Full Count is thrilled to share this guest post for Day 43 by Rabbi Justin David.
For all the beauty of baseball, most players express themselves as if they studied at the Crash Davis School of Boring Cliches: “I don’t know about that, I’m just going to focus on my job…” “I’m just here to help the ballclub…” “I’m just gonna take it one day at a time, and good Lord willin’ things will work out,” etc.
So when a ballplayer comes along who thinks differently, who plays differently, and then shares his innermost struggles with the public, we have an athlete who revolutionizes our view of how sports can be a stage for human pathos.
In 2010 the hapless Mets were going nowhere fast. Their mid-2000s glory yielded to a half decade of mediocre ennui, which is to say normalcy for a Mets fan. Then one day in late May, the media was abuzz with the latest lamb brought to slaughter in the name of stabilizing the rotation: a 36-year-old journeyman minor leaguer named R.A. Dickey.
Really? This is what we’d come to? A washed-up never-was whose arm was probably ready to put out to pasture? A spot reliever maybe, but a starter? Even the most optimistic fan had to be skeptical.
But Dickey dealt out of the gate, and in the most unusual way. His go-to pitch was a knuckleball, an especially rare phenomenon in a game now ruled by power pitching. Delivered with minimal spin, a knuckleball flits and flutters unpredictably, baffling hitters and giving catchers epic agita, especially with runners on base. In addition, whereas the average knuckleball sits somewhere in the ‘60’s or low ‘70’s, Dickey threw his in the low ‘80’s, making it an especially nasty pitch to hit.
As Dickey’s pitching enthralled Mets fans, his reputation as an odd duck further endeared him to the eccentric faithful of New York’s lesser-loved team. RA kept a stack of books in his locker, having majored in English at the University of Tennessee; he was a fantasy nerd, naming his bats after swords in the Hobbit and choosing the Game of Thrones theme as his walkup music; he was laid back and mellow, seeming more like the guy down the street who spent his Sundays raking leaves and listening to WILCO than sending NL hitters into conniptions. After a successful 2010 audition, he solidified his cred in 2011, earning a top rotation spot, a multimillion dollar contract, and the hard-earned admiration of the jaded New York Mets fans.
After that 2011 season, Dickey opened himself up and risked it all. In the offseason, he willingly jeopardized his contract to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money on behalf of endangered sex workers and their families. Rumors began to circulate of a memoir in which he would discuss a number of delicate personal topics. And when the memoir was published, it did in fact detail an early professional fall from grace that could have derailed any career.
Much more significantly, RA disclosed his own trauma of child sexual abuse and its agonizing reverberations in his adult life. He reflected deeply on his own flaws, admitting marital infidelity despite his professed Christian faith, and then drawing on that faith to heal and rededicate himself to his family. In the context of his previously turbulent life, Dickey realized that baseball was just baseball, and his signature knuckleball was an eccentric’s last ditch effort to try to provide for his family by his own rules.
And that’s when Dickey really shined. The uber macho world of Major League Baseball only had admiring things to say about Dickey’s honesty and his dignity. He then accomplished what few pitchers, and especially knuckleballers, could. He won 20 games and became the first knuckleballer to strike out over 200 batters in a season, pitch back-to-back one-hit games, and amass a winning streak of 10 games or more. He won the Cy Young Award, the first Met not named Tom Seaver or Dwight Gooden to do so, and also a first among the knuckleball fraternity. An official poll recently ranked RA Dickey as the 4th most popular Met of the last 20 years, just behind David Wright, Jacob DeGrom, and Mike Piazza, as much for his humility and approachability as for his 2+ years of outstanding pitching.
So here comes the stretch (do with the pun what you will). This is week of Shekhinah, and today is Gevurah sh’b’Shekhinah. Honestly, the day fits its honoree in this blog. Shekhinah is not merely the delivery system of divine generosity, but Shekhinah is generosity itself. At the same time, the Shekhinah is like the moon in that it is both revealed and concealed. And real Gevurah, as we know, is expressed in the ability to understand one’s flaws and make discerning judgments.
A public figure who rises to the highest heights, and then uses that platform to share their most human struggles and vulnerabilities is doing a great service to humanity. They forgo the adulation and insularity that goes with fame so as to encourage us all to be authentic, to share ourselves, and so to take some of the painful guesswork out of life while at the same time showing us how mysterious the human condition can be. So happy 43rd day of the Omer RA Dickey, even if you most probably have no idea what that is. Thank you for the years of dazzling pitching, but more importantly, for sharing your humanity, flawed, compassionate and inspiring. LFGM!!
Justin David is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is a hasid of Gary, Keith, and Ron.