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Family Man R.A. Dickey Uncertain about next Steps of Unorthodox Career

Dickey, 41, is an impending free agent coming off knee surgery. His wife and four kids will help him decide what comes next.

John Lott

Photo by John Lott

R.A. Dickey had a good week. His wife Anne and their four kids came in from Nashville to spend March break with him in Dunedin, Florida. Late one afternoon, after the Blue Jays' exhibition game was over, the crew camped out in right field, where Dickey threw batting practice to 9-year-old Eli (no knuckleballs, thanks, Dad). Daughters Gabriel, 14, and Lila, 13, tossed flying rings. Anne gathered loose baseballs. Done with the rings, Gabriel and Lila sat in the grass and carefully stacked the balls into a precarious pyramid. Little Van, 5, scurried about and snuggled in the grass and soaked it all in.

Such are the scenes that Dickey contemplates when he thinks about next year, about whether he will keep pitching when he's 42, which would mark his 21st pro season. The question is not whether he is able, he says. He figures he has at least a couple good years left in a career that has been unorthodox from its beginning. No, the question is whether he wants to and whether his family wants him to.

As we chat, we are leaning against the wall of a quiet hallway linking the spring training clubhouse to the weight room. It affords a small measure of privacy. The clubhouse is ridiculously cramped—one reason club president Mark Shapiro is determined either to make it modern or leave town—and Dickey does not want to talk about personal matters in a noisy crowd.

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His contract with the Blue Jays expires after this season. I ask whether he and his family have discussed what comes next.

"Sure," he says. "And we're all kind of undecided. We just like to stay in the moment."

No one is urging him to go one way or the other, he says. He became a knuckleballer late in his career, and it made for an improbable success story. It also made him rich beyond the dreams he had back in the early 2000s when he was working second jobs in the offseason and playing winter ball far from home to make ends meet.

He is grateful, he says, that his kids got to see him thrive in his job, and that his wealth—$36-million (all figures U.S.) from the Jays alone since 2013—provided his family with the kind of financial security most of us cannot imagine.

Dickey poses with his wife and four kids. –Photo by John Lott

So I wonder whether everyone involved might be feeling a tad ambivalent about turning the page.

"They know I've worked really hard to stay in shape," Dickey says of his family. "I don't show signs of atrophying. My velocities are still there. I'm in better shape. I feel better than I have in quite some time. They know all that. They've never held me back. They've always been an encouragement to me. But they deserve to help make the decision at this point."

***

Atrophy may not have been the applicable word, but last season Dickey was hardly in fine fettle. Not that anyone outside the clubhouse knew, of course. The public didn't know, in fact, until Dickey reported to spring training a month ago. He'd been bothered by knee soreness since the beginning of last May.

"I remember fielding a ball on my back foot on some wet grass, and I felt a little sharp pain, and didn't really think anything of it," he says. "It wasn't like I was hobbling around and had to come out of a game. I just took it in stride as everyday wear and tear. Over time, I realized it was more than a little discomfort."

He had torn the meniscus in his right knee. That's the leg that absorbs the full impact when he completes his delivery. In 2001, he'd had surgery to correct a similar injury in the same knee. For several starts, he didn't tell anyone. But in the middle of May, the pain and the swelling forced him to confess to head trainer George Poulis. For the rest of the season, the knee required daily attention. "A lot of soft tissue work, a lot of icing, a couple cortisone shots," Dickey said.

"After every start, the swelling would be noticeable. So we would spend the next four days getting it out of there, then I'd pitch and go through it again."

He did not miss a start, hitting his late-career average of 33 once again. He gives Poulis a heap of credit for that. But he was unable to do his normal conditioning routine between starts. He can't be sure, or simply won't say, whether it affected his performance, especially early in the season when his ERA hovered around five.

"Some days it bothered me," he says. "It was hard to get it going. But it was never an excuse for a poor outing. It was either you can handle it or you can't."

Dickey is not trying to sound heroic. I am asking questions. He's answering with his usual candour. Every player plays through pain, often of the sort that undermines performance to varying degrees. It goes with the territory. His meniscus tear was relatively mild, with one complication—something called a bucket tear, which prevented him from having full flexion and extension in his knee.

