The real Comeback Player of the Year

Sorry, but if you were a first-round pick who went bust because your team doctor discovered you were missing a ligament in your pitching arm, and then, 14 years later at 35 years old, you post a sub-3.00 ERA and become perhaps the only feel-good story on an otherwise moribund team, how are you not the Comeback Player of the Year? Tim Hudson and his precious Tommy-John-surgery-rebuilt arm can go blow (as nice as I’m sure Mr. Hudson is). R.A. Dickey of the Mets was the real Comeback Player of the Year 2010 in the National League.

Yeah, I know the argument goes that Dickey was never good before this season, so what, exactly, is he coming back from? Um, how about unfulfilled promise? How about that quintessentially American story of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and persevering over adversity to achieve a measure of success? If that’s not a comeback story in sports, let alone America, I don’t know what is.

This is not to demean what Tim Hudson has accomplished. And this may come across as callous or as diminishing rehabilitation from dramatic surgery as something that most non-baseball-playing mortals could possibly comprehend or undertake. But lots of professional ballplayers come back from injuries, even (in this day and age) from Tommy John surgery — that is, coming back from a repaired ligament. Not a lot of them have come back from not having a ligament at all, to say nothing of coming back from 14 years of life as a journeyman to discovering a magic and should-be impossible-to-control knuckleball while throwing the seventh best ERA in the league (albeit 1/100ths of an average earned run behind the guy you lost the award to).

“The 30 Club beat reporters from, the official web site of Major League Baseball, selected the winners for the 2010 Major League Baseball Comeback Player of the Year Award,” reads the press release from Major League baseball announcing this year’s awards. I’d say the 30 club beat reporters wouldn’t know a good comeback story if it bit them on their collective online ulnar collateral ligaments.

Summer in the Citi

I briskly walk down the steps of the subway station on a gray and unseasonably cold weekday afternoon in August.  I am in Queens. It is six days after my 38th birthday, and I can’t remember the last time I rode a subway in New York. As the steps fall beneath my feet and the overhang of the station clears my view, I see the reddish-brown brick rotunda and the giant red apple in the plaza in front of me. I am at Citi Field.

A man sitting on a low wall near the apple talks to me about the park. A plane takes off low overhead. I call my friends, who I will meet inside the park later, and laugh. I am smirking as wide as a 9-year-old boy when they lower the lights and bring out his candle-topped birthday cake.

I buy my tickets from perhaps the most patient ticket agent in all of New York, and I cynically think, is this what it is like when you have a .500 ballclub that doesn’t sell all of its seats? Is it the Mets, or do teams just treat their fans better when the home club is playing poorly, the experience created because this is a weekday game for a non-pennant contender? No reason to ponder this further; my first impression of a 2010 Mets representative is a positive one, and a ballpark looms.

I enter the rotunda and, of course, I look up at the high, arched windows, and I look down at the marble floor. It is 90 minutes before gametime, and the crowd inside the rotunda is small. I go through the team store and I poke my head into the Hall of Fame museum, but only briefly. I ride the escalator up and walk around a bend and I see the field. It still gets me — how green the grass is for major league baseball, whether your team is in first place or last. The park is both larger and smaller than I expected, and I can’t stop taking pictures with my camera-phone, and I walk around the entire field-level concourse, even up and down some stairs to peek through the fence at the bullpen and behind me I see how close the auto-chop shops are across the street, and I love this new stadium.

It is a windy late afternoon, and it will become a windy, misty night, and with our seats in the upper deck promenade, I am glad I wore my rain jacket on this August night. But that is later. I as am giddy as a child on this first trip to this 2-year-old park of my adopted team.

I complete my circle around the concourse and then double back to the food area behind center field. I take a peek at the kiddie wiffle ball field I hope my son will get a chance to try out someday, and I buy him an orange Mr. Met T-shirt that he will surely outgrow in six months. I go upstairs eventually to check out our seats and am satisfied.

The author (right) and "friend."

The author (right) and newfound superfriend (with saxophone) outside Citi Field.

My friends arrive and call me from the center field area I just vacated. I practically run down the stairs to meet them and we embrace and eat soft tacos and drink beer while standing a table in center field, the wind battering us like we were on a fishing boat in the bay. We watch R.A. Dickey from a distance, warming up in right field. I grab a second round of beer just before the National Anthem, and we stay at our stand-up table underneath a giant scoreboard for the first inning while buffeted by the wind and I love every minute of watching baseball, drinking beer, eating food, and spending time with my friends, away, temporarily, from work, family, household chores. I miss my family, admittedly momentarily, but I also think about how I can’t wait to introduce my 4-year-old son to this baseball experience (minus the beer, of course) and how I can’t wait to point out all the architectural nooks and crannies to my wife over good food. But, selfishly, not tonight. Tonight is my birthday present to me, and the Mets later add a cherry on top with a ninth-inning win.

