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Wherever I Wind Up

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I guess I’ve made my love of baseball well-known around these parts. Just as a sampler, I’ve reviewed a biography of Albert Pujols, I’ve interviewed Ben Zobrist, and a long time ago, back when the site was in its infancy, I gave a short example of why I love the game. Baseball remains the best sport around and watching it is one of my favorite pasttimes. This weekend a reader of the site mentioned that R.A. Dickey, a ballplayer and Christian to boot, had released a memoir. I picked it up and read it over the weekend. I’m glad I did.

Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball is one of the most gut-honest sports memoirs I’ve read. Dickey’s life has been anything but easy, both on the field and off. Born into a turbulent home, he tumbled up more than he grew up, enduring divorce and excruciating sexual abuse. A high school friend shared the gospel with him and from a young age he professed faith in Jesus Christ. Here is how he describes this experience:

So on a fall Friday in an upstairs bedroom on Walnut Drive in Nashville, Tennessee, I get on my knees with Bo and his mom and ask Christ to come into my life. I tell Him that I believe He is the son of God, and I want to trust Him with my life. I secretly ask for forgiveness for what seems like a galaxy of sins and guilt and shame. When I am done speaking, the room is completely still. I feel relief. A lightness. It’s not the sky opening up, or angels singing, or lightning bolts striking the big magnolia in the front yard. Nothing grand and God-like. It’s much more subtle, like the best deep breath you could ever take.

Dickey began to show great promise in two areas–his proficiency with the English language and his athletic ability. These twin strengths took him to the University of Tennessee where he played baseball for the Volunteers and majored in English literature.

Dickey was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the first round of the 1996 draft and was offered an $810,000 signing bonus. His career was about to get off to a booming start. All that stood between him and a whole lot of money was the formality of a physical. That’s when things went wrong. An x-ray revealed that he has no ulna collateral ligament in his right elbow–the one ligament that is apparently absolutely necessary to throw a ball with any kind of force. Though he was able to throw fastballs in the 90’s, no team was going to take a big financial risk on a guy with no UCL. The offer was withdrawn. Eventually he did sign with the Rangers, but for a fraction of the original offer.

For years Dickey floated around the minor leagues, getting the occasional chance in the majors, but never excelling and never earning a long-term roster spot. Around 2005 he decided that his only chance to make a mark in baseball was to transform himself into a knuckleball pitcher. Here, for the uninformed, is Dickey’s description of the knuckleball, baseball’s rarest and most eccentric pitch.

The knuckleball is the only pitch in baseball that works by doing nothing. Curveballs curve. Cutters cut. Sinkers sink. The knuckleball? You want it to float to the plate, rotation-free, and let the laws of entropy or aerodynamics or whatever else is in play take over from there, the air rushing around it, the seams creating a drag, the ball wobbling and wiggling and shimmying and shaking. Or not. Sometimes the knuckleball will be unhittable and sometimes it will be uncatchable, but rarely is it predictable. You can throw two knuckleballs with the identical release, the identical motion, in the identical place, and one might go one way and the second might go another way. It’s one of the first things you have to accept as a knuckleballer: the pitch has a mind of its own. You either embrace it for what it is—a pitch that is reliant on an amalgam of forces both seen and unseen—or you allow it to drive you half out of your mind.

To make a long story short, for the past three seasons Dickey has has been a starting pitcher for the New York Mets and has been doing quite well for himself. I will leave it to you to read about his journey to New York City.

As he was transforming himself from a mediocre journeyman pitcher to the league’s one and only knuckleballer, he was also undergoing a personal transformation. With his marriage on the rocks he was forced to deal with the sins in his life, including an ugly betrayal of his wife. He also longed to find freedom from the trauma of the abuse he had suffered as a child. He was able to do this with the help of a skilled counselor and the guidance of a caring pastor. It has left him with a faith marked by maturity.

When I pray, I am not just talking to God. I am deepening my relationship with Him. To me, prayer is not a me-driven, goal-driven endeavor, something I turn to when I really need to pitch a dominant game or get out of a tight spot or a personal crisis. I’ve never prayed to God and said, “Lord, please let me strike out Albert Pujols four times tonight.” Nor will I ever do that. God is not a genie in a bottle that you rub when you want something. He is the ever-present, ever-loving Father, the guiding Spirit of my life, my Light and my Truth. He has a plan for me; I believe that as much as I believe anything in my whole life, and even if I don’t end up flourishing in New York or proving myself to be a trustworthy big-league pitcher, I know that’s because He has something else in store for me, and whatever that is, I know that I will be at peace.

It seems like more than coincidence that as Dickey was able to deal with his own sin and the way others had sinned against him, when he was willing to walk away from baseball, he began to excel at last.

One of the elements of Wherever I Wind Up that I most enjoyed, beyond its setting in the sport of baseball, is its honesty and familiarity. Dickey never blinks, he never backs down from admitting his own failures as a Christian, a husband and a ballplayer. There are some for whom success comes so easily and naturally. Far more common, though, is a long history of occasional success, interspersed with painful failure. Dickey’s memoir is heartening and inspiring in its honesty and its search for answers.

This is a book sure to be enjoyed by any fan of sports in general or baseball in particular. Note, however, that the accounts of sexual abuse, though not graphic, are ugly enough that you would probably not want to hand this book to younger readers.

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