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Originally published February 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 8, 2008 at 4:26 PM

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Steve Kelley

New Mariner R.A. Dickey committed to knuckleball

Every major-leaguer thinks he can throw a knuckleball. Watch the players in front of the dugout before a game dueling with their knucklers...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Every major-leaguer thinks he can throw a knuckleball. Watch the players in front of the dugout before a game dueling with their knucklers, trying to handcuff each other with their best butterflies.

Bret Boone threw one before games. Jay Buhner probably had the best.

The pitch is magic. It seemingly defies physics, the way it glides to home plate, bobbing up and down, erratically moving side to side like a leaf blowing in the driveway.

Every major-leaguer thinks he has some of that knuckle magic in him, but as knuckleballer supreme Charlie Hough often says, "It takes one day to learn to throw a knuckleball. It takes a lifetime to throw it for strikes."

It takes a daring commitment to remake a career with it. To go from being the cocky gunslinger to the whimsical poet. To tell yourself you can get out the best hitters in the game with the most unpredictable pitch in the game.

R.A. Dickey has made that commitment.

About four years ago, he was having arm problems and his velocity was dropping. He was trying to sink the ball, work the corners, doing all the little tricks that veteran pitchers do to stay in the game. But he was getting hit too hard, too often.

In 2004, right-hander Dickey was just hanging on, yo-yo-ing between Class AAA and Texas when Rangers pitching coach Orel Hershiser watched him in the bullpen and suggested he could prolong his career if he would commit to the knuckleball.

"There's a lot of hardship involved in making this decision," Dickey, 33, said Thursday from his home in Nashville, Tenn. "It was tough to let go of who I was as a conventional pitcher."

As the pitch began to dance, Dickey began to throw it more often. In the offseason of 2004-05, he went to Anaheim and worked with Hough. Then he went home and every day, religiously, he floated 80 to 100 knucklers against a gym wall.

The pitches fluttered like gnats. And Dickey began feeling more comfortable with the difficult transition from speed to deception.

"To take a new path in order to stay in the big leagues, I've had to let go of everything that got me there," he said. "I had to commit. To do that, to become somebody new, to really leave who you were behind, it's really hard. Very difficult."

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This winter the Mariners surprised much of baseball, including Dickey, picking him out of the Rule 5 draft that usually is designed to take gambles on younger players. The thinking is that, although Dickey is 33, in knuckleballer years, he is closer to 27.

Last year he and his knuckleball had a breakthrough season in Nashville. He was virtually unbeatable the second half of the season, finished 13-6 and was named Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year. About 80 percent of his pitches were knuckleballs.

"I still have enough of an arm to be able get hitters out without having to throw a knuckleball to survive," he said. "But for me, the interesting thing has been to balance my pitching personality with trying to become this knuckleball pitcher.

"It's almost like you have to reach a certain age before you can be mature enough to handle what the pitch is going to do. As a young guy coming up, I could have never handled this. I would have been out of the game. But to have it come together. It's been a lot of fun."

There is something almost romantic about the knuckleball, the way it flirts with hitters and toys with tempers.

It is a niche pitch.

"So much of the pitch is feel," Dickey said. "It's such a funny pitch. It requires a lot of humility and a lot of hard work to get it right. And because of that, it makes you really respect the pitch.

"And sometimes, man, you'll throw one and what the ball does in the air when you throw a perfect knuckleball in a perfect condition, it's mesmerizing. And the response you get from the hitters is a lot of times comical."

Because of the lack of wear and tear on a knuckleballer's arm, Dickey's role with the Mariners could be unique. He could spot-start one game, then be available in the bullpen the next day. If needed, he could throw three or four innings, three or four days in a row. He could be perfect for the midsummer dog days.

In parts of four seasons in Texas, Dickey pitched in 77 games and made 33 starts. His career record is 16-19 with a 5.72 earned-run average. But he says now something has clicked between him and his knuckler.

"Early when I was throwing it, people were treating it like it was some kind of circus pitch," Dickey said. "It is entertaining. Don't get me wrong, but it is a pitch that's designed to get big-league hitters out. And that's my mentality with it. I'm not out there as some kind of spectacle. I'm out there to get guys out."

Dickey is committed to the magic. At 33, he's just beginning to see that his future is in his knuckler.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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