301 Moved Permanently

301 Moved Permanently


Best of the Barnstormer

What R.A. Dickey Means

Recently, while on vacation, I read a slim 1999 novel by Stephen King titled The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. In it, a nine year old girl, equipped only with a small pack containing limited food and her beloved yellow Walkman, strays from her family on a hike and gets lost in the woods. The book is almost entirely a narrative of her isolation, desperation and determination against all odds, and as the fear of death by starvation creeps closer and closer, it inevitably leads to horror movie-esque hallucinations. Deep in the woods, the only voice to bring her solace and keep her sane is that of the sportscaster on her radio, and she listens intently to her favourite baseball player, (real life) Red Sox closer Tom Gordon, pitch.

“The radio was her lifeline, the games her life preserver. Without them to look forward to, she thought she would simply give up.”

At one heartbreaking point in the book, filthy and starving, bruised and bloody, grotesquely ravaged by insects, she says to herself that if Gordon saves that evening’s game she too will be saved from the woods. Although we know there could never be a correlation between the two, we dreamily root for his win just the same. Rationally we know the win is irrelevant, but it is her hope that is vital, the only thing that will get her out of the woods. It is the only thing that will help her “close the game.”

I raise this obviously extreme, and perhaps melodramatic example because I believe there is a certain kind of baseball fan who maintains this childhood hope well into adulthood. A fan who willfully ignores the idea that no amount of belief will change a pitch, and no pitch can change a life. A fan who instead rabidly adheres to devotion regardless of the knowledge that the win or loss is, on a macro level, irrelevant. A fan that is perhaps lousy with stats or rules or even names, but yearns for narrative, and inexplicably loves the game in way that confuses even them. (And yes, this kind of fan is me.)

In the fall of 2011, to some degree, I was the girl in the woods. Deep in a diagnosed depression, in the evenings I would take sedatives and watch Justin Verlander pitch the postseason. While I was horizontal under a blanket on my couch, I’d cling to a hope for something external that I could no longer summon for myself. Verlander was an excellent choice of totem at the time—something about his pitching made you think he could never, ever fail. Like everything would always be okay when he was on the mound. It was soothing to watch the preternatural rhythm, the predictability of his success. He was superhuman, a tank, and inevitably the 2011 AL Cy Young Award winner by unanimous choice.  Even his all-American boyish baseball face brought me hope.

More than any other position, pitchers work exceptionally well for this kind of necessary projected faith when you’re feeling completely lost—the determined and isolated man alone, nakedly exposed at the centre of the game, unflinching and steely with so much dependent on him. When he succeeds it always feels against all odds, regardless of whether or not there’s any truth in that. Perhaps I very deliberately picked Verlander in my foggy sedated sadness—at the time, a period of desperation, I really needed the sure bet, something consistently victorious when the rest of the world seemed to be closing in on itself.

My rational brain of course knows the absurdity of entertaining the idea that Verlander was pitching for me, but the belief in it was a necessity. And watching him pitch strike after strike was a revelation, a light of hope outside myself, when everything else seemed so incomprehensibly dark.

So why this meditative trip down sad, emotive memory lane? Because it emphasizes the magnitude of R.A. Dickey’s acquisition by the Toronto Blue Jays. I’ve come to understand there is no greater gift to a narrative baseball fan than that man, and now he’s ours. While watching Dickey speak at the January 8 presser, it occurred to me that this new hire had the potential to change Toronto baseball in ways we haven’t yet been able to articulate. Here is this polite, well-spoken, humble gentleman in a sweater, talking openly about sexual abuse, mental health, and the necessity of living as one’s authentic self—to sports journalists. Again: he’s talking about the broad realities and ramifications of rape to sports journalists. (In fact, sexual abuse was wrapped up in the second question at the presser.)

Dickey’s a former English Literature major who uses words like “catharsis” and “liberation” to describe his life and game, and speaks emphatically about the importance of team over superstars. He is the complete package—no need to excuse what he says or does, his bad politics or his bad choices or what’s scrawled in his eyeblack, no need to turn a blind eye for the love of the game and the necessity for faith.  Put simply: he elevates the game. The whole damn thing.

Drop-jawed about how different this player was than any other I’d ever had faith in, I sent a one line email to a friend after watching Dickey slip on that #43 Jays jersey.

“Who is this man?” I wrote.

In a very short time this city has gone knuckleball crazy, and rightfully so. Dickey is the lauded underdog story in its unbelievable, heart-rending extreme. No one could have written his poetic fall and rise and fall and rise again if they tried. A survivor of multiple childhood sexual assaults, Dickey managed to actualize his big baseball dreams despite the crippling adversity that included poverty and an alcoholic mother, only to have his MLB contract stolen from him by the freak medical anomaly of a missing Ulnar Collateral Ligament. Wrestling his demons and failures, Dickey cheated on his wife, hit rock bottom and contemplated suicide, only to find Jesus, hope and forgiveness. He then conquered the rough road to actualizing his MLB dreams all over again, then wrote a (rather good) book about it all, and ultimately won the 2012 CY Young.

When I throw in the part about him climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and raising thousands of dollars to combat human trafficking in India, it starts to sound like I’m making it up. Naturally, he’s spending part of the offseason taking his girls to India to visit the opening of a clinic that was once a brothel, and is looking forward to getting involved with local causes that combat sexual abuse when he returns.

Who is this man?

Dickey reinvented himself and found major league success late in life (he’s 38) via the mythical knuckleball, a pitch that is perhaps the greatest metaphor for faith and devotion that exists in sports. The cynical (or perhaps the sane) rarely trust the unpredictable pitch, and with good reason. At the beginning of the 2006 season, the Rangers gave Dickey his opportunity to try it out, and after giving up six home runs in three and a half innings in his first start on April 6 (my birthday, incidentally), Dickey tied that ugly baseball record with another knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield. This is clearly a very different brand of fidelity than my dark days on the couch with Verlander.

Dickey himself frequently uses the pitch as metaphor for belief in the unbelievable, and the risks of becoming one’s true self. He seamlessly shifts between speaking about coming to authenticity by working through past trauma, and the challenges of perfecting and trusting in the pitch. In fact, in further metaphor, his victorious story is so dramatically unique that he’s currently the only pitcher in Major League Baseball who can be called a knuckleballer.

And, guys. He’s ours.

One of my all time favourite baseball quotes is from the 2005 film Fever Pitch, in which Red Sox obsessed Ben Wrightman explains to his confused lady friend Lindsey his love of the game. “I like being part of something that’s bigger than me, than I,” he says. “It’s good for your soul to invest in something you can’t control.”  If the couch-locked faithless are to put their belief in anything, Dickey is a premium option, and a little elevation will be exceptionally good for us. What his well-articulated story, demeanor and humanity bring to the city is so much more than good pitching—it’s (at the risk of treading into hyperbole) a new dialogue, and a rejuvenated sense of investment in the redemptive power of the sport.

For those ready to invest, especially those who love a good story, welcome aboard.

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