Dickey throwing his signature knuckleball in a recent spring training outing. –Photo by John Lott

By August, he knew he'd need surgery. The recovery period was six weeks. By then, Poulis had made the problem manageable, the Jays were in a glorious pennant run and Dickey was pitching better than he had all season. Over the final two months, he went 6-1 with a 3.26 ERA. The Jays were 9-3 in his final 12 starts.

"I was going pretty good," he says in a matter-of-fact tone, "and I just needed to get on the field and stay confident, and I did."

He had the surgery after the season. During his rehab, he decided he wanted to lose some weight.

"It was a personal decision," he says. "It wasn't like they said, 'Hey, you need to lose weight.' It was me saying, 'I'm getting a little bit older. I want to feel better when I wake up in the morning.' I wanted my joints to have to take on less pounding, so dropping 10 or 12 pounds would be smart. So I did."

At the end of the season, he weighed 224. On the day of our interview, he weighed 211.

***

When Dickey mentions working second jobs back in the day, I ask him what sort of work he did.

"I remember one offseason I was ultrasounding elderly people in rehab clinics at six in the morning just to try to make enough money to pay a mortgage," he says. "I had a couple kids and was in Triple-A, up and down. I taught baseball lessons. I went to play winter ball in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Hawaii. That takes a toll on a family, too."

Finally, facing the end of a thoroughly mediocre career, Dickey turned in desperation to the knuckleball. It took five frustrating years, but success finally came. He won a Cy Young Award with the Mets and, thanks to a hastily negotiated contract extension, agreed to a trade to Toronto in December 2012.

He has averaged 218 innings over his three years with the Jays. He has also tried everything he can think of to avoid the early-season doldrums that have marked each of his Toronto seasons. This year, he believes, carrying fewer pounds should help. Always studious about his craft, he says he has a few more tricks up his sleeve, but keeps them to himself.

A slightly trimmed down Dickey throwing a bullpen session in Dunedin. –Photo by John Lott

Meanwhile, he says he tries not to think beyond the here and now. But he admits November and free agency and a big family decision do invade his consciousness every so often. Ask him about that, and you get the sense that he might be inclined to keep pitching.

"I think I will be an attractive option for a lot of teams because I will not be requiring a multi-year deal, and I will probably be asking less than what my market value will be," he says.

There are no comparables for R.A. Dickey, no knuckleballers in their 40s on the market.

"I'm not going to be holding people hostage for a million dollars here or there," he says. "If you play above what your contract dictates that you will make, then you'll have a job for a long time. That was one of the first things Tim Wakefield told me. He said, 'Always outperform your contract and you'll always be attractive.' And for me, it's not necessarily about the money at this point. It's about the right fit, and how close to home I'd be, and are there direct flights, and what is the clubhouse policy for kids, all that stuff."

We both chuckle when he mentions kids in the clubhouse. Adam LaRoche quit because his 14-year-old son was no longer welcome in the White Sox clubhouse. LaRoche and Dickey are among the rare major leaguers with 14-year-olds, and Dickey is not likely to bring his oldest daughter into the room. But his boys would no doubt love to hang out. (In years past, kids often visited their dads in the Blue Jays locker room. So far, no word if that will continue under the new administration.)

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Dickey says he appreciates the good fortune of a late-career windfall. He says he does not indulge in fancy cars and extravagant houses. His financial priority is his kids' education and long-term security, whether or not he plays beyond this year.

"I'm a saver," he says. "That's just my nature. I grew up in a lower middle-class environment, and I had a grandfather who was very fiscally responsible. I spent a lot of time with him and I saw what he did. He took me to open up my first bank account. That was a coming-of-age type of thing for me. It was instilled in me by him pretty early that you needed to be a saver, so I've been a saver. And when you have kids—especially four kids—you find out that private education costs a lot of money, so those become a priority and not other things."

His priority now is a good start to the 2016 season and another run to the playoffs. At the moment, nobody in the Dickey family seems anxious to convene a summit meeting on Dad's valedictory.