This has been the Year of R.A. Dickey.
Since the calendar turned to 2012, the Mets pitcher has:
- risked his contract to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro on behalf of an organization (Bombay Teen Challenge) fighting sex trafficking in Mumbai, India;
- published a best-selling memoir that won immediate attention for its frank account of being molested as a youth and its honest appraisal of the author’s failings on and off the field; and
- been the best pitcher in the National League.
Not bad for a guy without a crucial ligament in his pitching elbow; not bad for a guy cut loose by four different major league organizations, one of them the Twins.
Considering the shambles that has been the Minnesota rotation, the fact that the Twins had Dickey and let him go stings a bit — even if there was little reason after the 2009 season for the Twins to retain him.
Step back in time. It’s 1996, and Dickey, ace pitcher for the University of Tennessee, is a member of the U.S. team in the Atlanta Olympics and the first-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers. Baseball America runs a cover photo of the Team USA pitchers, and the Rangers’ team orthopedist notices something odd in the way Dickey’s arm hangs. When Dickey reports for his pre-contract physical, the doctor is looking for something.
He finds it — or more accurately, doesn’t. Dickey lacks his ulnar collateral ligament, the one that is replaced when someone has Tommy John surgery. It’s not that it’s torn; it’s that it apparently never existed.
Good-bye big signing bonus; hello, life as a Quadruple A pitcher.
Pitching without that ligament, working with a conventional repertoire of pitches, and coping with one of baseball’s most extreme hitters park as his home environment, Dickey reaches the majors with Texas but never fully establishes himself. His lowest ERA with Texas is 5.09.
In 2005, looking professional oblivion in the face, he starts throwing the knuckleball. In 2006, he gets called up, makes one start, gives up six home runs in 3.1 innings, goes back to the minors. He’s 31, and the Rangers release him.
He spends 2007 with Milwaukee’s Triple A team, working on his knuckler. He signs a minor league deal with the Twins after the season, only to be taken by Seattle in the Rule V draft.
The Mariners give the Twins a minor league catcher for Dickey’s Rule V rights, and Dickey spends much of 2008 in the majors. ERA: 5.21, and this time it’s in a pitchers park.
Seattle cuts him loose, and he signs a minor league deal with the Twins (after the Rule V draft). He opens the 2009 season in Triple A, but the Twins quickly call him up.
He’s a long man and spot starter, and he has a sudden burst of effectiveness starting in May. At the end of May, his ERA is 3.26; at the end of June, 2.45.
Then comes disaster.
July 3 through Aug. 5 — a bit more than a month — he pitches 11 times, 18.2 innings with an ERA of 10.13, a batting average allowed of .381, 12 walks, nine strikeouts.
The Twins outright him back to Triple A, where he racks up an ERA of 5.13, and release him at season’s end.
And the Mets sign him to a minor league deal for 2010, he gets called up for a spot start, does well, gets another, does well, sticks in the rotation ...
And now Dickey is famous. Now he’s a star who entered his start Sunday night with a 11-1 record, a 2.00 ERA, with 102 strikeouts and just 21 walks in 99 innings.
The Twins had the right idea, just at the wrong time.
Edward Thoma (377-6377, firstname.lastname@example.org) has a baseball blog at www.mankatofreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.