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Mets Knuckleballer Wins Cy Young Award


I will never be a Hall of Famer and will never lead the league in strikeouts. So begins the memoir published earlier this year by R.A. Dickey, starting pitcher for the New York Mets. How wrong he was. Dickey had a remarkable season this year. Not only did he lead the National League in strikeouts, he also led in innings pitched, complete games and shutouts. And yesterday, the perfect ending to a season not even Dickey could have imagined. He received the highest honor for a pitcher: the Cy Young Award.

What makes Dickey's story so remarkable is that he's 38 years old, 14 years older than the Cy Young runner-up, and he bamboozled hitters this year by perfecting one pitch: the knuckleball. A pitch many dismiss as a curiosity, a trick.

And R.A. Dickey joins me now from Nashville. Congratulations on the award, what a great honor.

R.A. DICKEY: Thank you so much. I enjoy being here. Thanks.

BLOCK: You absolutely blew your competition away, right? You got the Cy Young award with 27 of 32 first place votes from baseball writers. Sounds like a huge vindication for the knuckleball.

DICKEY: Well, you know, I think people appreciate a good story, too, you know. And I'm glad that statistically I was able to perform to a level that enabled the voters to let my story come through. But, you know, I think there's some sentimental value. I think it's much bigger, for me at least, it's much bigger than just the statistical analysis. I mean, it's also about a story and a narrative.

BLOCK: And the narrative goes way back, right, to 2006, at least, the Texas Rangers put you in their starting rotation. Talk about your first game pitching the knuckleball consistently. What happened?

DICKEY: Well, sure, yeah, you know, the Cy Young represents the shiny side of the coin. On the other side of the coin might have been that April day in 2006 when I was pitching with the Detroit Tigers and, you know, about an hour into the game, I had tied a modern day Major League record for the most home runs given up in a game.

BLOCK: Ouch.

DICKEY: I was sick. And, you know, I'm walking off the field to a myriad of boos at Arlington Stadium. And I'm gonna tell you something, if you can get the fans at Arlington to boo you, you've really done something wrong. And so I was walking off the field to that. And so, to go from that place where, you know, I got sent down the next day to minor leagues with no guarantee that I'd ever have another shot at playing in a Major League game at the Major League level.

BLOCK: Well, what happened in between? I mean, how do you explain how you mastered the knuckleball and what brought you to the Cy Young award finally?

DICKEY: Well, I don't know if the show's long enough to talk about all the years that I've toiled in the minor leagues. But I tell you one place that it should start and that's that, you know, I am, by no stretch of the imagination, a self-made man. I've had people really pour into me in a way that has been transforming, not only as a pitcher, but in my personal life as well.

And, you know, some of the old knuckleballers that I really sought counsel from, Phil Niekrow, Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield, all gave me a piece of their knuckleball acumen. And from there, I was able to add my own personality with the pitch and try to grow it organically as possible by repetition, over and over and over again, and a lot of hard work. And I think that just - it transpired over the course of years, you know.

BLOCK: I've heard you say this, R.A. Dickey, if you throw a good knuckleball, you know it right away, no question.

DICKEY: Yeah. You know it right away. It's an incredible sensation. It's unlike any other pitch in that regard. When you throw it and it comes off your fingernails just right and you see it start with no spin on it at all and it's going toward the hitter and it's wiggling this way and that, you can feel it immediately. And you just want to try to reproduce that feeling over and over and over again.

And I finally got to a place where I could do that seven, eight, nine out of ten times and I started having some success.

BLOCK: Where are you going to put your Cy Young award?

DICKEY: I'm not sure. You know, the truth of it is, for a long time, I had my identity wrapped up in who I was as a baseball player, so when I wouldn't perform well, I would not be who I should have been. And I've learned over time and with help that that's not a healthy way to live and so I've really efforted to hold it loosely.

And what I mean by that is, you know, I don't want to put a lot of stock, although this is an incredible honor, I mean no disrespect to any of the voters, for my own life, I try to hold it in a way where my life is not influenced or impacted by subjective awards. There's an opportunity for growth in both winning an award or losing an award and I try to take it as that.

BLOCK: Well, R.A. Dickey, congratulations, great to talk to you.

DICKEY: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: That's R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets, winner of the National League Cy Young award. His book is "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest For Truth, Authenticity And The Perfect Knuckleball." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.