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Saturday, December 1, 2012
Updated: December 2, 6:17 PM ET
The knuckleball experiment

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

R.A. Dickey
In his first minor league start as a knuckleballer, Dickey gave up 12 runs.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 10 Interview issue. Subscribe today!

TIM KURKJIAN: R.A., do you remember this heart-to-heart you had with Orel [then the pitching coach with Dickey's team, the Rangers] about your career? Let's start with that, the '05 conversation with Orel.
R.A. DICKEY: OK. Well, I just kind of ran out of pellet juice, you know? When Orel was a pitching coach in 2003 and, you know, there was some real hope for me to become maybe a fourth or fifth starter, a really good swing man, I was low 90s -- you know, high 80s, low 90s, and could really change speeds well. But in 2004, 2005, I just started -- the velocity started dropping from low 90s to max 88, to max 86. I'd run out of gas as a conventional pitcher [with the Rangers] and was kind of just hanging on, just trying to survive as long as I could before I felt like the inevitable call would come. When Orel approached me, it was never a hard line in the sand. It was always, "We think you can become a great knuckleball pitcher." And the way they presented it to me made it very appealing.

KURKJIAN: Orel, what do you remember about that conversation? I mean, you essentially had to go tell a veteran pitcher, "We don't think you can do this anymore."
OREL HERSHISER: Well, you know, a compliment to R.A., because you don't have this relationship with every pitcher, every player. R.A. is such a personable and honest guy that we had a deeper relationship than just having a normal pitching coach/pitcher relationship. I mean, R.A. is a very outgoing guy. He's going to do everything he can to improve himself and to improve the team. And even during the times when he was pitching well, he was always a work in progress. I can just remember guys that you're actually closer to than pitchers who really don't want to let you into their life and to their career. You're their coach, but you're not there every moment, every decision with them. R.A. is that kind of open guy that he trusts people, wants to learn and makes his own decisions -- that made the conversation so much easier.

R.A. Dickey
"Each generation gets better, and R.A.'s had the benefit of all this knowledge," Hershiser says.

KURKJIAN: That's very interesting. Now, Orel, this is -- what did you see in R.A. Dickey that suggested that he could throw a knuckleball, when we have established how difficult that pitch is to throw? What was it about him that made you think he can do this?
HERSHISER: First, he was relentless with conventional pitching to find the ultimate answer and to get better -- to succeed. And you then reach, really, a hopeless point where, as a pitching coach, you know [from meetings] that the staff wants to send people down. Mark Connor and I ran out of rope with R.A. [Yet] he was somebody who we thought deserved as many shots as possible, because we wanted him around and we wanted him to succeed. So we just brainstormed, What do we think? And not only for the Texas Rangers but for R.A. Dickey? What is the next step? Because Mark Connor taught me that. This is a veteran pitching coach who absolutely loves his guys. And he taught me about looking at your pitchers and planning the rest of their life for them. Not just what it is for the Rangers, but, how do you propose things to pitchers when they're ... looking at their whole life.

And so, when we looked at R.A.'s whole life it was, you know what? His velocity is going to continue to go down. He's reached an age where it normally comes down. He's also got no ligament in his elbow [he was born without an ulnar collateral ligament]. He's also working as hard as possible, so he's at the best shape possible. So, we didn't see any upside as a conventional pitcher.

And we actually had a secret pitch called "The Thing." So, we had already had kind of like this inside conversation on pitching going on and how to make him a better pitcher.

KURKJIAN: So, R.A., what was this pitch that Orel calls "The Thing?"
R.A. DICKEY: It was held like a hybrid knuckleball. I held it with my fingers and dug into the seams. And I would just throw the thing as hard as I could, and it would impart, you know, almost like this forkball-type spin. Like a real slow forkball. I remember, ironically, I pitched on a Sunday night game against the Boston Red Sox [on May 2, 2004]. And Tim Wakefield happened to be the pitcher on "Sunday Night Baseball." And I would look over from time to time in the dugout when I was struggling with a hitter, and Orel would flash me a quick sign. He was giving me "The Thing" sign. And we were having some real success with it. And that, for me, was the genesis of the whole knuckleball, you know, experiment.

