R.A. Dickey won't knuckle under
Missing ulnar collateral ligament hasn't slowed M's righty
Nobody is quite sure what became of the ulnar collateral ligament in R.A. Dickey's right elbow.
He might have been born without one, or it might have disintegrated on its own. What is known is that Dickey does not have a body part generally considered essential in his line of work -- a pitcher for the Seattle Mariners.
This has not interfered with Dickey's pursuit of his craft, except for the small matter of the way his signing bonus of $810,000 suddenly shrank to $75,000 when the Texas Rangers discovered his peculiar situation.
``Imagine winning the lottery and then losing the ticket,'' he said.
Dickey shrugged off the bad luck. After all, he had been an All-American pitcher at the University of Tennessee, a starter on the 1996 Olympic team, and a first-round draft pick by the Rangers, all without benefit of the ligament. He pitched then; he would pitch now.
Dickey spent a decade in the Rangers' organization, including pieces of five seasons in the Majors with varying amounts of success.
``I didn't want to be known as the guy with no ligament,'' he said. ``I wanted to be known as the guy who could get big league hitters out.''
At the suggestion of pitching coach, Orel Hershiser, Dickey decided to reinvent himself with the knuckleball. This mysterious pitch with a mind all its own does not depend nearly as much on Dickey's missing ligament as conventional pitches do. Charlie Hough, an old knuckleballer who won 216 games with the pitch, helped Dickey perfect his grip and gain confidence in it.
Last season, pitching for Nashville of the Pacific Coast League, Dickey went 13-6 with a 3.72 earned run average. He was 9-2 with a 2.51 ERA in his final 15 starts as his knuckler danced all over the place.
Minnesota signed him in November but left him exposed in the Rule 5 draft when Seattle claimed him.
Because the knuckleball places almost no strain on its practitioner, the Mariners viewed Dickey as an innings-eater, a guy who could start and relieve for them. And he has been that.
But success with his tricky pitch comes and goes. There was a stretch of 17 innings out of the bullpen when he allowed just one run followed by two awful starts against Washington and Florida when he allowed 12 runs in 5 1-3 innings.
Dickey talked to Hough, who had seen the two starts. The diagnosis was that Dickey's knuckler was becoming too predictable.
``I was going through as period when I lost who I was. All my knuckleballs were pretty much the same speed,'' he said. ``I have to change speeds to be successful. I have to be able to throw it for strikes and have confidence I can do that. ''
Coming off the two bad starts, there was no way to know what would happen when Dickey took a spot start against the New York Mets in place of Erik Bedard, who was experiencing some back pain. Before the start, Dickey reached out for help, calling another knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield, or some advice.
Wakefield found some video of Dickey and offered his thoughts. Armed with insight from two prominent members of the knuckleball fraternity, Dickey went out and made the Mets look helpless, throwing seven shutout innings in an 11-0 Seattle romp.
It was Dickey's first win as a starter since Sept. 18, 2005 when he was pitching for Texas and had not yet embraced the knuckleball. That was a pitching lifetime ago for the man with the missing elbow ligament who doesn't seem particularly bothered by its absence.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.