By age 30, pro baseball pitcher R.A. Dickey felt washed up. After eight years in the game, his fastball was fading. "I was barely hanging on, just surviving," he says. Then coach Orel Hershiser gave him some unusual advice: switch to the knuckleball.
In time, that oddball suggestion would lead Dickey to baseball's highest honors — but it wasn't an easy path.
Though the knuckleball is gentler on an aging arm, it is a notoriously difficult pitch to master. The pitcher's head, feet, wrist and fingers must all align properly as he pushes the ball forward, knuckles up. It floats. It flutters. When it's good — when it crosses home base within the strike zone — batters can barely hit it. When it's bad, a batter might slam it for a home run.
As time passed in his career, Dickey could see that he was running out of options. "I was mediocre as a conventional pitcher," he says. "I was old enough to realize that what I had to offer was not good enough, and fortunate to be in a place that my ego didn't get in the way. So I took the chance."
His four-year journey to master the tricky pitch was filled with hard work and embarrassing failures. At first, he could throw only two decent knuckleballs for every ten he attempted. "I would strike out six, then walk four and give up six hits," he says. "I was showing flashes of potential, enough that teams would keep me on. But I was flailing around, still doubting myself."
For years, Dickey's wife Anne, his childhood sweetheart, supported his dreams, moving with their four children from city to city as he bounced between different teams. As his career crumbled, his marriage did, too. Part of his troubles, he says, stemmed from a dark secret he withheld even from his wife: as an eight-year-old child, Dickey had been a victim of repeated sexual abuse, including a brutal rape. Now, as he faced losing both his family and his career, he grew depressed, even suicidal. His future seemed bleak.
Then a near-death experience convinced him on a deeply personal level to change his life. Dickey was with teammates from the Nashville Sounds minor league team when, on impulse, he tried to swim across a treacherous expanse of the Missouri River.
"A lot of my identity was wrapped up in my performance as a baseball player," he remembers. "I told myself, 'At least I can do this incredible feat.' I was a guy trying to remain valid."
He battled the rushing water, and was turning back, exhausted and scared for his life, when the current yanked him down and held him underwater. Just when he thought he was dying, he touched bottom, then bobbed up to the surface. A teammate pulled him to safety.
The experience left him a changed man. "My spirit was broken. It was a stepping-stone for a discovery: I had to have peace with where I was as a human, flaws and all. I had to hold on to what was beautiful about my past.
"That was the genesis of it all for me," he says. "I didn't wake up and think,How can I be a Cy Young Award winner? I thought, How can I imagine myself as a different human being? How can I live life differently? How can I live my life well?"
Dickey decided to risk letting a counselor into his life, to begin recovering from the childhood abuse. "Counseling helped me look at those things I did not do well. I had created mechanisms for protecting myself that were toxic. I had to unpack why I did them and learn how to do things in a new way."
He brought his wife into his counseling to tell her about the abuse, and to help rebuild their marriage. As his personal life slowly improved, so did his career. "You think you have things all figured out as a person, then you wonder why your life doesn't change. When I was completely broken as a human being, I started to see my career very differently. They were so interconnected. I wanted to be a great human being: that's what made it stick. My career accomplishments are just a byproduct."
Dickey had to learn to be his own coach, and to reach out to others. "There are very few people on the face of the earth who had done what I was trying to do," he says. "I had to set aside my ego and invite people into my life to help me change. And I had to be willing to learn."
As Dickey began working to revamp his game, his first mentor was Charlie Hough, followed by Tim Wakefield and Phil Niekro, all retired All-Star knuckleball pitchers. "Tim would see me on television, call and say, 'Your chin is ahead of your foot.' No coach could look at my pitch and tell me that." His knuckleball improved so that nearly half of his pitches were good.
His next breakthrough came when he realized he could bring something unique to the pitch. A regular knuckleball is 61 to 69 miles per hour, but Dickey mastered a faster pitch that frequently topped 80 miles per hour — giving the batter even less time to react. "I had been trying to copy Tim Wakefield. It wasn't until I infused my pitch with my own personality that it worked for me."
Fourteen years after he was first drafted, Dickey was finally good enough to compete in the major leagues. By the end of 2010, he could step back and see how far he had come. Most players his age were retiring. Dickey decided he wanted more. "I asked, 'How can I take my skills from the level of craftsman to the level of artist?' If you invest every moment of your life in the pursuit of learning, it's amazing what you can discover. You don't roll out of bed and become da Vinci."
By 2012, he had doubled his consistency, throwing seven to eight good pitches out of ten. His dedication and hard work paid off: Dickey became the strikeout king of the National League, the first knuckleball pitcher ever to win the Cy Young Award. He also took the daunting step of telling the world about his personal journey in his memoir, "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity, and the Perfect Knuckleball." He followed that in 2013 with a book for children, "Throwing Strikes."
Dickey says three things helped him weather adversity in each stage of his life. "These are irreplaceable lessons I will teach my children," he says.
• First, cling to your hope. Dickey says there were many days he was so discouraged that he didn't want to go to the baseball field. "Hope is what was driving me back to the mound, back to the weight room. It was the hope that I could do more than survive. My hope far outweighed my doubt." Dickey adds that you have to be honest with yourself about what you do well and don't do well, but that too often people give up simply because they lack hope.
• Don't try to fly solo. The second realization was that he couldn't reinvent himself on his own. "What I had to offer wasn't good enough. I needed people who knew more." Dickey's mentors invested in him without wanting anything in return. "They poured into me," he says. "When I started to invite people into my life, things began to change."
• Give whatever it takes. The third lesson was first drilled into him by a high school coach: Anything in life worth having demands discipline and hard work. "If you want it badly enough, you have to fully invest. You can't do it halfway. You have to be relentless in your pursuit."
Reimagining his life allowed Dickey to reach heights he says he never dared to dream. "The pursuit is the challenge. That's what's important," he believes. "It's impossible for us all to get it right every day, but you can't let the small failures stop you."