New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey at age 37 is a first-time All-Star but a long-time member of West End Community Church in Nashville. A literature major at the University of Tennessee, he names his bats after literary weapons such as Hrunting, a sword in the epic poem Beowulf. Dickey languished in the minor leagues from 1996 to 2007, when he almost drowned trying to swim across the Missouri River. That became a turning point in his career: That year he mastered the knuckleball, which is ideally thrown without spin so that slight air movements over the ball's stitched seams cause it to move in erratic and unpredictable ways.
In your recently published autobiography, Wherever I Wind Up, you're explicit about how God saved and changed your life. Journalists have interviewed you a lot over the past several months. What percentage of the interviewers have asked about your Christian faith? Probably 15 to 20 percent.
The subject didn't come up in your NPR interview. I brought it up. They edited it out. I always look for opportunities to talk about my faith in a way that is congruent with the story or the question that they ask, because it is important to me that people know. Most of the time it will be edited out.
Your description of the knuckleball-"The pitch has a mind of its own. You either embrace it for what it is-a pitch that is reliant on an amalgam of forces both seen and unseen-or you allow it to drive you half out of your mind"-seems like a metaphor for the mysteries of God's providence in the Christian life. To a certain extent it is, at least for me. An element of surrender has enabled me to get to the next place with the knuckleball. An element of surrender in my own life has helped me get to the next place in my faith and relationship to Christ. I didn't necessarily draw the parallel intentionally, but as a Christian there were so many times in my life where I wanted to control things and I would hold on to them so tightly that God couldn't get anywhere near them-or so I thought.
What things? My career for one. My past. My relationships. Finances. All those things in my life I tried to control and manipulate. When you let go of the knuckleball, it's completely outside of your control. It is an unperfectable pitch. It's too chaotic, with many forces at play that you're not in control of.
But you had to work hard to be in a position to throw a pitch you can't control. I would throw countless balls against the gym wall. I can close my eyes and remember the feeling-the sound of that ball hitting the cinderblock gymnasium wall and coming back to me, and me doing that again and again all over again, thousands of times. It took that for me to be where I am as a player.
Phil Niekro said you have an angry knuckleball. A traditional knuckleball you throw at 65-68 mph. Mine is 74-82 mph, so when it gets to the plate it is going to break violently, whereas a traditional knuckleball will float.
Some fastball pitchers talk about their anger on the mound. Do you have to put aside the anger to throw a little slower? It's much more for me than that. I need to be in a place of peace. Early on as a conventional pitcher I tried to pitch angry because that's what I was taught to do. It didn't work for me. Pitching angry takes me out of where I need to be. I'm much better in a serene place. I take deep breaths. I slow the game down and enjoy it.
How do you feel serene when it's late innings, tie game, bases loaded, fans roaring? I view what I do on the field as an act of worship. God has given me the gifts to do what I do, and when I use them fully I glorify Him. In those moments when it might seem most tense, in my mind I start singing a song.
What song? "My God is an Awesome God," or any song that I recall in the moment. It's in my mind: I'm not necessarily mouthing the words out there, but in my mind it always helps me to breathe, to feel the moment.
What were your expectations as you were growing up? I was always waiting for the next trauma around the corner. That grew out of sexual abuse and growing up in an unstable home where my parents got divorced early and the only validity I felt was through sports. It's taken 31 years for me to come to the place where I am able even to think about celebrating things.
You professed Christ at age 13. How did that help you, and how didn't it? It probably kept me from going over the edge with suicidal thoughts: I couldn't do that because of my faith. The hard part, though, was living it out. I had a past that was broken and fractured, and I didn't know what to do with it. I would read the Bible, but I wouldn't understand it. I was ashamed of my past and couldn't be completely authentic. I didn't have much shepherding. I had a relationship with Christ but a thousand questions that were never answered.
Are you able now to answer the question of why those evil things occurred in your childhood? There is a mystery to some of it, but although the evils that are manifested in this world are tough to reconcile a lot of times, that doesn't mean God can't use them in some way. The sexual abuse, for instance-because my wounds were deep the healing has been great. I now have a very intimate relationship with a living God whom I believe in. The deeper the wound and the more healing that has to take place, the greater God becomes. I don't have all the answers and I don't think that I will this side of eternity. There was a point in my life when I wasn't OK with that, but now I'm OK with not knowing and just trusting.
What happened during your almost-fatal attempt to swim the Missouri? I was 32 years old and had three kids and was on the brink of being released. In the river I had to come to terms with either living differently or leaving this place. It took me going to the bottom literally and figuratively.
And your wife put up with this? She's incredibly forgiving. When I wanted to give up baseball, she wouldn't let me. For her to stand in front of me, after what I put her through, and the lifestyle we had led, and for her to say, "I don't want you ever to have a regret." For someone who knows the worst things about you and loves you despite those-I don't know if there's a greater power on earth.