On December 21, 2009, then GM Omar Minaya made a minor league signing that should have been nothing but a footnote in the daily roster transaction page, a depth move that was more for filling out the roster of the teams’ Triple-A affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons. But just as the wings of a butterfly have in them the potential to create a tornado half a world away, the flutter of a knuckleball has in it the potential to change the course of a baseball club for years to come.
Coming off of a season where he posted a 4.62 ERA in 64.1 innings with the Minnesota Twins and a 5.13 ERA in 33.1 innings for their Triple-A affiliate, the Rochester Red Wings, nobody was particularly excited or enthused when he was signed; at most, people chuckled due to puns involving his last name, and were mildly excited at the prospect of seeing his knuckleball. Those more in tune with the supernatural may have sensed that perhaps there was some kind of karmic connection between Dickey and the Mets, as his second-best game since reinventing himself as a knuckleball pitcher came against the Mets, a start on June 24th, 2008 in which he tossed seven scoreless innings.
His backstory, at this point, has become almost mythological, like the heroes of ancient Greece. Born without a UCL, the freak quirk of birth would come back to hurt him like Achille’s heel. A solidly above-average pitcher at the University of Tennessee who posted a 2.76 ERA in 127.0 innings with the Volunteers in his junior year, the Texas Rangers selected him with their first-round pick in the 1996 MLB Draft, eighteenth overall. The team was going to offer him an $850,000 signing bonus but rescinded the offer after seeing odd way the right-hander’s arm hung on the cover of a Baseball America magazine cover. Tests conducted afterwards discovered that he was born without a ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, prompting the team to drop their offer from $850,000 to a mere $75,000, which he accepted, reasoning that he would either go undrafted or not be offered even that amount if he rejected it and reentered the draft in 1997 as a senior.
As a professional, Dickey went from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a big pond. His “dime-a-dozen” stuff- a high-80s-to-low-90s fastball, a breaking ball, and a forkball- resulted in pedestrian numbers over the first few years of his professional career. In 2005, following a shoulder injury, the Rangers suggested that the right-hander take up the knuckleball in a last-ditch effort to prolong his career; the way his forkball behaved, it had knuckleball-like qualities, so taking on the pitch made sense. Results were mixed, and in 2007 he left the Rangers, signing with the Milwaukee Brewers, who assigned him to the Nashville Sounds, Dickey’s hometown. He scrapped the other pitches from his repertoire and focused completely on the knuckleball. The results, this time, were there: in 169.1 innings, he posted a 3.72 ERA, winning the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year Award.
The right-hander signed with the Twins that November, but he was claimed by the Seattle Mariners in the Rule 5 Draft and spent the 2008 season with them instead. He became a free agent after refusing a minor league assignment following the completion of the season and was once again signed by the Minnesota Twins, whom he actually played for in 2009. He pitched 176.2 innings total for both teams combined at the major league level, posting a 4.99 ERA as both a starter and reliever, and a combined 4.12 ERA in 83.0 innings as a starter in Triple-A.
His first start with the Buffalo Bisons was nothing special, as he allowed 6 runs- four earned- in 4.2 innings, allowing 9 hits, walking 3, and striking out 4. He would then go on a dominant run for the Herd, foreshadowing what would be in store; in 56.0 innings from April 14th to May 14th, he posted a 1.77 ERA, allowing 46 hits, walking 5, and striking out 33, holding opponents to a .222 /.251/.304 batting line.
Dickey was pitching extremely well during that one-month stretch in April and May 2010, but he was particularly dominant on April 29, when he started against the Durham Bulls. Facing Bulls leadoff man, center fielder Fernando Perez, Dickey quickly got ahead with a pair of knuckleballs in the zone, but Perez laced the third pitch of the game, a butterfly almost right down Broadway, into right field for a single. He proceeded to get right fielder Rashad Eldridge to strike out looking on five pitches and got second baseman Elliot Johnson and third baseman Hank Blalock to fly out to left.
The second inning went very much the same. First baseman Ryan Shealy grounded out to shortstop, left fielder Chris Richard struck out swinging on three pitches, and catcher Joe Dillon popped up right in front of the mound. In the third, shortstop Angel Chavez struck out looking on four pitches, DH Alvin Colina popped up to second base, and returning to the top of the order, Fernando Perez struck out swinging on three pitches. One time through the order, the knuckleballer allowed a single hit, striking out four.
In his second time through the order, Dickey blanked the Bulls once again, striking out one, getting four flyballs and four groundballs. In his third time through, he recorded one more strikeout while getting six more ground ball outs and two more fly ball outs.
Health Phillips, the Bulls pitcher, kept pace with Dickey early on. A minor league veteran of nearly ten years, the southpaw would post a 4.07 ERA in 139.1 innings that season- not far off from his career 4.05 ERA in the minors- but he too would pitch his best game of the season on that date. After allowing a pair of hits and blanking the Herd through his first time through the order, the Bisons finally got on the board in the fourth, when Mike Hessman drove in Jesus Feliciano with a ground out to second. Chris “the Animal” Carter and Mike Cervenak drove in one run apiece in the seventh, and Ruben Tejada hit a solo homer in the eighth to make it 4-0, the final score.
In the end, the right-hander only needed 90 pitches to put Durham away, throwing 68 of them for strikes. The game, which was attended by roughly 300 fans despite 4,599 tickets being sold, flew by with a crisp hour and forty-five minutes passing between his first and last pitches; given that the starting temperature was a chilly 58 degrees with a 18 MPH wind, it’s a good thing that both pitchers worked extremely quickly and extremely effectively.
Dickey, who retired 27 batters in a row, breaking the then Buffalo record of 25 straight set by Bartolo Colon in 1997, credited his pre-game routine for his success that night. Of the knuckleball that he threw to Perez in the first, he said that it was “probably the worst one I threw all day. I didn’t throw many bad ones today.”
“After the first hitter, he threw a perfect game,” manager Ken Oberkfell said. “What can you say? That was the most dominating performance I’ve ever seen. Not just from a knuckleballer. From almost any pitcher.” For what it’s worth, the last Buffalo Bisons perfect game came in 1952, when Dick Marlowe threw one against the Baltimore Orioles, the Philadelphia Phillies’ International League affiliate.
“I’m still learning a lot. I really feel like I’m about 25 in knuckleball years,” Dickey said of his success that night and during that month-long stretch. “I feel like I got maybe five or six more if I get up with the big-league team and stick there. I really feel like I’m passionate about it and still want to learn about it.” He said of his performance during that streak, “Life is not without that sense of irony. To not have that ligament as a conventional pitcher really allowed me to be resilient. It’s that much more as a knuckleballer because I’m operating out there at 75 percent. If I’m at 100 percent, I’m going to be throwing the ball all over the place. I pick my times to really try to hump it up and throw a really filthy, hard nasty one. The rest of the time, I just want to feel like I’m playing catch with it, taking spin off the baseball and manipulate the baseball like I want to do.”
By the end of May, with John Maine and Oliver Perez on the disabled list, Dickey was pressed into service for the Mets. Making the major league minimum, he went 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA in 174.1 innings, allowing 165 hits, walking 42, and striking out 104. That winter, Dickey and the Mets came to terms on a two-year, $7 million contract, with a $5 million dollar option for 2013, a contract that is still paying dividends for the Mets today. Praise Dickey!