At 41 and heading into his 14th major-league season, R.A. Dickey has a scruffy beard, gently streaked with flecks of grey.
He often sports a retro look as he goes about his business at the Toronto Blue Jays spring training facility, and it suits him. His T-shirt is sleeveless and his head is usually wrapped in a bandana.
Think Willie Nelson, minus the joint.
And like Nelson, Dickey is more of a country-music guy – he hails from Nashville, after all. He will often wince at the more raucous selections that his younger teammates will have blaring in the room.
Once last year in Toronto, Dickey walked up to a female reporter who was in the clubhouse, someone he’d never met, and apologized for her having been exposed to the offensive lyrics of one of the rap songs.
When Dickey starts his first Blue Jays game this season, he will be the third-oldest player on an opening day roster.
Only pitcher Bartolo Colon of the New York Mets and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki of the Miami Marlins, who are both 42, will be older.
To put it in perspective, when Dickey turns 42 in October, he will be twice as old as Roberto Osuna, Toronto’s burgeoning bullpen star.
“I’m happy to be able to say I would probably be voted on to the all-40-and-over team,” Dickey retorted earlier this week when asked if he ever thought he would still be pitching at this age.
By the standards of competitive sports not including darts and lawn bowling, Dickey is ancient.
At an age when the most pressing statistic others deal with is their cholesterol levels, Dickey is still consumed with wins and losses and trying to master the seemingly unmasterable – the knuckleball pitch.
“It’s a unique role I feel like because you’ve been able to see things that a lot of guys haven’t and you can share that experience with younger guys,” he said about his role as one of the game’s elder statesmen. “And help them cope and acclimate to a big-league lifestyle that’s very difficult to navigate. You don’t have people coming alongside of you really helping you along the way. It’s not easy, especially if you’ve got a family.
“So it puts me in a very unique situation where I’ve got a lot more in common with the coaches than I do with a lot of the players. And that’s okay. I’ve found that it’s a role that suits me. I’ve always been one that has tried to lead by example much more than vocally.”
Earnest and articulate, Dickey has easily slipped into the role as the team’s clubhouse conscience and his answers are almost Zen-like when discussing the nature of throwing the knuckleball.
Hard to control but easy on the arm, the knuckleball is the reason why, like Tim Wakefield and Phil Niekro before him, Dickey has been able to stretch his career into his fifth decade.
The rubber-armed Niekro pitched until he was 48 in 1987 and, at 41, racked up a now-implausible 275 innings with the Atlanta Braves.
“It’s a lot different era now for sure,” Dickey said. “The only thing he [Niekro] did to stay in shape was play Ping-Pong. And we have a Ping-Pong table here, so I might get after it. He was just so blessed genetically and with a pitch that didn’t require the effort level that a lot of guys who throw 98 or 95 require. So he was able to pitch a long time.
“With what we know now about the science behind nutrition and the way our bodies work and the physiology [behind it], there’s no reason to think that I couldn’t pitch well into my 40s.”
Although it is difficult to gauge pitchers at spring training, where their work in games is limited against often somewhat suspect hitters, Dickey has looked good.
Having lost 12 pounds to help offset the stress on a left knee that required arthroscopic surgery in the off-season, Dickey has breezed through five innings in two starts, allowing one run off three hits.
Dickey said the biggest challenge he faces these days is just readying himself to pitch every fifth day. When he was younger, that was easier.
“Before, I could just kind of appear and go compete,” he said. “And now I really have to be intentional about it.”
Dickey’s contract is up at the end of this season, and he could be pitching for another team. He still believes he could pitch for another five years or so.
But does he want to?
“That’s the question,” he said. “I think for me it’s a family decision from here going forward. And we’ll see. But I certainly feel like I could keep contributing at the big-league level. I think I could be a piece of the puzzle for a team going forward, whether it’s this one or another one.
“I feel great and all my velocity is still there and still field my position well. I don’t think I’m a liability like with runners on or things like that. So I don’t see any reason why I can’t keep going.”Report Typo/Error
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