The Last Days of the Philosopher King

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Wednesday night, as the final game of the Blue Jays-Mariners series rolled into the bottom of the 12th inning with both teams deadlocked at 1, and with the Blue Jays’ bullpen depleted of relievers, manager John Gibbons turned to an unlikely savior:  knuckleball starter R.A. Dickey.  Thinking presumably that should the game drag out into another exhausting 19-inning affair like the Canada Day grind against Cleveland, it would be wise to have someone on the mound who could chew through however many outs would be required before the slumbering offense could kick itself into gear.  It was not to be, however, and after having been let down by a couple of errors by the defense, Dickey shambled off with the walk-off loss, with only 1/3 of an inning pitched as Seattle took it 2-1.  With the possibility of the postseason still not entirely solid enough for Toronto fans’ liking, and Dickey unlikely to make the roster regardless, opinions both amateur and professional flew that this ignominious outing might very well be Dickey’s last in a Blue Jays uniform.  With Dickey turning 42 this winter and hitting free agency, it might even be the last time he steps onto a mound.  A career of struggle, crowning achievement and then the failure to repeat impossible expectations might be, in the end, fated to fade away rather than burn out.

Baseball is full of guys like that.  Few if any get a year-long (and let’s admit it – increasingly tiresome) farewell tour like David Ortiz is getting, coupled with his team’s seemingly unstoppable late-season pennant drive.  The ranks of baseballers are divided much like the circles in Dante’s Inferno, with a shining echelon for those who are anointed legends, and everyone else falling into their respective dark circles of almosts and never-weres.  There’s probably a guy wiping down the bar in your local watering hole who had twelve at bats in The Show back in the 80’s or 90’s.  There’s others who move on from middling careers as players to mediocre retirements as coaches, availing the youngsters of today of their decades of inexperience.  There are the sorts who flew too close to the sun on borrowed wings of wax:  Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, latterly Alex Rodriguez.  And there are the men like R.A. Dickey, the workhorses who will quietly close out a long career with beautiful memories of The Year It All Went Right and the lingering question of How It Never Was Again.

In how he approaches the game both on the field and before the TV cameras, Dickey seems like a throwback to a gentleman’s era of baseball that probably never existed except in fantasies colored by repeat viewings of The Natural.  As a knuckleball pitcher the fraternity he inhabits is a small one; as an erudite former English major given to extemporizing beyond the typical pre-fab soundbites about team efforts, that group is even smaller.  His steadiness of manner whether winning or losing is a remarkable contrast to the unpredictability of the knuckleball, a flabbergastingly peculiar pitch that can see him blast through opposing lineups through nine full innings or have him shrugging his way to an early exit to the dugout as that very same pitch sails once again into the outfield bleachers.  Chance always seems to play much more strongly into Dickey’s starts – even though statistically it’s likely no different than any of your standard four-seam hurlers – and too often fans have started to wring their hands the instant someone slaps one of Dickey’s pitches up the middle for a base hit.  Regardless of whether it’s a good night or a bad night, Dickey is hopeful, out there doing his best, and refusing to succumb to petulance if things don’t go his way – just as he won’t take a boastful curtain call if they do.  It isn’t who he is.  When you see players in their early 20’s – who probably can’t spell half the words that roll easily off Dickey’s tongue – sneering in the batters’ box as they lean in against him, you see how far removed Dickey is from where the game is going.

In Game Four of the ALDS in Texas last year, Dickey was lifted after 4 and 2/3 innings of solid work in favor of David Price.  Gibbons’ rationale at the time was that Price was simply a better matchup against Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo who had been something of a menace to the Jays throughout the series.  The Jays held on to take the game, but because MLB rules state that a starter has to go 5 full innings to qualify in the scoring, Dickey didn’t receive his coveted first post-season win.  Sitting next to Price in the post-game press conference, Dickey opined that no competitor wants to be taken out in a situation like that, but that ultimately it was what was best for the team.  (Price earned the official win after notching an inning and a half.)  Refusing to take reporters’ feud-inducing bait, he moved on quickly and revealed his penchant for trivia, noting with a twinkle in his eye that it was the first time one Cy Young winner had been replaced by another in a post-season game.  It was the gentle Southern humility of a man who knows the game is bigger than any single player, and certainly much bigger than himself.

The level of abuse flung at R.A. Dickey by people who should be cheering for him is sad.  Plenty of fans are ready to concede the game as soon as he is penciled in to start it.  They’re equally disdainful of the weak-hitting Josh Thole, Dickey’s personal catcher and an expert at containing the knuckleball, for needing to occupy a roster spot so Russell Martin can have occasional days off.  Much of it has nothing to do with Dickey (or Thole by extension) at all.  After his phenomenal 2012 season with the Mets in which Dickey captured the Cy Young, won 20 games and struck out 230 batters, he, Thole and another catcher were traded to Toronto for a package of players which included a young prospect named Noah Syndergaard.  Syndergaard, or “Thor,” has grown into one of baseball’s premier starters, while Dickey has never been able to equal, let alone eclipse the magnificence of 2012.  Some fans continue to rue this deal as the singular worst in franchise history, as if somehow magically undoing it would result in three retroactive World Series titles – setting aside of course the airplane hangar’s worth of terrible starting pitchers that flowed through and out of the ranks of the Jays roster during that time who certainly didn’t help matters.  Which guy endured, through those agonizing summer months in half-empty stadiums as playoff hopes drifted away early, and kept heading out there every five days to do what he did best, while the others were traded away and forgotten?

