When knuckleballer R.A. Dickey joins a new club, he comes bearing gifts. Special catcher’s mitts, courtesy of Rawlings.
But even with the bigger glove, Blue Jays catcher Josh Thole says hanging on to one of Dickey’s deliveries is a challenge.
“We have no idea where it’s going,” said Thole, who came over with Dickey in a December trade from the Mets. “We can give it our best shot and I can guess, like I do half the time. But a lot of times, having the bigger glove helps.”
The glove is also padded more, which helps when you’re trying to snag a ball with a mind of its own. Just catching it is a success, never mind finding the sweet spot of the glove.
“Rawlings sends him loads of them,” said Thole. “He just hands them out to all the catchers and lets them break them in and kind of play with them a bit.”
Thole, 26, remembers his first attempt at catching Dickey. It was 2010 in the Mets bullpen and he didn’t look very good.
“I missed the first three balls in front of the manager, the general manager and the owner of the team,” he said. “I feel definitely like I’ve come a long way (since).”
Dickey’s knuckleball is unique in that he throws it harder — at about 77 miles per hour — than traditional practitioners of the floating pitch. And he has a few other pitches to help set it up.
That combination carried Dickey to the National League Cy Young Award last year when he went 20-6 with a 2.73 earned run average. He led the NL in innings (233 2/3), strikeouts (230), complete games (5) and shutouts (3).
Dickey’s knuckleball is so deceptive that Dane Johnson, a minor league pitching co-ordinator for the Jays, had a tough time hauling it in even when Dickey announced it before throwing it as they tossed the ball around in the outfield earlier this week.
In the absence of other recently acquired storylines like Melky Cabrera (drug suspension) and Jose Reyes (all-star) who have yet to report, Dickey has been in the spotlight at the Jays camp, although pitcher Mark Buehrle stole some of the show Wednesday when he met the media for the first time since arriving for spring training.
The former Miami Marlin has elected to leave his family behind when he comes to Toronto rather than leave Slater, one of their four dogs, behind because of Ontario’s pit bull ban.
Quizzed about Dickey, Buehrle said he was happy to be on the same side after losing several decisions when they met last year.
“He’s a great pitcher and he’s been dominating,” he said.
Dickey still got his share of the limelight on the day, however. The 38-year-old was on the mound at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, giving Leslie Stahl and a 60 Minutes camera crew a close-up look at the knuckleball.
Aid from his specialty pitch — which saved his career — Dickey is a cut apart. In his autobiography, “Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect knuckleball,” he opened up about his sexual abuse as a boy.
He has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. More recently, he spent time in India, helping Bombay Teen Challenge — a charity that fights sex trafficking.
When Dickey talks, people listen. Because chances are, he will say something interesting.
“A great story,” Jays manager John Gibbons said of his opening day pitcher.
Who will catch Dickey has been a topic of conversation at camp, with the Jays having a variety of catchers who have handled him in the past. Thole, Henry Blanco and Mike Nickeas have all worked with Dickey in the past.
But incumbent J.P. Arencibia, a catcher with no shortage of confidence, has made it clear that he does not intend to let someone else become Dickey’s personal catcher.
Both men live in Nashville in the off-season and have been working out together.
Arencibia all but bowled over other catchers to have the first crack of handling Dickey on Wednesday at the Jays’ training complex.
When the session was over, Arencibia reminded the watching media that he had not missed a single delivery.
Pitcher and catcher both complained about “sticky balls,” on Wednesday — a result of resin and humidity, apparently.
With Arencibia and Dickey both headed to the U.S. team at the World Baseball Classic, Gibbons has no problem with his No. 1 catcher handling Dickey at this stage of camp.
“I thought he looked good,” Gibbons said of Arencibia’s efforts Wednesday. “But he’s going to go to the WBC with him so he needs to catch him now. Those other guys, they’ll get in there. But for right now, he’s going to be the primary guy.”
That means 41-year-old Blanco will get his chance.
The former Dodgers, Rockies, Brewers, Braves, Twins, Cubs, Padres, Mets and Diamondbacks alum doesn’t have a knuckleball glove yet.
Instead he has a battered Mizuno mitt that looks as old as he does.
“It’s been with me the last three years,” he said with affection. “You always fall in love with one piece of your equipment. That’s my glove right now.”
For Blanco, catching the knuckleball is fun, albeit pressure-filled.
“But it’s also a big challenge ... it’s a big responsibility.”