Sports books often have little content that appeals to non-fans. This book is one of the exceptions. The baseball in this book is plenty for the sports fan to enjoy. But, what sets this book apart from the rabble is the non-sports story of this man – R. A. Dickey. If it were fiction, it would be derided as sappy and unbelievable. Fortunately, it’s not fiction. It’s inspiration.
Dickey’s sports story is plenty on its own to be uplifting, heartbreaking, and satisfying. He was a star in high school, then at the University of Tennessee. He pitched for the USA Olympic team in 1996 in Atlanta. Then, he was a first round draft choice of the Texas Rangers. A kid who grew up without money, he now had an $800,000 signing bonus. Until it was rescinded by the team after Dickey’s pre-signing physical revealed a shocking fact – the man’s right elbow was missing its ulnar collateral ligament. According to the doctors, he shouldn’t be able to open a door, let alone pitch a baseball. Yet, there he was, throwing 93 mile-an-hour fastballs, on the mound pitching 12 innings in the championship game of the College World Series. But, the Rangers were worried and so they pulled back his offer. Dickey eventually did sign, for a $75,000 bonus, and began a career as a pitcher that went nowhere – slowly.
After 9 seasons in the minor leagues, with a brief call-up to the majors that didn’t go well, the team told him that they were letting him go – unless he wanted to take that knuckleball he had been toying around with and make that his primary pitching weapon – remaking himself as a knuckleball pitcher. Dickey didn’t have much choice, and said yes. Then, his journey as a pitcher restarted in his early thirties. He worked, studied, got coaching from one of the great Knuckleballers of the past, and got back to the big leagues. But, all through the journey, there was doubt and skepticism, and failure to go along with optimism and occasional success. In the end (and it’s not a spoiler, because it’s well known fact), Dickey won the Cy Young award in 2013 as the best pitcher in the National League. It was the only time a knuckleball pitcher ever won the award.
That sports story of high hopes, then crushed dreams, then hard work, then re-making himself, then more hard work, then ultimate victory, would be an inspirational tale worth telling. The writing here (reflecting Dickey’s stature as one of the most well-spoken pro athletes) is excellent (with one quirky stylistic element that actually works). So, this would be a really good sports book about a really good sports story. Baseball fans would love it, and it would sell plenty and make money for the author, Wayne Coffey, the sportswriter co-author, and the publisher.
But this book is so much more than that.
Dickey’s story includes a childhood that was not only riddled by divorce, economic insecurity, and alcoholism. It was also shattered by sexual abuse, which Dickey buried inside and never talked about until his adult years. The story includes marrying and having children, and struggling to reconcile his baseball ambitions with the reality of what being a career minor-leaguer was doing to his family. It includes his ultimate acknowledgement of his past trauma and the damage that has done to his psyche. It includes his budding Christianity and his relationship with God, which brings him both comfort and also guilt and conflict. It’s the story of a troubled and tortured man, and his fight to climb out of his dark place rather than kill himself. And it includes a swim across the Missouri River. (I would spoil that for you.)
The universal human struggles here make this story far beyond baseball or sports. This is a story about a human being with flaws and secrets and troubles, trying to make sense of his life and gain success in his chosen field, while trying not to lose everything else in the process.
It’s an inspiration. I cried several times while reading this book. I’m glad I did.
I recently re-read the book in preparation for discussions about it in a book club. I cried again. This is one of the few books on my shelf that I have read multiple times. As sports books go, only The Boys in the Boat rivals it for number 1 on my all-time best list. I don’t give out stars or numerical ratings on my book review blog, but this gets the highest possible recommendation. Even if you think you hate sports books, give this a read. You won’t regret it.