R.A. Dickey is in his usual clubhouse pose – sitting quietly on the periphery looking out onto baseball’s backstage a few hours before the curtain goes up.
Marcus Stroman has walked in and turned up the music so loud, you have to raise your voice to be heard. A few guys are lying on the floor, stretching and yelling at each other. A few others are watching a soccer game.
It has a very high-school cafeteria feel.
“I don’t know if it’s even a high-school environment,” Dickey says. “Maybe middle school. It’s great. It keeps me culturally relevant.”
It’s hard to tell if he’s kidding. Knowing Dickey just a little, probably not. He has many aristocratic attributes, earnestness prime among them.
We’re now in what may be his final week as a performing professional baseball player. He has had a remarkable 15-year major-league career – perhaps the least likely of modern times. He’s gone from washed-up scrub to Cy Young Award winner. Now he’s headed gently back down the mountain to join the rest of us in civilian life.
He has never really made sense in this domain – not in the jocular or jock-ular senses. People like to call him a thinking-man’s ballplayer, but mostly he’s just a thinking man. Astoundingly open and outspoken in the world, and silent in here.
He seems to enjoy few of the prerogatives of veteran status. He has no locker-room followers. Instead, he is allowed to keep himself to himself.
He sits over in one corner with another placid man, J.A. Happ, in what he calls the “low-rent district.”
Why low rent?
“The high-rent district’s down there” – meaning at the opposite side of the clubhouse – “with [Troy] Tulo [witzki] and [Ryan] Goins and all those guys.”
Together, Dickey and Happ make around $22-million (U.S.) a year. Most of the guys in high rent – Goins, Kevin Pillar, Justin Smoak – make much less.
So he’s not talking about the prices.
He’s talking about the more important currency in any locker room – influence. Two things are combining to pull Dickey out of the central orbit of a baseball team he briefly defined – time and essential character.
He has never really fit in baseball. Anybody who has ever heard him speak knows that.
But now, as it ends, baseball has stopped fitting around him as well.
Dickey was almost painfully thoughtful
Four years ago, Dickey arrived in Toronto at a moment of great baseball doubt.
The manager, John Farrell, had abandoned ship to pursue opportunities elsewhere – a unique instance of a coach firing his club.
A pair of boldface newcomers – pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle – had just come north sounding as if they expected to be dumped in some frontier shantytown. The city was being newly reminded of its place in the American imagination as the major leagues’ equivalent of an Antarctic base.
Coming off a best-in-baseball season, Dickey wasn’t just a star. Though he’d been traded, he was a star who’d chosen us.
“Obviously, I’m overjoyed to be here … ” were the first words out of his mouth at an introductory presser. It was the “obviously” that local got hearts beating.
Most people knew the back story – the coming up hard; the professional disappointments; the unlikely emergence in his mid-30s – but the approach took them by surprise.
Dickey was almost painfully thoughtful. He had the self-conscious diction of a doctoral student. The guy had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, for God’s sake.
Someone asked at the time if he was “the most interesting man alive.”
Dickey, already comfortable in his new world, treated it as a teachable moment.
“We’re in a honeymoon period right here,” he said. “There’s going be a period where I’m struggling, and it’s not going be so interesting.”
For four seasons, Dickey rather proved his point. The dominance he’d shown in just one National League season could not be repeated back in the American League.
He was remarkably workmanlike – starting the most games in his career; logging more than 200 innings – but the knuckleball was more fun to hear about than it was to watch up close.
Dickey has always spoken of it in vaguely mystical terms – “120 separate commitments” per game.
Too often, one of those commitments would end up going over the outfield fence at a bad time. Afterward, Dickey would tell people what went wrong – that the humidity had affected the ball’s flight. Or the temperature. Or the wind. Or, worst of all, that he just didn’t have it – whatever “it” is – that day. He spoke of the knuckleball as if it were an ill-mannered dog that occasionally got off the leash.
It didn’t matter that it was true because no other pitcher talked this way. They’d say things about a lack of “command” or “control,” which most casual observers don’t fully understand. But it sounds plausible and reassuring. Something that could be fixed. Dickey’s explanations sounded like excuses.
When the knuckleball worked – as it often did – it was good luck. When it didn’t, it was Dickey’s fault.
This is the curse of doing something that doesn’t look hard. People don’t think you deserve much credit for it.
However much he’d impressed Toronto, he was no people magnet in the locker room. Too studious. Too middle aged.
In spring training, the clubhouse divides up into tribes, divided by service time, position, language and wattage. Dickey was most often by himself, working out or in between working out. He lacked the single social advantage of veteran pitchers – he has nothing to teach. Nobody throws a knuckleball, and it’s unlikely anyone’s going to ask about his 80-mile-an-hour fastball.
In those first years, the undoubted king of the pitching half of the clubhouse was Buehrle. He had the years, the detached charisma, the wise-old-man-ness. He was Dickey’s opposite in most ways, a curmudgeonly good ol’ boy.
During Dickey’s first year, Toronto was out of it by June. In his second, the team made it as far as August before watching their betters pull away.