KURKJIAN: Buck Showalter [then the Rangers' manager] told me that you were predisposed to throw a knuckleball because you had a short stride anyway. And you had these really -- I'm quoting here -- "really big, strong fingernails."
DICKEY: Yeah, I felt like I had the makeup for it. And when you're a knuckleballer you don't have to throw hard, so I was excited about that right away. Because I couldn't throw hard anymore. [Laughter]

KURKJIAN: How long did it take you to realize that, I'm no longer a traditional pitcher, I'm a knuckleball pitcher?
R.A. DICKEY: Well, I would probably say about a week. Because I really felt like I needed to grieve. Kind of saying goodbye to who I once was. I mean, that's how I was drafted in the first round. That's how I made it to the Olympic team. That's how I got a college scholarship. That's how I eventually got to the big leagues. And it's all I had ever known for the bulk of my life as a pitcher. And so, I had to really be sad about that for a little while, in order to get to the place where I could fully embrace becoming a knuckleballer. And that took probably four or five days. And when I first went down, I mean, I got it handed to me for a good month.

KURKJIAN: Was there a night in the minor leagues that you'll never forget because you got it handed to you so badly?
DICKEY: Try this line on for size. I promise this is right on the money: Five innings pitched, 11 hits [actually, it was 14], 11 runs [actually, it was 12], like five walks, one strikeout [actually, it was zero]. That was my first outing. And I'm out there thinking -- after about the ninth run, Tim, I was thinking, What have I done? [Laughter]

What have I done? But we stayed with it, man. We stayed with it. And I threw a bullpen the very next day, because you can do that with a knuckleball. It's not as tough on your arm, And then the next outing was a little bit better, and we gradually started to improve throughout the summer. I started speeding the pitch up a little bit and started having some success with it. Mel Didier was a scout with us at the time. I know Orel remembers this. And he caught me on a couple of good games, so I felt like he was reporting back to the big club that I was making big strides. And I knew that they were going to want to see it in September. And that's when I got called back up, in September, after spending a couple of months with it in the minor leagues. And when we went to Anaheim, I reached out to [retired knuckleballer] Charlie Hough, and I met him at Angel Stadium before batting practice one day, to go out and throw with him.

I was scared to death, to be honest. Because I figured if he saw me throw, and he said to Orel or Buck, You know, this kid, he probably is never going to get it -- well, that would be it.

And right away, I remember the first 10 minutes we were talking, he changed my grip. Right away. In the first 10 minutes.

HERSHISER: Can you imagine? Somebody changing the grip on my sinker, and then saying, Hey, let's throw a side (inaudible) out? Changing the grip on your curveball and then feeling like you're being evaluated? I can't imagine somebody moving my fingers for a knuckleball and then doing that.
DICKEY: Yeah. And that's actually the grip that I've used ever since that moment.
KURKJIAN: Wow.
DICKEY: I went to the bullpen. I remember Josh Frasier was the bullpen catcher. Orel was standing behind me with Goose [Mark Connor, the bullpen coach] and Charlie, and we were out there in the sun in Anaheim, and I was throwing as many knuckleballs as fast as I could. And Charlie thought I had a shot.

KURKJIAN: Orel, I know you know Charlie very well. Take me to that day when you're standing next to Charlie and you're watching R.A. throw.
HERSHISER: Well, for me it wasn't a tryout as much as, let's get Charlie on the page here. And Charlie didn't say anything, R.A., behind your back. He did think you could do this.

