Ghost in a knuckleballer’s redemption

There’s much more to R.A. Dickey than the knuckleball.

That’s the theme of a compelling but haunted profile of the New York Mets pitcher in the April 2 issue of Sports Illustrated. The piece is tied to the release of a memoir by Dickey — “Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball” — that the magazine suggests “might be the finest piece of nonfiction baseball writing since ‘Ball Four.’

The opening of the story:

It tacks in inexplicable and unpredictable ways. It sometimes resists the desired path, no matter how much control you try to exert. When you think you’ve solved the mystery and discerned the secrets, it confounds you anew. When hope diminishes, it has a way of cooperating and breaking right.

Yes, life mirrors the knuckleball, just as the knuckleball mirrors life. R.A. Dickey is singularly well-suited to appreciate this. The Mets righthander is the lone knuckleballer in a major league rotation. He is the keeper of the flame carried by the Niekro brothers, Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield — inasmuch as there’s anything flaming about a pitch that dips and dives and dances and usually travels slower than the speed of interstate traffic. Plus, at age 37, Dickey has done his share of living, his tortuous — and sometimes torturous — path to the majors marked by gratifying highs, and lows that had him pondering suicide.

As you might imagine, Dickey ultimately finds redemption.

But what role does his “devout Christian” faith play in that journey? An extremely vague role, based on the Sports Illustrated profile.

The story skirts at the edges of Dickey’s faith, at one point referring to his “salvation” but never pressing him to explain his “hope.” The magazine treats the knuckleballer’s Christianity as an afterthought, not worthy of introspection:

That lonely night in Tacoma when Dickey first began writing his story? He was called up to the Mariners a few weeks later, and he’s barely been in the minors since. At the same time, through heavy-duty doses of therapy and faith, he’s come to grips with the abuse he suffered and the emotional damage it caused. He’s repaired his relationships with his mother (now sober) and his wife, the twin heroines of his book. Dickey confesses he’s nervous how Wherever I Wind Up will be received, inside the clubhouse and beyond. But cutting back on the honesty he displays on the page was never an option. “I couldn’t share my story and not share the most difficult parts of it,” says Dickey, who while writing sought advice from J.R. Moehringer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who co-authored Andre Agassi’s bracing 2009 memoir, Open. “As a reader, I can tell when someone is skating around the truth.”

As early as 2001, when Dickey pitched for the Oklahoma RedHawks, then the Texas Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate, I wrote a short item for The Oklahoman about the pitcher sharing his Christian testimony at a church. The pondered suicide and an extramarital affair highlighted by the magazine both occurred after that. I, for one, would love to know more about the ups and downs of Dickey’s professed walk with Christ.

According to the New York Daily News, Dickey “views the book as a narrative about faith, redemption and hope.” But the 2,000-word Sports Illustrated story fails even to identify the pitcher as a “Christian.”

There’s much more to R.A. Dickey than the knuckleball. Much more, it would seem, that the magazine cared to explore.

Ghost, anyone?

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • carl jacobs

    I suspect the author of the story views religion as nothing more than one vehicle among many possible vehicles for carrying what he considers an essentially a human endeavor. The story is “Man overcomes.” To treat the subject’s religion as essential to the outcome would detract from this over-arching theme. It would also tend to make the story less general for the general reader. That reader is likely to say “Don’t tell me about this guy’s religion, because I don’t want to hear about it. I can’t identify with it. Tell me a heroic story of human resilience and achievement. That I can identify with.” So you get the push-pull of the author not caring about the religious angle, and the audience not caring about the religious angle. It surprises me not at all that his religion would be suppressed.

    carl

  • Richard Mounts

    Carl,

    Maybe it’s only the writer who doesn’t care about the religion angle. Maybe it’s only the writer (and you?) who believes that the readers won’t be interested in the religion angle. Whatever it is, I disagree.

    Professional baseball, football, and other sports figures have been crossing themselves, kneeling, praying, and otherwise displaying their faith singlely and in groups in public during games/matches for years. Maybe SI readers would like to find out how genuine or deep a player’s faith is. Maybe readers want to know if the subject of the article “walks the walk.” I do.

  • carl jacobs

    Richard Mounts

    To the contrary. I care very much. I was simply offering a perspective on why the journalist chose to suppress the religious angle. And I do believe it was suppressed. It is not conceivable that the subject of religion didn’t come up in the interviews for this story. A Christian is not going to leave it out.

    But the journalist did leave it out. Why? Because the story as told by Dickey would be “God did this for me.” That’s not the story the journalist wanted to write. He wanted to write “Man did this for himself.” It’s also not the story the (typical) journalist actually believes. To him, the God angle is a private understanding without tangible reality; a rather embarrassing intellectual weakness produced by hardship in life. It is perhaps understandable to the journalist that his subject would revert to religion given the events of his life. But that’s not a reason for a journalist to give that religion any credibility.

    As for the audience, my case is weaker, because the audience demographic is broader. Even so, I have listened to ESPN, and Sports Talk Radio for a looong time. If one may infer the audience from the presentation, then we may infer that Sports Broadcasters consider their audience to be a religion-free zone. That’s the market that SI appeals to as well. The casual reader isn’t going to subscribe to SI. He might see it twice a year in the dentist’s office. A journalist has to know his audience, or he won’t be around very long.

    I have often wondered about the ability of sport to fill in some sense the religious void in a man’s life. In which case, theistic religion becomes not just an annoyance to the Sports fan but a competing worldview. Sports team as little god. Their success is my success. Their failure is my failure. What is God compared to the “J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! Jets!” It’s an intriguing concept that warrants some thought. But probably not by a Sports journalist.

    carl


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