NEW YORK — R.A. Dickey has been known to place books around the New York Mets’ clubhouse, selected from the little library lining the top shelf of his locker. When the mood suits him, he might reach into the stall and pull out his “Star Wars” storm trooper helmet. He says he would love a small role on the HBO fantasy saga “Game of Thrones.”
A nerd with a knuckleball.
“Nerdy? I would say more ‘eccentric’ would be the right word. I wouldn’t say he fits the mold of the stereotypical athlete,” teammate David Wright said. “He’s extremely intelligent. He’s cultured probably well beyond any of us. I think it fits in great with the knuckleball. It goes hand and hand.”
Nerdy. Eccentric. Quirky. One thing’s for certain: At 37, years after most baseball players’ careers have peaked, Dickey is finally reaching his pinnacle. With a dominant first half that featured consecutive one-hitters, the right-hander earned a trip to Kansas City for his first All-Star game. He might even start on the mound for the National League if manager Tony La Russa can figure out which catcher is best suited to handle the dipsy-doodling pitch.
And it’s a doozy.
Dickey can throw it — more like push it using two fingers with well-manicured nails — from 60 mph to more than 80 mph, faster than most knuckleballers would dare try. He has taken the wild ride to a 12-1 record and a 2.40 earned-run average this year.
“I think he throws two kinds. He throws one a little harder and throws the one slow. He does a good job with it,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “He’s very durable and he has good command of his pitches. And it’s hard to command the knuckleball.”
Getting to the point where he appears to have control over something as difficult to corral as the physics-defying pitch has been an unusual journey.
Dickey likes to talk about the journey. Whether it’s baseball or writing a memoir or reaching the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro — the mountain he climbed last offseason to raise money to fight sex trafficking in Mumbai.
His journey to big league ace is as hard to track as one of his knucklers that often leaves opposing hitters shaking their heads as they walk away from the batter’s box. Or causes his pitching coach to giggle at the utterly unpredictable movement of the ball.
In a year in which Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow have taken the cult of sports personality in New York to a new level, the level-headed Dickey may be the best tale of all.
Dickey was a first-round draft pick out of Tennessee by the Texas Rangers in 1996, only to have his $800,000-plus bonus slashed to $75,000 when team doctors found the bronze medal-winning U.S. Olympian had no ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow.
Despite the anatomical anomaly, Dickey stuck with baseball.
He bounced between the big leagues and minors, going 22-28 with a 5.43 ERA in his first seven seasons. He signed with the Mets in January 2010, five years after he made a dramatic change in an attempt to salvage his job.
In 2005, at the age of 30, Dickey’s career was stalled until his manager with Texas, Buck Showalter, and pitching coach Orel Hershiser persuaded him to give the knuckleball a try — Dickey had been throwing one since he was a kid, goofing around with a friend.
He enlisted the help of what he now calls the “Jedi Council of Knuckleballers” — nerdy, right?
The pitcher who almost gave up his big league dream to return to college and become an English teacher called upon the likes of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough to school him in the art of throwing the seldom-used pitch mastered by a very few.
But it was not until he joined the Mets that Dickey began to realize any sort of success.
He started at Triple-A Buffalo but got noticed quickly when he retired 27 consecutive batters after giving up a hit to the leadoff man in one outing. He threw a one-hitter for the Mets that season, too, and finished with a career-high 11 wins and a 2.84 ERA.
He was rewarded with a $7.8 million, two-year contract and something more important — job security.
This spring, Dickey released his autobiography “Wherever I May Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball.” He opened up about being abused as a child, committing adultery and contemplating suicide. It was a cathartic undertaking that may have been the final piece of the package for a heady player.
“I think anytime you feel the freedom to be yourself it’s gonna enhance the other aspects of your life, whether it’s how you are as a father or how you are as a baseball player,” Dickey said. “That was certainly one of the things I was hoping for when I wrote it.”
The effects have been startling on the field.
Dickey has walked just 26 batters in 120 innings. His 123 strikeouts are just 11 shy of his career high, established last year in 208 innings. In winning the NL’s pitcher of the month award for June, Dickey went 5-0 in six starts and finished with a 0.93 ERA despite giving up five runs to the New York Yankees. No other big leaguer has had an ERA under 1.00 in a month in which he gave up five runs in one game — that’s in 100 years of tracking ERA, according to the Mets from information provided by Elias Sports Bureau.
Dickey is respected throughout baseball for his work ethic and his eagerness to share his eclectic range of knowledge with teammates. Wright said he is good to have around for settling their many arguments.
“More often than not he knows who’s right and wrong,” Wright said.
Josh Thole, the catcher most often assigned the task of trying to pick the darting baseball out of the air with an oversized mitt used for knuckleballers, is in awe.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this my entire life,” Thole said.
Despite the difficulty associated with catching the pitch, Thole does not understand what all the fuss is about. He thinks it’s a no-brainer that Dickey should start for the NL in the All-Star game Tuesday.
“They’re the best of the best,” Thole said of All-Star catchers Buster Posey, Yadier Molina and Carlos Ruiz. “They’ll do fine, they all can do it.”
Dickey is generous with his time and he will talk on just about any topic. How he has been able to elevate his craft, though, that is off limits.
“I feel like I have an answer. I’m not really comfortable talking about what that is,” Dickey said. “I feel like I know what I’m doing. I feel like I have a good idea what to do with the baseball mechanically and I’m just going to try to repeat that and see what happens.”