Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Review: Wherever I Wind Up (2012)

By R.A. Dickey with Wayne Coffey

Living in New York City, or even Buffalo, is practically a spoiler alert for R.A. Dickey's book, "Wherever I Wind Up." Those who follow baseball know that Dickey, close to a career minor-league pitcher, salvaged a career in his late 30's to earn a regular job on the New York Mets' roster. Buffalo, for reference, was where he pitched so well early in 2010 before getting called up to the big leagues.

Mix those facts with the matter that Dickey is a knuckleballer, that trickiest of pitches that no one wants to face but no one really trusts. His story has been written up several times in the media in the past couple of years, mostly because it's rather unusual.

It turns out we only knew a little of the story. Very little.

Dickey comes clean here with all of the details of his life in "Wherever I Wind Up." It has been quite a ride.

For starters, Dickey sort of attended his parents' wedding. Dad was 22, Mom was a pregnant 19, and the ceremony was arranged in something of a hurry. The marriage didn't last, turning R.A. into the usual ping-pong ball between parents. There wasn't much money in the households, and they all made do as best they could.

Just to complicate matters, Dickey was the victim of sexual abuse a couple of times in his life -- once from a female babysitter, once from a slightly older boy. It's painful to read, and certainly different than every other baseball book you've ever read.

Since this book is listed under sports and not psychology, you can guess what happened next. Turns out R.A. had an arm that could light up the sky with lightning. He went on to pitch at the University of Tennessee, played on the U.S. Olympic team, and was drafted in the first round by the Texas Rangers.

But then the Cinderella story goes off the tracks. A routine physical revealed that Dickey was missing a ligament in his elbow, which caused the Rangers to remove an $810,000 offer from the table and lower it to $75,000. Dickey worked his way up the ladder, getting to Triple-A but rarely taking that last step to Texas. The author jokes that he spent so much time in Oklahoma City that he was considered a top candidate for mayor.

Finally, he is on the verge of being released when the Rangers suggest he take up the knuckleball almost full-time. It's Dickey's last hope, and he latched on to it ... even if he discovered the hard way that the trick pitch isn't an instant route to success either.

You can guess what all of that "close but not quite" can do to someone when it comes over and over again, and Dickey writes eloquently about his feelings, frustrations and actions. He's not the type to waste a string of water coolers, but there is depression and an extra-marital affair.

But the knuckleball eventually comes around; in Buffalo he gave up a leadoff single in one game and then retired the next 27 batters in a row. That led a shot at the Mets and more success. Dickey eventually signed a multi-million dollar contract with New York.

Therapy and faith play a big part in the story. Dickey spent plenty of time talking with a Nashville therapist, and one of the lessons was to get Dickey's demons more out in the open with honesty. This book, he writes, is part of that process. As for faith, everyone will have a personal reaction to the role it played in Dickey's life. But if it helped him get through his struggles, good for him.

There aren't many laughs in "Wherever I Wind Up," but the pages go by pretty quickly considering the subject matter. It wouldn't be surprising to see more books in Dickey's future; a journal of a season probably would be quite revealing. In the meantime, any reader will come away impressed by Dickey's resilience, and will be rooting for him by the time the last few works are reached.

Five stars

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