Pitcher is the most stressful job in baseball, bar none.  A position player can strike out three times with guys on base and still be considered to have had a good night if his fourth at-bat is a three-run blast into the seats.  But a pitcher goes out there knowing the game can hinge on him making a single mistake.  One meaty fastball too near the center of the plate to one David Ortiz and all is abruptly lost.  Pitchers can even lose games through no fault of their own, as befell Dickey on Wednesday night.  Two grounders and a fly should have been a three-up, three-down inning, but a tired defense and an aching Josh Donaldson booted the game into the loss column, Dickey’s 15th on the year and an unwanted career record.  It was all too reminiscent of what happened with Mark Buehrle last year about this time:  Buehrle was two innings short of hitting the 200-inning plateau for the fifteenth straight year in his career, and Gibbons let him start on two days’ rest against the Tampa Bay Rays in an inconsequential game – presumably he’d let Buehrle throw the needed two and then turn it over to the September call-ups in the bullpen.  But shoddy defense let what should have been a routine first turn into seven unearned runs for the Rays, and Gibbons had to pull Buehrle before he could record a third out – with the TV cameras cutting repeatedly to Buehrle’s mortified wife cringing in the stands.  Buehrle was left off the playoff roster and hasn’t pitched since, and a guy who once threw one of only 23 perfect games in MLB history deserved better than to have his career sputter to an end like that.  As cool September winds begin to blow across baseball diamonds, we can sadly see R.A. Dickey walking a similar path.

The peculiarities of baseball can perhaps explain why on the same team in the same year, you can have one guy who gets enough run support to achieve 20 wins (J.A. Happ) and another who can throw decent games and get absolutely nothing back from his hitters.  Witness Dickey’s August 15th outing against the Yankees, in which he held them to a single run across five innings, striking out six, and still lost the game when Toronto couldn’t notch a single run.  (You can also have the weird outing against the White Sox when Dickey gave up four home runs and still won the game, thanks to the Jays scoring 10 to the Sox’s 8.)  Arguably, Happ’s career year could have easily belonged to Dickey.  Is it that the Blue Jays just don’t feel as inclined to win when Dickey is on the mound?  Hardly, but that won’t stop the fans and the opinion-makers from shaking their heads, and, should this really be the last days in uniform for him, judging Dickey’s tenure as a Blue Jay to be a failure.

When Mark Buehrle was left off the 2015 playoff roster in favor of the shinier late additions that were David Price and Marcus Stroman, it had to have been an additional kick in the teeth, especially as the Blue Jays would not have made the playoffs at all without Buehrle’s 15 wins that year.  The same can be said in 2016 about R.A. Dickey – that the Blue Jays don’t get where they are without him, regardless of what you may think of his overall performance when plucking each game out of its season-long context.  With Dickey, the Blue Jays’ rotation has boasted remarkable endurance, with only 7 different guys starting games (including two spot starts from the since-traded Drew Hutchison), and apart from a few days off here and there for Marco Estrada and his wonky back, not one has gone down to injuries, or been demoted to recapture his groove.  In his four years with the Blue Jays, Dickey hasn’t been on the DL once, and the fact that he is still pitching and winning games in his 40’s when bucks ten years younger are blowing out their arms, says a lot about his commitment to the idea of a career in baseball, not just a couple of bright years and lucrative endorsement deals.  He probably knew as he donned the blue and white for the first time after his trade that he’d never be as good again as he was in 2012, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t going to try, that he couldn’t make an important contribution, or that he didn’t see himself as an important piece in this phase of the history of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Which he has been.  There can be no argument.  As great as Roy Halladay was, he never pitched the Jays into the playoffs.  R.A. Dickey has helped do it at least once, and unless the Jays completely tank the next 10 games, probably twice.  For a four-year stint with the team, that works out to a .500 average.  Not too bad.

The storybook ending you want to see is R.A. Dickey throwing a no-hitter to clinch Game 7 of the World Series.  What you’ll likely see instead is a quiet, deeply thoughtful man saying his farewells and retreating down the corridor out of the clubhouse for the last time, and plenty of post-mortems about how it was never as good as it could have been.  Perhaps that is a fair assessment – statistics, after all, are incapable of lying.  Statistics are far less capable of measuring the worth of introspection versus showboating, of lingering philosophy versus momentary flash.  There is something more deeply satisfying to the spirit in watching a contemplative veteran like R.A. Dickey grind out a hard, well-earned win than in witnessing a monosyllabic high school draftee paid a metric ton of money to smugly crush one home run after another.  A victory for the humble man is a triumph that can be shared; a victory for the arrogant is savored by the arrogant man alone.

R.A. Dickey is a vanishing breed of old-time ballplayer, with a sense of the history of the game that you simply don’t see reflected in the eyes of the younger guys coming up in his wake.  He is no less a competitor, and has no lesser will to win, but he seems to remember, more than the others do, that this is fundamentally a game of little boys in sandlots transformed into an entertainment for the masses played by overpaid adults tracing its lineage to the arenas of ancient Rome.  Whatever else R.A. Dickey wants from his baseball career, it is ultimately to leave the game better than he found it.  When #43 hangs up his cleats, that perspective will be lost, and it will be a loss for the Toronto Blue Jays that will be lamented, even as fresher and stronger arms trickle in after him.  One does hope that we get another chance to cheer for him as he takes the mound, and that in these last days of baseball’s philosopher-king, he gets the send-off that he’s earned – even if, like the man himself, it is a quiet one.

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