Thursday, April 19, 2012

The BATTER CHATTER Book Review: Wherever I Wind Up

A trip to/from Vegas this week gave me the time to read R. A. Dickey's Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest For Truth, Authenticity, and the Perfect Knuckleball.
As we've noted in these cyber-pages before, Dickey is a cool dude--a guy with eloquent and offbeat observations in his post-game interviews, a guy who climbs Mt. Kilimanjaro against his club's wishes in the offseason, a guy who reads challenging books and enjoys writing.
So I dove into Wherever I Wind Up, co-authored by Wayne Coffey, with considerable enthusiasm.
It's a pretty fascinating tale of just how much Dickey has struggled as a professional baseball player--the endless stops in minor league backwater towns (I believe he had seven stints with the Oklahoma City Red Hawks, his numerous epic failures on the big league stage, his rough ride in learning the pitch that paved the way for Dickey's late blooming success--the knuckleball.
Dickey's yarn about having an $800,000 bonus rescinded due to him lacking a ligament in his elbow--the Rangers front office noticed Dickey being short one ulnar collateral ligament by the bend of his elbow in a cover photo in Baseball America (headline: "Armed For America")--has been told frequently, but is no less fascinating. (He's second from left, below, and his arm is just not bending right.)

Much has been made of the book's painful revelations--that Dickey was repeatedly molested by a teenage female babysitter as a young boy, and was raped by an older boy as well. For a guy who's so open, and who has the balls to reveal such things while inhabiting the macho environment of the MLB clubhouse each day, I was actually a little disappointed to see him hold back a bit.
Both of those assaults, as well as his admission that he cheated on his wife, are told in extremely brief passages. I don't want full chapter and verse about awful sex crimes, or sex with hotel lobby groupies, but Dickey prides himself not only in putting it all out there, but the spiritual value of putting it all out there, and I felt he came up short in that regard.
In a scene with a therapist, Dickey writes:
"I give him all the hideous details, moment by moment, feeling by feeling, violation by violation. Deeper and deeper into the story we go."
Yet I felt he failed to do so in these life-altering passages.
Nonetheless, it's a fun read. It's fun to hear about Dickey's troublemaking ways as a youth, including breaking into and sleeping in empty rental houses to escape a miserable home life. It's entertaining to hear about Dickey's friendship with college mates Peyton Manning and Todd Helton. It's cool to see A-Rod making a few cameos in the book, playing his own oblivious self: Taking credit for a standout Dickey pitching performance with the Rangers by noting how he called the pitches from shortstop, and tossing the ball from Dickey's first major league appearance into the crowd as the heartbroken pitcher watched it unfold in slo mo.
It's interesting to see just how long it took Dickey to develop a Grade A knuckleball. (It's also worth noting that, just as I was finishing the book 30,000 feet above the U.S., Dickey was getting rocked in the rain in Atlanta for his worst start in years, then claiming he was throwing "water balloons" at the Braves lineup.) He details sessions with fellow knuckleballers Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield, and describes exactly what piece of critical advice he learned and adapted from each one.
He writes of sharing a throwing session with Wakefield before a Mets-Sox encounter:
"Here's the knucklehead brotherhood in play again: there's no chance that an opposing pitcher, no matter how nice a guy, is going to invite me to watch how he grips and throws his split-fingered fastball or his slider. Those are state secrets.
Knuckleballers don't keep secrets. It's as if we have a greater mission beyond our own fortunes. And that mission is to pass it on, to keep the pitch alive."
Perhaps the most entertaining part, at least for Met fans, are the diary excerpts, shaded in gray, from his more recent playing days. Dickey offers compelling profiles behind the scenes, including Mike Pelfrey as a competitive guy who bets David Wright he can kick a series of 50 yard field goals in spring training, and Carlos Beltran as the kind of teammate who bought expensive suits for rookies, and took the team out for an $8,000 dinner on his last night as a Met--hardly the picture of the aloof outfielder some fans of the Metsies have in mind.
Dickey's take on Jose Reyes' last game, where Jose stepped off the field in the first inning to preserve a battle title, is less flattering.
Wherever I Wind Up is a deeply Christian book from a deeply Christian guy; Dickey even fingers the moment of his professional turnaround to a time when he foolishly attempts to swim across the Missouri River in front of minor league teammates, fails, almost drowns, and sees the experience as something of a baptism.
If a Christian book doesn't sound like a lot of fun, think otherwise--Wherever I Wind Up is fresh and funny, and offers intriguing insights into the life of a major league ballplayer, and a way offbeat one at that.

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