Review: RA Dickey’s Wherever I Wind Up

R.A. Dickey has got a heck of a life story.  His birth prompted the hasty and doomed marriage of his parents, who became an alcoholic (in the case of his mother) and emotionally unavailable (in the case of his father).  As has been widely reported elsewhere, he also suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a babysitter over the course of the summer he turned eight, and was sexually assaulted by a teenage boy that same year.  Eventually his parents split, he got into fights, he left his mother to live with his dad, and he developed a hell of a fastball that would take him to the University of Tennessee and into the first round of baseball’s amateur draft.

Before he signed his $810,000 contract to join the Rangers, however, doctors discovered that Dickey had no ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, and the Rangers cut his signing bonus by more than 90%.  And eventually, after years of struggle and personal and professional failure, Dickey took up the red-headed stepchild of baseball pitches, the knuckleball with which he finally had sustained Big League success at the ripe old age of 35.

That, and the self-hatred and self-destructiveness his life caused, should be enough to fill three memoirs, and fill them well.  But one of the greatest ironies of R.A. Dickey’s recently-published memoir, Wherever I Wind Up, is that the very thing that helps him to beat back his self-destructive nature and to find personal and professional success, his Christian faith, is also what threatens to scuttle his book.

Dickey’s faith is a powerful force in his life, and it’s been a boon to him in his times of need.  And as a Catholic, The Common Man sympathizes with Dickey, and the profound effect his belief has had on him.  But as a reader, The Common Man found that the knuckleballer’s repeated, paragraph-long, breaks to recount the prayers he made at every step, which would happen every couple pages toward the end of the book, interrupted the narrative flow of Dickey’s story and became increasingly repetitive and, frankly, annoying.

There is certainly a place, an important place, for faith in Dickey’s story.  It is, after all, a central part of who he is and what he was able to accomplish, but his long asides take what is billed as a baseball book with some religion, and turn it into a religious text with some baseball.

Dickey’s memoir also suffers from feeling somewhat incomplete.  We get broad sketches of his wife, Anne, and children, but no real sense of who they are as people.  She is incredibly devoted to him and to his success, but we never truly see her interact with Dickey, beyond confronting him about an affair he had in Oklahoma City, but that he doesn’t discuss much in the book.  Again, we don’t need details, and certainly The Common Man respects the woman in question’s privacy, but some additional details about how the affair began and why, how his wife found out, and how the pitcher felt about himself as it was going on would be especially compelling.  Instead, we get called in at the end, where Dickey is called out for his infidelity at his in-laws house, and he simply leaves.

We also don’t get much to differentiate his teammates from one another (aside from Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes).  But what distinguishes Kevin Slowey from Laynce Nix from Grant Balfour?  They’re all Christian and presented as good earnest friends.  But we don’t get much beyond that.  Slowey’s a Twin, Nix is not, and Balfour’s Australian.  Obviously, Dickey’s going to go to great lengths to protect the integrity of the clubhouses.  That’s fine.  But imbuing them with some personality and telling a few stories that deepen Dickey’s connection to the game, his teammates, and to the life he’s chosen would enrich the memoir so that it could be about more than just R.A. Dickey.

Despite its flaws, Wherever I Wind Up is worth reading, especially given how quickly Dickey’s prose goes.  It’s highly readable, and bounces with enthusiasm at times.  It’s clear how much he loves his second craft, even as he seems hesitant to lay everything out for the reader. His description of his childhood, and the horrors that befell him, also fly by breathlessly.  Dickey’s struggles and search for redemption is too compelling and dramatic to be held back by any of his narrative missteps.

In, by far, the best passage of his book, Dickey attempts to swim across the Missouri River, certain of his own ability to outstrip the current.  The passage is fraught with tension and danger.  Obviously, we know he lives to write the memoir, but for almost an entire chapter, The Common Man began to doubt it, especially when he continues to make the terrible choice to press on in spite of his fatigue and the undertow pulls him down to the riverbed.  His decisions say so much about the man he is, that he wants to be, and his desire both to impress the men around him and be loved.  It also contains a largely unexplored insight into his relationship with his wife that, again, could have been expanded upon.

And his descriptions of his knuckleball, and the years-long process he went through to perfect it, is interesting for pitching wonks.  Pitching legends like Orel Hershiser, Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield, and Phil Niekro make significant appearances, and all push Dickey closer to Big League success.  Through their efforts and his tireless determination, Dickey eventually winds up having almost as much faith in his pitch as he does in God.

Mets fans will be interested to read Dickey’s take on members of the 2011 squad including Mike Pelfrey and frustrating superstars Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes.  Beltran earns high praise for his thoughtfulness, generosity, and leadership.  And Reyes is the greatest source of energy in Major League Baseball, according to Dickey.  And if you cotton to the particular Evangelical brand of Christianity that Dickey favors, you may find his faith rewarding to read about.

Toward the end, The Common Man found himself disappointed the book had to stop when it did.  Fans of Dickey undoubtedly followed his trek up Mount Kilimanjaro with former teammate, and Minnesota-punching bag, Kevin Slowey, but because of the timing of the book, the ascent only is mentioned briefly in the acknowledgements.  The Common Man thinks there’s probably another memoir in Dickey, and that that ascent will also make for a heck of a story.

The Common Man would like to thank the good people of Blue Rider Press for getting him an advanced copy of Wherever I Wind Up, which is currently on shelves at your local bookstore or available on Amazon (and also on Kindle).