- Chris Jones
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THEIR RELATIONSHIP BEGAN with a text. On Dec. 17, the day veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey was traded to the Blue Jays, J.P. Arencibia, Toronto's 27-year-old catcher, sent his new pitcher a short message, part welcome, part introduction. For Arencibia especially, it was important that they get to know each other. There had been unsettling rumors that he was to be included in the trade. Now he stared down a different sort of anxiety: He had to learn how to catch a man he had once prayed he wouldn't have to face.
Those prayers had been answered when Dickey and the Mets visited Toronto last May and the Blue Jays fell between his starts. Arencibia's only exposure to the knuckleball had come against Boston's Tim Wakefield, and Dickey was a far scarier prospect, even more consistently unpredictable than Wakefield had been. After those games against the Red Sox, Arencibia had watched film of his at-bats and marveled at how the footage never did justice to the experience. "The ball would just dance," he says today. After the news of Dickey's arrival, he searched online for film of his future teammate. He found the infamous GIF of Dickey's knuckleball diving out and then in, the face of his hapless catcher a darkly hilarious vision of terror. It maybe wasn't the best thing for Arencibia to see.
But J.P. Arencibia is a man of significant determination and even greater faith. He and Dickey also both happen to live in Nashville -- more Grand Plan than coincidence, if you ask Arencibia -- and the two men agreed that they should play some catch. One morning in early January, they shook hands for the first time at Lipscomb University, a small Christian college in town. "We're both believers," Arencibia says. Dickey brought the oversize mitt that he carries around like a traveling salesman and his suitcase of samples; Arencibia brought only his mask. He decided that he wouldn't wear his shin guards or chest protector. He had also chosen, very purposefully, not to wear his cup.
To understand why Arencibia went jockless -- well, there's really no understanding it. His decision can, however, be explained. For most of his three-year career, Arencibia has been saddled with a reputation for only adequate defense. That reputation has bothered him, and he has worked hard to change it. Still, when Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos acquired Dickey, he asked for Mets catchers Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas (the victim in that GIF), in part because of their relative success in corralling Dickey's signature pitch. "I just didn't think we could take any chances," Anthopoulos said. He also signed veteran Henry Blanco, who caught Dickey's 2010 one-hitter against the Phillies. The organizational message seemed clear: Not everyone shared Arencibia's faith.
So Arencibia, in his unprotected undercarriage, was sending a message right back. "I don't want to miss every fifth game," he says. "It also makes you really, really concentrate." After a few warmup tosses with Dickey at their first high-stakes meeting, Arencibia assumed the position. It wasn't long before he took a pitch flush to his chest. But the two men played catch again, and again, and session by session Arencibia has learned more about Dickey, and about himself, and about the pitch.
In the way it took Dickey years to master his art, his craft, time has changed Arencibia's understanding of it too. "He does not want to be made out to be a fool," Dickey says. "He wants to really figure this thing out, and I think he will." He has come to see the knuckleball not as an opponent, as an enemy to be fought, but as something that wants to find its way into his giant glove. Dickey's knuckleball isn't mindless; it just has a mind of its own. "It's like a butterfly, a fast butterfly," Arencibia says. "You really just have to let it come to you."
The new friends continued to play catch. (Arencibia never did wear his cup; fortunately, he never needed it.) Now they've reported to spring training together. Both are expected to play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic in March -- "all these things are happening for a reason," Arencibia says -- and at last will come a telling Opening Day. Barring disaster, Dickey will be pitching. If J.P. Arencibia is behind the plate, you'll know that he's not the only one who has chosen to believe.
In ESPN The Magazine, Chris Jones writes about J.P. Arencibia and R.A. Dickey, now teammates in Toronto, learning to play together during the offseason. As Arencibia decided, protection was optional.