to the knuckler after blowing out his arm. He didn’t give up, and he finally hit it big at age 35, when the proverbial window had all but shut on his career. Dickey didn’t smash that window with a blazing fastball. He spider cracked it with a series of flutterers until he could snake his hand through a small hole and unlatch the lock with his hand. And he hasn’t disappointed those who like a little absurdity out of their knuckleballers, proclaiming himself a renaissance man, an intellectual who’d be an English professor were it not for the minor inconvenience of being a professional baseballer. Ah, the travails of those among us who suffer from two helpings of talent.
It’s easy to see why Dickey is so likable, why Mets fans have taken to him. His unlikely rise to relevance, quirky personality and story of perseverance are the perfect draw for this fan base, the bastard children of Brooklyn Dodgers fans who’ve endured more than their share of heartbreak, ineptitude and humiliation. The love affair has reached such proportions that even the SNY broadcast team of Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez were wondering on Sunday whether the Mets should lock up Dickey with a contract extension.
Really? An extension for Dickey?
Again, in the previously enumerated context, I can see why this question might creep into someone’s mind — more accurately, into someone’s heart. But logically, this makes little to no sense. Dickey is a 35-year-old journeyman knuckeballer. It’s not a mistake that he bounced from one organization to the next. Yes, he can eat innings, and age will be kinder to him than the average pitcher since velocity is not really an issue, but knuckleballers can fluctuate wildly from year to year, and the last thing the Mets need is another pitcher locked into a long-term deal who’s anything less than a slam dunk to produce at a high level.
Complicating things further is that this offseason marks Dickey’s final year of arbitration eligibility, meaning he’s due for a hefty pay raise based upon how he performed in 2010. The Mets’ best option might be to non-tender Dickey and offer him a one-year deal for less than what he’d probably be awarded in arbitration. In that case, of course, Dickey would be exposed to the free-agent market, and he could take his services anywhere. But for the Mets to extend Dickey for anything more than one year and a couple million bucks would be foolish at best — they’d be bidding against themselves.
The threat of losing Dickey to a suitor that’s offering more money, more years or both must not force the Mets to make an imprudent decision. This has undoubtedly been a brutal season, exacerbated by the fact that the Mets were coming off an even uglier 2009 campaign, so I understand the impulse to hoard the few players who’ve managed to reward the fans’ faith by overachieving. When you’ve endured a long, draining season, your perception becomes skewed. By no fault of your own, your expectations are diminished, and you begin to appreciate fringy talent, hustlers, late bloomers and one-year wonders more than you normally would. And make no mistake: Dickey is some combination of all those things, with a handful of other factors (let’s not discount cavernous Citi Field) undoubtedly conspiring to make 2010 the best of his career.
But the Mets need to be aware of the lens through which they’ll be evaluating Dickey — that of a middling team which was the beneficiary of an unforeseen breakout season. The Amazin’s can bring back Dickey, but it must be on their terms. If not, they can at least take the bittersweet solace that they’ve made a wise decision and that their lasting memories of this quirky, silly-named knuckleballer are far fonder than his befuddling them in a meaningless game in June 2008.