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18Apr/120

Book Review: Wherever I Wind Up, by R.A. Dickey

There's just something about knuckleball pitchers, I suppose, that makes them just plain interesting.  So if, on top of the mere face of throwing the knuckler, a pitcher is also interesting in his own right, that's gold.

I became a fan of R.A. Dickey during his brief and relatively undistinguished stint with the Mariners, and I was sorely disappointed when they let him go (but then, walking as many as you strike out can cause teams to get jumpy).  The highlight of his Mariners career, for me, was when he faced off against fellow knuckleballer (and recent retiree and oh yeah, the guy whose book I reviewed last year) Tim Wakefield.  It was a big old knuckleball bonanza!

I've always had a good throwing arm, and I pitched in little league, much to the consternation of the batters I plunked.  I just had a hard time really turning it loose and throwing all-out.  When I did, I could knock the wings off a fly at fifteen paces.  When I didn't…well, go ahead and take your base, batter, and I hope that heals quickly.  So I'm a huge admirer of guys who throw the ball, you know, over the plate and do it consistently.

But to take the hill knowing you'll be throwing in the 60-80mph range against hitters who regularly see 95+, that takes guts.  And talent.  And practice.  And a strong will to keep going, as I've learned from the two knuckleballer books I've read.

R.A. Dickey started out as a typical baseball pitching prospect, throwing at a respectable clip, mixing in a curve and changeup to complement his fastball.  And it was as a conventional pitcher that he was eventually signed by the Texas Rangers and given a nice signing bonus of $800k or so.  Nice work if you can get it.  Even nicer if it isn't subsequently taken away.

You see, and I'm spoiling something from the book here, but Dickey mentions it three pages into the prologue, so it's not that spoilery (which is totally a word), R.A. Dickey has no ulnar collateral ligament (UCL).  Don't know that ligament?  Well, it happens that there's a thing called Tommy John Surgery (named after former major league pitcher Tommy John) which replaces the UCL after a pitcher blows it out.  I could rattle off the names of a dozen pitchers in the last number of years who've had that surgery.  Don't believe me?  Okay, off the top of my head: Jamie Moyer (49 years old, folks!  Go Moyer!), Tim Hudson, Joakim Soria (not sure he's had it, but he's headed for it), Stephen Strasburg, and oh man I'm drawing a blank.  Ooo, John Smoltz, Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and I think I'll be done as I've gotten halfway.  Suffice it to say that it's a common procedure, because pitching is just downright hard on the ulnar collateral ligament.

So R.A. Dickey had his bonus cut by 90%.  Now, $75k is still nothing to sneeze at, but also doesn't exactly set a guy up for life.  So what he really needed to do was to blaze through the minors and prove that he could get major leaguers out, and then he'd get the big contract and hang in the bigs for good.

Didn't happen.  He toiled away for seven years in the Rangers' system, getting called up a couple of times briefly before being taken aside and told to try turning himself into a knuckleball pitcher.  Along the way, he leveraged other former and current knuckleballers, trying to learn how to throw the pitch consistently.  And learning how to throw it his way.  (BTW, the whole Fraternity of Knuckleballers is just a very cool phenomenon.)

But Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball isn't just a sterile retelling of one journeyman pitcher's career; R.A. Dickey tells his story here, and his story has some rough parts.  The sexual abuse he suffered as a child.  The brutal attack he endured.  The absentness of his otherwise present mother (alcohol).  His abandonment of her and estrangement with his father.  His struggle to be honest with anyone about his past, and the consequences of that closedness in his marriage. (BTW, his wife is a hero.  Just sayin'.) 

It's not all gloomy, of course, and I actually think the book could make a tremendous sports movie, because the preface of the book is as close to a perfect cold-open to a movie as I could imagine.  It's titled "The Worst Night I Ever Had."  Don't worry, it's just bad stuff happening on the baseball field.  The story of how he eventually becomes a successful big leaguer is incredibly inspiring (still in progress, but the past two years have been good, though he got lit up this morning by the Braves).

The book is also overtly Christian, as his conversion and the development of his relationship with Christ is extremely important to him.  I've read a few criticisms about the parts of the book dealing with his faith, and I guess I can understand them.  Much of the God-talk is fairly standard Christianese, but that doesn't make it inauthentic.

I enjoyed the whole story, but as a baseball freak, I was most drawn in by the little behind-the-scenes things about the game:

Baseball people are loath to trust the knuckleball and quick to judge it.  If there were a caste system of baseball pitches, the knuckleball would be the untouchables.  This isn't idle knuckleballer's paranoia.  It's the truth.  What happens when a conventional pitcher gets lit up and is knocked out in the fourth inning?  What do you hear?

"He couldn't command his breaking stuff."  "He didn't have his good fastball."  "He was working from behind in the count."

There are umpteen reasons why the guy's getting hit.  When Tim Wakefield or I get roughed up, it's that weirdo pitch we throw.  You never know what you are going to get with it.  You just can't trust it.

Because it's a dadgum knuckleball.

I also really enjoyed R.A. Dickey's writing (Wayne Coffey gets some credit here), though the narrative was often unnecessarily stilted due to an almost laughable lack of the use of contractions.  Now, I understand that in formal writing you want to avoid using contractions.  But in a memoir style of writing, you need them.  Otherwise it's like reading the journal of Star Trek: The Next Generation's Commander Data:

Now I am supposed to say good-bye to all that and join the lineage of Hoyt Wilhelm and the Niekro brothers and Charlie Hough?

That's exactly what I am supposed to do. And it is what I have to do, because radar guns don't lie…

Is it just me, or does this read a bit like this guy:

The book is absolutely riddled with this kind of awkward language, and it's an unfortunate blight on an otherwise stellar book.  Especially given that Dickey seems to have a talented pen:

I love telling stories, but the fine points of grammar bore me.  I am the king of sentence fragments.  Dangling participles.  Run-on sentences.  Sentences that slither snakelike and are overly ambitious and try to do too much and are sometimes excruciatingly overwritten and almost always leave the reader gasping for air, waiting breathlessly for the verbosity to end and the period to arrive.

Love that.  I guess I'll put it down to bad editing or something, because you'd think someone would've commented, "You know, it'd be a bit more conversational if you never, ever wrote 'I am' like ever."

BTW, if you're interested, Dickey was on NPR's "Fresh Air" the other day, so you can easily get a taste of his story that way.  And you can follow him on Twitter if you like.  I do.  I'm totally stalking him.

I had considered getting Dirk Hayhurst's Out of My League next, but I think I'll leave off baseball reading for a while and just settle for baseball watching.  I love baseball!

In the meantime, I've got a theology title and a WWII history title in the works, and I started reading The Mysterious Benedict Society to my son The Pancake Eater.  (Early returns on that one are very, very positive.)

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