My friends know that I am a huge baseball fan. I have loved the game since I was four or five years old. I got this love, like so many fans of the game, from my dad. There were many summer nights when my tired father would come home from work and take me “out to the ball game” because I begged him a great deal. One of my greatest remembrances was leaving a minor league game in Nashville before the ninth inning when the home team was down 10-1. Dad assured me it was OK to leave since Nashville could not win. As we drove home we listened on the radio as the hometown Vols rallied and won the game 11-10. I never let my dad forget that night. I hope he forgave me for reminding him so often over the years.
I introduced my children to the sport and at ages 39 and 35 they enjoy it too, especially my daughter! My son will watch a game in person but my daughter watches box scores, can keep score, and understands the nuances of the game as taught by her dad! The love has been passed on.
Over the years I have had the unique privilege of presenting the gospel to baseball teams in chapel services on Sundays. I have also personally known some major league players and managers as friends. All of this has added a great deal to my love of this great game and my growing appreciation for those who play it well. I know what it takes to make it to the major leagues and I also know just how few of those who try ever get there for even one game on a roster. It is a sport in which you can be so close and yet so far from making your dreams come true. The level of skill from one player to another is often very small but one player gets a break while another doesn’t. The sport can be so cruel to very gifted athletes since it can take so many years to finally reach the Major Leagues if you do reach the summit.
I say all of this because I just finished reading the most interesting and well-written baseball book in several decades: Wherever I Wind Up–My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball (New York: Penguin, 2012), written by New York Mets pitcher R. A. Dickey with New York Daily News writer Wayne Coffey. What makes this particular baseball book so much fun is that it chronicles an amazing story but it does it by showing how the gospel can transform a life without all the typical “evangelical cultural” baggage that we get with so many Christian athletes. Dickey has been discipled by a good pastor, helped immensely by a great counselor and loved by some wonderful people, especially his very special wife Anne. Add to this the fact that R. A. Dickey grew up just thirty minutes from where I did in middle Tennessee and you have a book that I read in only two days!
In 1996 R. A. Dickey was a No. 1 draft choice of the Texas Rangers after he had played his junior season at the University of Tennessee. He was about to sign an $810,000 bonus contract when his dream was completely smashed. A routine physical revealed that his right elbow was missing its ulnar collateral ligament. In short, this means that he should not have been able to pitch at all, much less do routine daily actions with his right arm. But pitch he did and quite successfully. But this medical news jolted him and ended his big dream, or so it seemed. Texas eventually gave him $75,000 but he had little success and toiled in the minor leagues (seven years at the AAA level) until well past age 30, the time at which almost everyone has given up their major league baseball dream if they have not made it. Finally, R. A. Dickey got his shot. He set a record and gave up six home runs in three innings and was consigned back to the minors the next day. He was officially on baseball’s scrap heap of rejects. He bounced around here and there for some years to come. On top of this he had such low self-esteem that he could find no strength to go on from day-to-day, even though he was a Christian, albeit not one deeply shaped in his interior life. It is this element that makes his story so uniquely compelling.
Deep within R. A. Dickey’s past lay trauma’s that included his parent’s divorce, his emotional separation from his dad and his mom’s terrible struggle with alcoholism. But this is not all. Hidden in the recesses of his soul was the dark remembrance of multiple sexual abuses beginning with a baby sitter when he was a young child and then other abuses that came along in his early pre-teen years. He could tell no one of these dark trials and kept his secrets buried while they ate at him day after day. Finally, when his marriage to his sweetheart Anne was on the rocks, and after an infidelity, he sought help and got the right kind of emotional and spiritual counsel. He sought out a good pastor and church in Nashville. His life began to turn and his baseball career eventually turned with it. He learned how to pitch the last resort pitch of finished baseball pitchers, the knuckleball. The knuckleball is a pitch that seems to be beyond control and few can throw it well enough to live by it at the major league level. (Dickey appears to be the only full-time knuckleball pitcher at the big league level right now, so far as I can tell.) After getting help from several elite pitchers (Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro) Dickey toiled for another five years or so to learn how to throw the pitch successfully. In time he got his “last chance” and finally made the most of it. He pitched for several major league teams–the Seattle Mariners, the Milwaukee Brewers and the New York Mets–before he made it with the Mets in 2010. The Mets rewarded Dickey with a two-year contract (2011-12) for $7.8 million. This is small change for a big league starter but R. A. Dickey had never seen this kind of money or success. And he was past the age when most pitchers are nearing the end of the line freer wise, not the point to begin a successful major league career.
This year, at 38 years of age, R. A. Dickey has reached the pinnacle. He is the best pitcher in the National League right now (with a 12-1 record at the All-Star break) and pitched a wonderful inning of relief in the MLB All-Star game Tuesday night in Kansas City. I finished the book just before the game Tuesday so I watched for him to pitch with profound interest. When he was interviewed in the dugout of the National League after he had pitched a successful inning I wept with joy. I felt like, “I know this guy and I love him in a special way.” (I hate loving a pitcher for the Mets but it is true!) His words in that national interview did not disappoint me as he showed once again showed how to be a real Christian in the spotlight of athletic success.
I told a friend this morning, “I do not believe the immense distaste that many non-Christians have for outspoken believers who become successful in sports is aimed at R. A. Dickey at all.” (I checked reviews of his book on Amazon and found nothing that suggested this common angst about people of Christian faith.) Why is this so? I suggest it is because R. A. Dickey does not talk about Jesus all the time. He does not constantly repeat evangelical mantras about salvation and accepting Jesus as the way to success. Yet, and this is hugely important, he does openly glorify Jesus again and again in this biography. One could say that this is a book on whole-life discipleship at its very best. I can confidently say that there is no baseball book written by a Christian that I would rather have a non-Christian read than this one. But why?
Dickey is brutally honest, about both himself and his faith. He is transparent about his struggles with living this mysterious faith commitment. Second, he is a man like all of us and the reader knows this. The damage in his own soul, because of sin (his and others against him as a child) is shared wisely and effectively without the silly pop-solutions to such deep trials. Third, he never confuses God and baseball. He never prays for success or about his performance but rather that he will be faithful to God no matter what happens on the field. He does give thanks to God for everything that he has experienced in life and openly attributes his success to his wife and a host of others while at the same time he calmly praises God for using all of these people to form his character and baseball skills on the mound. This is a brother I would love to “hang with.”
I would recommend this book to all baseball fans. But I would also recommend it to non-baseball fans as the well-written story of a man who is seeking to deeply know and love God in a world of intense athletic competition. Strangely, in a rather remarkable way, this books is a deeply spiritual memoir without being sentimental in any way. I would definitely share this book with anyone who loves sports, especially baseball, especially if you think they might be drawn to Jesus by reading a sports story that is so refreshingly different. The gospel is presented here but not in a way that I’ve ever seen in any similar book. This is a book that shows how a man of profound courage, with some deep struggles and trials that led him to be foolish at times, beat adversity and then took profound risks to reach his dream. Now that R. A. Dickey has become an All-Star he can use his fame and fortune to continue to become the man God made him to be. This fame has not changed him and I doubt it ever will given the depth revealed in this memoir/story. He ends the book with these words: “Thank you merciful God, for all these blessings and more, for giving me the courage to stop hiding and the courage to find a new way.” He adds, “I turn out the light. I close my eyes. I have hope.” Hope is the word that describes R. A. Dickey so well. God bless him.