But the victory is secondary to me, paradoxically, to getting to experience a big new park for the first time, to eat (separately, of course) Mexican tacos behind center field and a Kosher hot dog topped with pastrami high above the left field line, to cheer with friends for the Mets, for a 35-year-old knuckleballer, for Mets hitters coming up to the plate to the strains of the Stones’ “Start Me Up” (for rookie Ike Davis) and Van Halen’s “Panama” (for the aforementioned Dickey), to enjoying the company of old friends for a few hours, wind and light rain be damned, to enjoy a few last laughs and photos, and to finally take an express subway and a long commuter train back to my parents’ home, where my precocious boy sleeps peacefully on an air mattress at his grandparents’ house.

On dodging career bitterness to become the ‘other guy’ and escape ‘the depths of Mordor’

In what has become a disaster of a Mets season after so much promise in June, R.A. Dickey remains a highlight and perhaps the most inspirational story to come from on-field performances in this baseball season.

Dickey’s story has been well-told, but for readers of this blog who are neither Mets fans nor baseball fans, here’s some catch-up: Dickey was born without (or perhaps it atrophied as a youngster) an ulnar collateral ligament — the primary tissue that stabilizes the elbow — in his pitching arm. He shouldn’t be able to turn a doorknob without pain, let alone pitch.

He was drafted out of college by the Texas Rangers, but a team doctor discovered the oddity in his arm, and the team downgraded a promised $800K offer to $75 grand.

After wandering through the majors and minors and through several organizations for more than a decade — the very definition of a journeyman — Dickey has found success in his first season with the Mets this year by mastering the unpredictable knuckleball, a pitch so rarely used that only two Major League hurlers use is as a primary weapon (Dickey and Boston’s Tim Wakefield). Dickey is doing this at 35, an age when most professional ballplayers are in their decline stage (though some top-level pitchers do throw into their 40s, as do many knuckleballers).

Oh, and by the way, in the world of monosyllabic jock quotes, Dickey was an English major in college, is an avid reader, and is a thoughtful quote.

But what continues to strike me, and what gives me inspiration as a 38-year-old former English major with what feels like a stalled career and little understanding of what to do about it, is R.A. Dickey’s attitude about his own career, which saw such promise (and promise of riches) turn to a kind of professional wandering in the desert, and then to an eventual career reboot that is well on the way to redemption.

As he told the New York Times in 2008 (while still working on, but not yet perfecting, that knuckleball):

“‘Imagine winning the lottery and then losing the ticket,’ said Dickey, who signed with the Rangers because he assumed no team would give him a chance again. He reported to the minor leagues knowing that precious little was keeping his elbow together, that each day pitching could be his last.

“‘Every day I had to decide whether I was going to be bitter, if I was going to be that guy — woe is me, you know?’ Dickey said. ‘I had to choose every day to be the other guy.'”

Or, as announcer and Mets legend Keith Hernandez said in the Mets broadcast earlier tonight (in a bit of coincidental and unfortunate timing, just before Dickey gave up a game-tying home run), Dickey’s career was “in the depths of Mordor,” and now he is a candidate for comeback player of the year. Read the rest of this entry »

Mets’ R.A. Dickey and the gift of perspective

Friday night’s seventh inning notwithstanding, R.A. Dickey is officially my favorite New York Met.

Not only was the man an English major in college — like me — but his career reboot is happening for him now, at age 35. A recent article at MLB Fanhouse summed it up perfectly: his entire career has been like The Odyssey. Here he is, starting over, perhaps for a long time, and maybe finally finding himself (or at least, finding success and confidence on the mound) at age 35, largely the result of re-inventing himself a few years earlier as a knuckleballer.

It’s a story I can entirely relate to. At age 37 (and shortly, it will be 38), I still often wonder what I’ll be when I grow up. A decade after leaving sportswriting full-time, I’m still looking for my own knuckleball, the pitch to re-invent my career, a way to re-boot to my season, or at least find some profession that will give me satisfaction, confidence, and self-worth.

Perhaps I’ll never find it, the way R.A. Dickey has for these last two magical months. I’m blessed with a radiant wife and an exuberant nearly-4-year-old son, a warm home with a roof over my head, a purring cat, and relatively healthy parents. These are real things. And even if you don’t have the career you thought you would at 21 years old, just merely seeing and rooting for someone who finally gains success in the second half of his 30s gives you both hope and perspective.

That’s why R.A. Dickey is my favorite Met.

(published concurrently at my baseball blog, Clutch Bingles)