Thursday, November 15, 2012

R.A. Dickey: DIY Hero


It is as if Bill Wyman had become the most famous Stone, Ringo the handsomest Beatle, and Lady Ga-Ga had won American Idol. One more time, against all odds, a frog has turned prince/ss and it is a beautiful and inspiring thing.

R. A. Dickey, the Mets', repeat, the Mets' knuckleball pitcher has won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher of the 2012 season. Dickey went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA for a team that won a total of 74 games. In other words, he was involved with 27% of their wins. Additionally, he led the National League in strikeouts with 230, innings at 233 2/3, five complete games and three shutouts.

Here's a telling comparison: David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays won the 2012 American League Cy Young with pitches averaging nearly 96 m.p.h. Dickey's knucklers averaged 77 m.p.h. 

But, a pitcher who wins the Cy Young throwing the knuckleball cannot be defined by statistics no  matter how wonderful they are. A knuckleballer is the Tharp, the Jobs, the Rothko of athletes. The rest of us earthlings do not know how they know what they know, and they can annoy and confound us as they follow a higher calling. But, the world would be a much less interesting place without them.

The significance of Dickey's achievement goes well beyond the world of Major League Baseball. To those of us busy re-inventing and rebranding ourselves in this DIY Age, Dickey is a living, highly visible symbol of success gained against all odds. He met a great personal challenge, while also overcoming a MLB athletic and corporate culture meant to root out any threatening inconsistencies. It is a culture that, in some ways, treats doctored baseballs and suped-up muscle mass with less dismay than the act of throwing a baseball to home plate, which does not rotate, but flutters. Imagine the gaul of being truly different!

The knuckleball is the true oddball, the renegade pitch that looks too good to be true to overeager batters in either batter's box. Why? Because it is too good to be true. It is revolutionary precisely because it refuses to revolve on its journey to home plate, A master like R.A. Dickey does not know where it will wind up. Even the catcher, who has a strong desire to befriend the pitch, often gets jilted at the last second, falling down and generally looking as foolish as the batter. Umpires, even umpires used to inventing a new strike zone each night, which means all of them, despise the thing like Albert Camus despised filtered cigarettes.

But Dickey's knuckler's consistent inconsistency, rudeness, and allergic reaction near wooden things did not come easily. The Texas Rangers drafted him out of the university of Tennessee in 1996. His bonus was reduced to $75K from $800K after doctors looked at his weird elbow. That might have been a sign. He didn't quit.

It took five years before his major league debut. Things didn't pan out. He began to throw a knuckler (actually thrown with the fingertips). He surrendered six home runs in one game and wound up in the minors in the Brewers organization, which is very minor indeed. He went from there to the Twins, then to the Seattle Mariners. On August 17, 2008 he went into the MLB record books; he threw four wild pitches in the same inning.

Now perhaps you begin to see why a dedicated over-sixty DIY-er like myself and others like me could see a hero in R.A. Dickey. He still didn't give up, and I'm betting that there were a lot of mornings, evenings at home too, when that was very tempting. But what else would a knuckleballer do? How does a knuckle-balling English Major (true!) describe his skill in a resume; how do you avoid seeming both over-qualified by uniqueness and under-qualified by failures? How do you convince someone to give you a shot even though you'll accept less pay and a smaller job than the one you had before?

Sound familiar, job hunters and career-jumper? Thought so.

It happens that I am reading a little book  entitled The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips For Improving Your Skills by Daniel Coyne. Tip #2 is about engraving a skill in your brain by observing someone with whom we've made a connection do it over and over again. It recommends having photos of those with whom we strongly connect around our workspaces. R.A.'s photo is going up on my wall.

R. A. Dickey, master at failure, has won the Cy Young award.

It's like Santiago, Hemingway's fisherman who idolized Joe Dimaggio in The Old Man And The Sea, had managed to bring that huge marlin into port after all and, magically, it was whole, having defied every shark in the sea along the way that had tried to tear it apart.

Dear Fellow DIY-ers. Practice your knuckleballs. Practice is perfect. Don't even think about being denied.

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