30 baseball books in 30 days of April, ’12: Day 12 — Dickey’s white knuckler becomes his tome de force


The book: “Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball”

The author: New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey, with New York Post writer Wayne Coffey

The vital stats: Blue Rider Press (Penguin Group), 352 pages, $26.95

Find it: At Powell’s (linked here) or Barnes & Noble (linked here). And at the publishers website (linked here).

The pitch: It’s an interesting process to see how some of the books in this series were released early by publishers for advanced reads, and how others were held close to the vest, without as much as a trickle of information getting out about it before it actually hit the book stores. It must depend on the marketing strategy and the content to be released. You have to know what to promote the heck out of, and what could sell itself.

This one was embargoed by the publisher for the better part of the last two months with few exceptions. One of them came about in April 2 issue of Sports Illustrated, where writer L. Jon Wertheim did a story about Dickey (linked here), and a larger excerpt was included. The book came out that week — it was released March 29.

Dickey has what sells — he plays in New York, he’s got something to say, the talent to say it, and there’s some scandal in his upbringing and his adult life in the minors.

Wertheim’s piece added plenty of context to Dickey’s story, in that the 37 year old was “literate and literary in the extreme,” his locker full of books “from C.S. Lewis to Tolkien … to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Beautiful and the Damned.’ … He is a rare baseball player whose interviews are parsed on the vocabulary.com blog.”

That speaks well of Dickey, but does it make for a book the common fan can read without running to a dictionary?

Short answer: Yes.

Dickey’s baseball career might not otherwise have been of any notice except that, after he was offered a huge signing bonus by the Texas Rangers, it was drastically reduced after the discovery that he has no ulna collateral ligament in his right elbow.

He struggled through some rough patches with the Rangers, but eventually pushed by his Christian faith, he reinvented himself as a knuckleballer — Rangers pitching coach Orel Hershiser suggested he go back to Triple-A and work on it. Dickey’s previous nine seasons and 72 games have produced just a 15-17 record and 5.48 ERA, which he admits are “fringe big-league numbers.”

Today, Dickey is the only knuckleballer left as a starter in the big leagues after the retirement of Tim Wakefield (who did his own autobiography last season).

An excerpt: The piece that has already been in SI (linked here), but seems to be more of what those who get the book want to hear more about:

“A hot night in the middle of a hot Nashville summer, and the air is sticky as cotton candy. I am heading into the fourth grade. … One Saturday my mother tells me she is going out that night and is leaving my sister and me with a babysitter. It’s someone new, my mother says. She’s supposed to be very nice.

“She is 13, a tall girl with an athletic physique and fair skin and long brown hair. She does seem nice …

“The babysitter and I are alone in the foyer. How old are you now? she asks. Eight, I reply … Why don’t we go upstairs, the girl tells me. …

“She looks at me and says, Get in the bed. I am confused and afraid. I am trembling. The babysitter has her way with me four or five more times that summer and into the fall and each time feels more wicked than the time before. Every time that I know I’m going back over there, the sweat starts to come. I sit in the front seat of the car, next to my mother, anxiety surging. I never tell her why I am so afraid. I never tell anyone until I am 31 years old.”

There’s also this excerpt where he describes his 2011 Opening Day start:

“We lost, 6-2 and I am completely humbled and deflated.

“Opening day. Check

“Huge ovation. Check.

“Broken nail. Checkmate.

“I don’t even make it into the sixth inning. It makes me sick.

“I spend the days ahead obsessing over my busted nail. I take calcium supplements. I apply Trind frequently with a little applicator brush. Two days before my next start, the nail is growing nicely and I do my scheduled bullpen. About halfway through a seventy-pitch session, I throw a knuckleball and the nail split again. Blood spurts all over my right hand.

“This time the split is all the way down the nail bed.

“Now I am in a real bind. I’ve got basically no nail and know if I go out there against the Rockies in such a condition, I’m going to get raked. I tell Dan Warthen that I need to get to a nail salon ASAP. The words aren’t out of my mouth when I think about how ridiculous they sound. I try to imagine Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander rushing up to their pitching coaches and saying, ‘ got an emergency. I need to make an emergency run to a nail joint’.”

Another excerpt from the New York Daily News (linked here).

How it goes down in the scorebook: Wertheim said “it might be the finest piece of nonfiction baseball writing since ‘Ball Four.'”

Another reviewer said it was “The Glass Castle” meets “Ball Four.”

An English Lit major at the University of Tennessee, Dickey obviously knows how to put the words to the computer screen. The knuckleball really is the metaphor for his life, as every one he throws has its own personality, can be deadly effectively or painfully ineffective. And it’s all that it’s advertised in thought-provoking content. He’s been though a lot.

But in a sense, we read this as a story that Dirk Hayhurst could have, or might have done better, had he made it as a decent big-leaguer. Hayhurst has come out recently with “Out Of My League,” the followup to his “Bullpen Gospels.” That’s a book where some also referred to as “Ball Four” meets “Catcher in the Rye.”

Not to take away from what Dickey has to offer. He’s got an ear for the language and the audacity to put himself in the line of fire with this creation. Even more courageous, he’s put this out there while still earning a multi-million salary. This isn’t a look back what could have been as a player. It’s what still is. And for that fact alone, it’s worth absorbing and having a better appreciation for what he’s been through once he reaches the mound later this year against the Dodgers.

“I felt like God has given me a very unique story,” he told one questioner during an ESPN chat earlier this week (linked here). “I wanted to be a good steward with that story. I wanted to tell the hard truth about the things in my life and perhaps lend hope to those that might have had similar experiences.”

Then this 37-year-old father of four, who happens to play baseball, has succeeded.

More: Another review of Dickey’s book on MLB.com (linked here), as well as an interview Dickey did with a Baltimore sports talk station (linked here).

And listen to Dickey explain his book from an appearance on NPR’s “Fresh Air” (linked here).

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