Commentary

Storybook end for Mets' unlikely ace

Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey's magical 2012 concludes with NL Cy Young Award

Updated: November 14, 2012, 9:49 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

The Baseball Writers' Association of America has occasionally proved to be a coldly detached, gimlet-eyed bunch when it comes to voting certain players into the Baseball Hall of Fame. But when it came to another honorific the BBWAA hands out, it didn't allow the storybook season of Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey to conclude without a happy ending writ large.

Wednesday night, it was announced Dickey had been voted the winner of the 2012 National League Cy Young Award. And the best thing was, the 38-year-old Dickey -- the first knuckleballer ever to win the award -- didn't need his amazing personal backstory to lift him over the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw.

Dickey earned it for what he did on the mound.

The Mets right-hander finished 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA and led the NL in innings pitched, shutouts and strikeouts. And the voting -- 209 points for Dickey to 96 for Kershaw, the defending Cy Young champ -- wasn't even close. Dickey captured 27 first-place votes to just two for Kershaw.

R. A. Dickey
Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireR.A. Dickey can take a well-deserved bow.

That didn't stop Dickey from suggesting that his heart was fluttering like one of his pitches when it was revealed live on the MLB Network he'd won.

"Man, I'm kind of speechless, believe it or not," Dickey said. "It's a real honor. To be mentioned in the same breath against some of the best pitchers in history, let alone this year ... For me, this is an honor to be shared. It's a great honor, and I am not a self-made man by any stretch of the imagination. There have been countless people that poured into me in a way that changed my life."

The way Dickey made that latest addendum to his story was pitch perfect. He thanked previous knuckleballers like Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro, for tutoring him, and his wife, for sticking by him.

When asked what the toughest part of being a knuckleballer is, Dickey answered, "I think it's overcoming the reputation that the pitch is so fickle. You really have to earn the trust of your manager and general manager. On the periphery, there's always the thought that this pitch can't be controlled. I just tried to be as consistent as I can."

And so ends the warmest and greatest story of the Mets' otherwise dreary 2012 season besides Johan Santana's snapshot moment of throwing the franchise's long-awaited first no-hitter.

Dickey was the best reason Mets fans had to come out to the ballpark in a year that saw Jose Reyes leave the franchise too soon and Jason Bay not leave soon enough. Dickey was the Mets' best story when they were still playing better than expected into June, and he remained their most riveting plotline when they spiraled far out of the NL East race by Labor Day.

Dickey's starts were mark-your-calendar viewing to the end. He gave Mets fans reasons to care, for a change, about who the National League's starting pitcher should be in the All-Star Game by throwing down the most dominant stretch any starter in the league mustered all year.

Beginning with an outing against the Pirates on May 22, Dickey went 7-0 in his next eight starts with a microscopic 0.86 ERA. He also became just the seventh pitcher ever -- and first since Toronto's Dave Stieb in 1988 -- to throw back-to-back one-hitters.

No one in major league history ever duplicated his tear of five straight starts with eight or more strikeouts and no earned runs allowed. So anyone who says they can find a disqualifier in Dickey's 2012 slash line is just nitpicking.

Dickey accomplished all that after releasing a best-selling book called "Wherever I Wind Up" that bracingly detailed the childhood sexual abuse and career setbacks hurled his way before he got to this point. Some of the stories he has told, like the one about getting his signing bonus revoked after the Rangers discovered, only after drafting him 18th overall, that he was born without the ulnar (or "Tommy John") ligament in his pitching elbow, or the one about how he struggled the next decade to stick in the big leagues as he bounced among four organizations, made his climb of Mount Kilimanjaro for charity last offseason look like child's play.

The funny thing is, there's nothing about the way Dickey looks -- from his professorial beard to his sleepy-eyed face, from his hiked-up uniform pants to his throwback high knee socks -- that betrays how electric he can be when he pitches.

He's the rarest of creatures: A knuckleballer who walks hardly anyone. A knuckleballer who touches 80 mph on the radar gun. And for a magical stretch from May through late June, Dickey was so dominant even longtime baseball insiders said they hadn't seen anything like it from a Mets pitcher since Doc Gooden broke in. But Gooden was a fireballer. Dickey led the NL in strikeouts (230) doing it his way.

Even people who aren't baseball fans can find some inspiration in what Dickey has done. Hopefully, winning the Cy Young Award will acquaint more people with his story.

If sports has any value at all, it's often found in what it reveals about people. It's not just the entertainment the games bring. By that standard too, it's hard to beat the perseverance and thought, dedication and love Dickey poured into chasing his baseball dream, or the leap of faith it took for him to accept Orel Hershiser's advice, when both of them were still with the Texas Rangers, that Dickey should reinvent himself as a knuckleballer.

"Well, I don't think I ever gave up hope," Dickey said. "My hopes always outweighed my doubts and that kept me going."

He also thanked his wife for "always being in my stable ... She never wanted me to have a singular regret."

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson has insisted he wants to re-sign Dickey to a new contract rather than let him walk away for nothing in free agency as Reyes did right after he won the 2011 NL batting title. So, we'll see.

But if Dickey's season could warm even the hearts and minds of cranky baseball writers, the Wilpons should surely be able to find a few more dollars in the wall safe to pay the man and give him the two-year contract he's seeking.

Dickey isn't young anymore, but a knuckleballer's arm can remain almost ageless.

Even with Santana around, Dickey still became the ace of the Mets' staff and he'd be a great mentor to the young pitchers coming up in their system.

Dickey didn't need the validation that the Cy Young Award brings to prove the Mets ought to keep him around. But it's another reason.

"[This season] affected me in a supernatural way," Dickey said, using one of his trademark words, during an eloquent conference call he held with reporters, to elaborate on how his imagination and unshakable resolve, coupled with the kindness and demonstrated belief in him from others, lifted him to an unlikely spot like this.

And there's no telling what R.A. Dickey might do next.

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