Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press file photo
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press file photo
PHOENIX – Many big-name pitchers found reason to say no to the World Baseball Classic.
R.A. Dickey, however, was an automatic yes.
The knuckleball master, winner of the NL Cy Young Award with the New York Mets last season now plying his unorthodox trade with Toronto, made it known before anyone asked him that he wished to play.
Now he will start for the United States in its WBC opener tonight against Mexico, something he calls “one of the greater privileges of my athletic career.”
At 38, Dickey is the oldest player on the U.S. roster. As such, he remembers being a part of the U.S. team at the 1996 Olympics and wants to atone for the disappointment of that bronze medal of 17 years ago.
“So this is a chance to redeem that in a lot of ways,” he said. “So I was proactive in wanting to be a part of this team. When I thought it was a possibility, I texted Tony Clark (of the MLB Players Association) and said, if there’s a spot and Joe wants me, I would love to do it.”
Needless to say, manager Joe Torre wanted him.
Dickey is one of three starting pitchers on the 28-man U.S. roster competing in Group D in Arizona, and he’s by far the biggest name. San Francisco’s Ryan Vogelsong will start Saturday night against Italy, with Texas’ Derek Holland going against Canada on Sunday.
Following round robin play, the top two teams will advance to the second round next week in Florida. There, a fourth starter, Washington’s Gio Gonzalez, will join the fray.
Under WBC rules, to keep pitchers on their normal spring training regimen, starters are limited to 65 pitches in the first round.
With his knuckleball already in top form, Dickey figures that will be enough to make an impact against a Mexican lineup that surely has little experience against a knuckleball pitcher, let alone one with the proficiency that Dickey has developed.
“If I’m throwing 65 pitches and can execute 60 good knuckleballs, then we’re probably going to be in a good position,” he said.
Then Torre will turn things over to the cadre of 10 relievers he has on hand.
Dickey’s WBC appearance is the latest in a remarkable evolution to the right-hander’s career.
Last season with the Mets, he went 20-6 with a 2.32 ERA, becoming the first knuckleballer to win the Cy Young Award. Dickey led the National League in strikeouts (230) and shutouts (three).
“I don’t feel necessarily pressure because I feel like that’s something you put on yourself,” Dickey said before the U.S. team worked out Thursday at Chase Field. “I think it’s an incredible privilege. And I take great joy in having a gift that allows me to be here. I want to do the best I can with that gift.”
Torre said if Dickey has his knuckler going well, there’s little opposing hitters can do.
“If he’s doing what he wants to do with it, it’s going to be a tough challenge,” said the U.S. manager, the former New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers skipper who stepped out of the MLB front office to take over a U.S. team trying to win its first WBC title. USA never has made it farther than the semifinals in the first two stagings of the world competition, both won by Japan.
Dickey brought along the man who will have to try to catch the most difficult of pitches to handle, Toronto teammate J.P. Arencibia.
“I’m completely confident in him,” Dickey said. “We got to work together in Nashville early on in the offseason. I’ve worked with him in the spring, and he’s progressively gotten better. Now, he’s progressively seen a better knuckleball as my arm’s gotten stronger, and I’ve gotten to the place where I feel like I’m where I need to be.”
Still, he said, catching his pitch “is a challenge.”
“You throw a good knuckleball, it’s hard for the best catcher in the world to catch it. It’s just tough,” Dickey said. “But he’s done a marvelous job of adapting.”
Torre has taken a different route in building a team. Instead of loading it with a couple of superstar-caliber players at every position, he has a basic starting lineup with two utility infielders and one extra outfielder. Dickey likes that approach.
“It’s not about talent as much as it’s about spirit, heart, desire. In international tournament competition, talent doesn’t always win,” Dickey said. “Over the course of 162 games, it’s a little bit better barometer.
“But in tournament play, it’s a little bit different. So you want guys around you who are all in. Like Joe said, ‘It’s not a comment on anybody that chose not to come here, but if there’s 1 percent of you that doesn’t want to be here, you shouldn’t come.’
“Because that’s what it demands in order to win,” Dickey said. “I think we have a clubhouse full of those guys, which is nice.”
It says something about Dickey’s makeup that one of his main motivations for being on the WBC team is the Olympic failure of that U.S. team in Atlanta 17 years ago.
Asked to share some thoughts on that Olympic experience, he said, “Regretfully I think the thing that stands out the most is coming up short.”
“It was an incredible honor and standing on the podium when I bent my neck down and had them place an Olympic medal around my head is an experience I’ll never forget,” he said.
But it wasn’t the gold medal.
“So in my eyes, that’s what I’m playing for, is a gold medal,” Dickey said. “For me, I don’t know what kind of trophy we get or a pendant or a ring or whatever it is, but it’s a gold medal for me.”
The Olympics, he said, “was really bittersweet in the sense that I was hoping to play Cuba and beat Cuba for a gold medal, and we never even got to the game. So it was tough. And this is a chance to redeem that in some way.”