KURKJIAN: R.A., after all that, the next season, you still had this famous night in Texas -- or infamous night in Texas, April the 6th of 2006, when you lasted 3 1/3 and gave up six homers. Tell me about that night.
DICKEY: I've tried to work on myself over the last four or five years, so I want to give you a completely honest answer. Before I went into that game, I knew that I wasn't where I needed to be. When we left spring training I knew I wasn't where I needed to be. After that game, I felt like -- immediately after, I felt like I was doomed as a baseball player. I mean, I was really low. You feel like you've been given this grand opportunity. You've put in the work. You've had people believe in you. So, not only have you let those people down; you've also probably, you know, forfeited another chance to pitch in the big leagues. That game was certainly one of the lower points in my professional career, if not the lowest.

KURKJIAN: And Orel, as a pitcher you must appreciate what it's like to be out there, where nothing is going right and you feel like this is a disaster.
HERSHISER: In some ways you feel naked, because you understand the game enough and you understand the tools you're bringing to the game. And you have this battle within you to either (A) be aggressive, or (B) calm down, or (C) do [something else]. There are so many battles you're fighting. It takes extreme focus to stay on a positive note, which is almost impossible.

KURKJIAN: How did you move forward?
DICKEY: Well I continued to work at it [even after he was sent to the minors during 2006]. I'll never forget, looking at my wife after the '06 season, the year that I gave up those home runs -- I had one offer. One offer to play. It was from the Milwaukee Brewers and their Triple-A Nashville Sounds. I said, "Honey, I'll give it up right now if you want me to." And she looked at me and said, "I don't want you to have a single regret." And I took the job and became the PCL Pitcher of the Year.

KURKJIAN: Orel, I assume you took a great interest in this, and you were continually watching from afar at times at how he was doing?
HERSHISER: Mark Connor and I would text or call after R.A.'s outings. And we would just talk about him sometimes.
DICKEY: But all the while, I was just kind of back and forth, not really understanding my complete personality with the pitch. I thought the Rangers wanted a Tim Wakefield-type knuckleballer. And so I backed off my velocity.

Then, in the offseason of 2008, I met with [Hall of Fame knuckleballer] Phil Niekro. And he watched my tape and said, "You're leaving a lot of your strength over the rubber." I would almost throw the pitch with my right foot still embedded in front of the rubber, instead of firing my hips and being an athlete and exploding toward the target. I was so worried about the mechanics. He kind of woke me up and said, "Look, man, you're an athlete. Be an athlete. Explode toward your target." And that kind of clicked for me. And from then on, you know, I was able to really be an athlete with it, and my velocity with it really improved. It went from, like low 70s to all of a sudden, you know, comfortably in the mid- to upper-70s with it. I wasn't who I was going to ultimately become after that session; but he gave me a piece.

KURKJIAN: Orel, back to you. The thing that dazzles me the most is how many strikes this guy threw with a knuckleball. He went one half of the season last year without throwing a wild pitch.
HERSHISER: Every generation gets better, and R.A. has had the benefit of all this different knowledge.
DICKEY: Charlie Hough told me the first day that I met with him: "It took me one day to learn how to throw a knuckleball and a lifetime to learn how to throw it for strikes." So, everything that I wanted to do from that point forward was bent on, how can I throw this pitch with no spin in the strike zone, 80 percent of the time? That was my number one goal. And everything that I filed away or wrote down or worked on against a brick wall somewhere was bent toward that end.

R.A. Dickey
"I was out there thinking, What have I done?" Dickey says.

It started with the height. I figured out after about throwing it for two years that if I aim about two balls above the catcher's mask that 80 percent of the time, it was going to end up a strike. The key is, obviously, to be able to take spin off. And once I learned to take spin off, then all of a sudden I wanted to try to impart a little bit of spin. I wanted to try to kind of put a quarter of a revolution on it, to make it go down and away. Or get inside of it a little bit, to make it go to the back foot of a righty, almost like a screwball. And now, I'm looking for the little things that will put me over the top. Like, for instance, this year against the Pittsburgh Pirates [on May 22]; it was the first game of the year that I had double-digit strikeouts. I was going good. I was feeling good. I was able to have my regular knuckleball. But then all of a sudden I threw a knuckleball and it sailed about chest-high, and it got a swing through for a strike three. And then the next time I had an 0-2, I did the same thing. And all of a sudden, something clicked. And it was a mechanical thing that, with my wrist and the way that I was holding the pitch -- that I was able to identify. I would have never been able to do that before, because I didn't really have a real secure foundation.