Dickey was serviceable most of the year, and rock solid in September. But it hadn’t mattered.
He pitched the last game of the year at home, a desultory experience. He allowed only one run and lost. After the game, he scrummed animatedly with the media while his teammates wandered about the room dispiritedly.
Asked about the future, Dickey deployed one of his Dickeyisms, saying he could not “calculate the integer of that equation.”
Behind him, Buehrle was pulling on a T-shirt. As Dickey hit the word “integer,” he began a slow turn toward his teammate. He caught Dickey in a stare for a long moment and rolled his eyes, then turned away again.
It was Dickey’s misfortune that as the team began to find a steady level of performance in 2015, he lost his place. He won eight of his last nine decisions, but the spotlight had fallen on newcomer David Price and late-returning sophomore Marcus Stroman. With two reliable power pitchers, Dickey was pushed to the back of the line come the playoffs.
His final appearance of that year was a dismal beating by the Kansas City Royals in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. He gave up four runs in the first inning and didn’t make it through the second.
It was the first Jays game of the postseason that could fairly be called unwatchable. Unfairly, it left a final impression that Dickey could no longer be depended on.
He wasn’t helped by the playoff emergence of the young pitcher he’d been, in part, traded for, Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets.
If you were a Jays fan, it was hard not to do the mental calculation of how good this team might be with one ace on the staff (Price) and two in the wings (Stroman and Syndergaard). This ignored all of Dickey’s competent, reasonably priced work in his first two seasons. But people don’t root for past teams. They care only about the present one.
Dickey, in inevitable decline at 40, was now being compared like-for-like with Syndergaard’s 23-year-old potential.
That aura of second-bestism trailed him into 2016. While the team tries to nail down a postseason berth, none of the reflected glory has fallen on him. He’s the guy on his way out, the philosopher sitting in the corner.
His presence has grown more and more ethereal, which suits Dickey’s basic frame of mind. I put it to him that, aside from money and celebrity, the real appeal of playing baseball is the opportunity to professionally extend adolescence.
“That’s an interesting way to put it. I came into the game an older soul. I like being able to have it accessible, but not live in it. Does that make sense?” Dickey says. “I like to be able to dart in and out of this world, as far as its intimate culture. Then remove myself from it. I’m glad I can do that. Some guys are locked in. That’s all they’ve ever known.”
Does that make it harder for him than most?
“Baseball for me is something that I never wanted to define me or validate me,” Dickey shrugs. “It was something I wanted to pursue because I’m passionate about it. I have something to contribute. And I have a gift to do it. That was what compelled me to go on, even when it was really, really hard. Because of that I hold it a lot looser than some guys.”
Though plainly apart in some ways, he has nothing but praise for Toronto’s locker-room culture. Every clubhouse has its cliques. They are easy to spot in Toronto – the Latino players in one corner; the Tulowitzki gang in another; the best pitchers tucked in behind the wide room’s main pillar; Josh Donaldson alone and absorbing all the ambient light right in the middle; the role players and newbies scattered about in individual pockets, trying to stay small and unobtrusive.
“But we can all cross over into each other’s communities,” Dickey says. “Here guys are really wide open and have no problem being themselves. Everybody’s got a voice. I’ve been in some very toxic clubhouses and this one is not that way at all.”
Does he not ever feel a bit like someone out of step with this milieu, a little odd? (Dickey himself notes that people still stare when they spot him reading a book at his locker.)
“It’s not intentional,” Dickey said. “I’m thankful I have the freedom to be myself and not feel judged or bullied. I don’t think the game’s always been like that … I know there are a lot of guys here presently who are a little bit different and odd, too. Not bad odd. Just odd in that they may fight against the current in this environment. That’s not bad.”
Management mooted the idea that Dickey might pitch this weekend in Boston. But that was when it was hoped the games wouldn’t matter. Now that they do, he isn’t likely to see action.
Less than four years after his feted arrival, it’s an open question as to whether he’ll make the playoff roster. If he does, it won’t be as a starter.
Dickey said he isn’t bothered by that, but is instead “captivated by the moment.”
He’s not sure if this is it for him. Someone would probably pick him up on a speculative deal once his current contract ends in a few days. Has he started separating himself?
“Not quite yet. I might find myself in moments of reflection, but very rarely. I think I’m best served – and I try to make it a life discipline – to just try to live the next five minutes well. That keeps me where I need to be as a professional, and as a man.”
Very few pros are really prepared for life after baseball. Many tend to drift back into the game as teachers, seeking to reground themselves in the game’s steadying rituals and routine. They are always diminished in some fundamental way when they return, quieter somehow.
Dickey says he has done “a lot of research” into how poorly many make the transition to what he calls, wryly, “a domesticated life.” But he appears neither worried nor enthusiastic at the prospect. Instead, he seems intrigued about the next opportunity to take stock of the unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
“I don’t think that I’m fully prepared for it, if that’s the route I take,” Dickey says. “I know that I don’t know enough. So it’s okay. To know that I have a lot to learn. That helps me. It’s okay. It’s all right that I have a long way to go.”Report Typo/Error
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