He grew up on the self-described wrong side of the tracks, found God, became a multisport high-school star, found English literature, became a pro, struggled, mastered the knuckleball, became a wealthy pro, and by consequence of all the above, today his preteen daughters are growing up on the so-called right side of the tracks.
In his book, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey revealed he was sexually abused as a boy. As a 38-year-old adult, he has leveraged fame to fight the exploitation of children in India's sex trade. Prior to the 2012 season, he helped to raise $130,000 by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the money going to finance conversion of a brothel to a medical clinic in the red-light district of Mumbai.
He went to Mumbai last winter to present the money personally, and decided after "praying on it" to bring Gabriel, 11, and Lila, 9, on the 20-hour journey from Nashville. Not as a "gratitude check," he says, rather to plant the seeds of charity and compassion. As rationale, he cites the parable of the starfish. A man walks down a beach at low tide when thousands of starfish have washed up on the sand, encounters a boy tossing individual starfish back into the sea, asks why it matters since the boy can't possibly save them all, and the boy responds: "It matters to this one."
"I have hope in humility," said Dickey, 38, the father of two boys and two girls. "I am hoping my kids see a beautiful world that is also a broken world. How can you live in both? That is my gift to them."
On Monday, in recognition of his work in India, Dickey is to receive an honorary Doctor of Sacred Letters from Wycliffe College of the University of Toronto.
"He has a heart for the vulnerable," said George Sumner, Principal and Professor of World Mission at Wycliffe, explaining that Dickey personifies the connection between religious faith, global awareness and social consciousness.
Dickey, 6 foot 4 and 215 pounds, wears his brown hair in a Southern-styled mop and speaks with a charming drawl right out of The Sound and the Fury. An English Lit student at the University of Tennessee, he projects his life in conversation as a personal "narrative," as someone writing a screenplay about his own character and playing the character simultaneously. He has acquired a Joe Torre-like knack of telling the same story over and over, as though telling it for the first time.
In Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, published in March of 2012, Dickey wrote that his father worked two jobs and that a heavily drinking mother would party at night, sometimes leaving him at age 8 with a sexually curious female babysitter, four or five years older. The babysitter took advantage of him repeatedly, he alleges, and later, in Grade 4, a teenage boy abused him. Until writing the book, he had kept his shame private, finding escape in reading and playing sports. In that he had internalized the personal turmoil, he was compelled by the sex-trade slaves of Mumbai "in the sense of people being victimized."
"My personal narrative, the sexual abuse I endured as a kid, I know what that is like," he said. "It just resonated with me. It's just something inside that draws you to that particular outreach, where people have been sexually exploited."
During high school, his best friend was Bo Bartholomew, whose younger sister Anne became Dickey's wife in 1997. The year before, Dickey had been drafted by the Texas Rangers in the first round, then offered an $810,000 bonus that was withdrawn when tests showed the absence of the ulnar collateral nerve in his elbow. The Bartholomews grew up in Belle Meade, an enclave of old money in Nashville, on the right side of the tracks. Inspired by Bo's example, Dickey became a reborn Christian and learned of the Bombay Teen Challenge (bombayteenchallenge.org) through his church in Nashville.
As prepared as he could be for Mumbai through research, he wasn't ready for what he encountered. "What's going on there is very dark," he said. "The paradigm recruiters will use is, they will pose as people trying to help: 'Let us take your daughter, we'll get her work cleaning buildings and she'll send money back to you.' These are people who are not registered, so when they are taken, they don't have a voice. I saw people rescued who are eight years old. It's unbelievable. A lot of times, the younger the prostitute, the more money they will generate."
On the streets they encountered "incredible filth," kids without no shirts or shoes and with open sores on their bodies, feces floating in the gutters, a world opposite to the existence they know. Dickey's destination was Ashagram, where people are rescued from the sex trade and rehabilitated to integrate back into society.
"My daughters had a lot of questions and we had great conversations," Dickey said. "I think they had a little bit of fear too, which is good. Ultimately they displayed an incredible amount of courage. We went to interact with the kids who had suffered this trauma [of prostitution] and they just played and played with them. They interacted as part of the fabric and landscape of what was going on there, without any hesitation. The girls were braiding each other's hair … an incredible display. I was just so proud in that my girls didn't shy away."
In the locker rooms of professional sports teams, Christian athletes are sometimes resented for projecting holier-than-thou attitudes, though as Dickey points out, greater tolerance has developed with a greater variety of cultures. Critics are quick to target the type of hypocrisy that Dickey admitted to publicly when he confessed in his book to having an affair.
"Eventually, I am going to mess up," Dickey said. "It's not, 'I am Christian and I am perfect.' It's the other way around. I am incredibly imperfect. That's the paradigm people don't understand. … One of the best things I can do for my children is when I have made a mistake in their presence, whether toward them or their mother, is for me to recant to them and say, 'I messed up.' I give them a gift in that moment."
Dickey is earning $5-million (all currency U.S.) this year, and he signed a two-year, $25-million extension with the Blue Jays as a condition of agreeing to the trade that brought him to Toronto from the New York Mets in December. The trade was made within a few days of Dickey speaking publicly about a desire for a contract extension, at an event sponsored by the Mets to raise money for Hurricane Sandy victims, not long after he'd won the National League Cy Young Award as best pitcher. While Dickey has two wins and four losses this season, his performance is charting fairly closely to last year's at this time, although his walks have increased significantly. Because the Blue Jays have disappointed mightily, there is media speculation that he'll be trade bait this summer.
Success on the field came late to Dickey. He began to get the feel for the knuckleball in 2007 while in the minor leagues, but only at 35, in 2010, when the Mets promoted him from Triple-A Buffalo, did he begin to prosper. He is aware that some whisper that outside activities – he has a contract for three more books – distract him from the mission on the field, but he holds a different perspective.
"If I don't succeed, it's because I was not fully engaged," Dickey said, summarizing the argument against outside activities. "During a large part of my career, I probably would have agreed with them, but then I realized that I have a responsibility to use the platform. I mean, I was able to talk about the red-light district in Mumbai on ESPN in a Cy Young year."
Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this story said Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey was to receive an honorary Master of Sacred Letters from Wycliffe College of the University of Toronto. In fact, he received (on Monday) an honorary Doctor of Sacred Letters. This online version has been corrected.