KURKJIAN: R.A., tell us why you think you're better at 70 percent than 100 percent capacity?
DICKEY: Well, when I operate at 100 percent or maximum effort, a lot of times I'll over-rotate the baseball. If I'm in a good place mechanically, I can kind of step on the gas a little bit and throw some knuckleballs in the low 80s. This past year I threw quite a few knuckleballs at 80, or between 80 and 83, and that's because mechanically I felt really good with it. But most of the game, I'm at 70 percent, because that's where I throw my best knuckleball. My best knuckleballs for a strike -- my go-to knuckleball is at about 70 percent. It comes in there about 74, 76 mph.
HERSHISER: It's kind of like your child growing up and, you know, he becomes president of the United States or something. It's like, can you believe that that long=ago conversation has turned into this? It's a great blessing in my life. And every time he talks, I can kind of plot my own career. Charlie Hough taught me how to play catch. You know, we both lived in Southern California and we were working out, and I was a young Dodger. Listening to R.A. talk about just the details of trying to perfect something and learn every day, is the same journey that I took, the same journey that a lot of pitchers end up taking.

You get a guy like R.A. Dickey and you say, "Look, he's been at the bottom. He's been kicked down. He's been stood on. He's been publicly humiliated in everything that he's put on the line." And he can pick up a baseball, and someday, when he retires, he will start to bawl, because of everything he's put into that ball.

DICKEY: In the last five years I made the discovery that I'm much better operating, trying to live the next five minutes well, and trying to be in the moment as much as possible. And that goes for my career as a pitcher too. I try to break down each pitch. I throw 120 pitches in a game. That's 120 separate commitments that I need to make over the course of the game.

If I'm able to do that, Orel, I don't have any regrets. I wish I would have figured this out when we were together.

KURKJIAN: Orel, when you go back to that conversation that you had with R.A. DICKEY in 2005, when you told him basically, "Son, you have to become a knuckleballer," -- what kind of feeling you get when you look at that conversation, and then go seven years later to where we are right now.
HERSHISER: I mean, it is so hard to put words in it, because I'll be -- I'll probably start crying. I mean, it's ...
DICKEY: Me, too. [Laughter].
HERSHISER: I'm getting a knot in my throat just thinking about it. Because there's so many connections between our journeys. You know, I was a 17th rounder. I never was supposed to make it. I was a suspect, not a prospect. I gave up 26 earned runs in three outings in Double-A, and thought I would never see the light of day ever again in my life. And like R.A. has had conversations, the lightbulb went on about the quest to be better. And R.A. has lived that. And I've been one of the guys that's helped him. And so, it's just so unbelievable to think we were talking to a guy that saved his career, and now we might be talking to a Cy Young? It's too hard to encompass into words.
DICKEY: I'm just going to go ahead and tell you, I'm going to start weeping.

KURKJIAN: Just do your best. The seven years between your conversation with Orel and today -- what has this meant?
DICKEY: Well, I think I have to first just -- golly, man -- you know, I (inaudible) already.
HERSHISER: [Laughter].
DICKEY: The -- I just -- I love narrative. I love human narrative. I just think that there's so much to relationship that makes life so rich. And I think what makes me appreciate the place that I am now from the place that I was, are the relationships, and the people who have invested in me. And to be able to celebrate a year like this year, with them -- people who believed in me when nobody else did. People who patted me on the back in the darkness of giving up 11 runs in a minor league game. I mean just, all these people -- they're countless.

Tim Kurkjian interviewed Dickey and Hershiser on Nov. 12, 2012. Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.