Thursday, December 20, 2012

An overdue ode to R.A. Dickey

This June, my sister and I went to Citi Field for one of the games I foolishly bought in my five-game season package and saw the greatest pitching performance I had ever seen in person by a Met. It was a one-hit shutout against the Baltimore Orioles, a team that was 11 games over .500 at the time and would eventually get within one win of the 2012 ALCS. It was a quick, dominant and masterful display of fooling one hitter after the next. The man on the mound was R.A. Dickey.

By the time this game happened, R.A.'s competency wasn't a shock. After years of mediocrity and minor league demotions, Dickey had proven himself to be an able pitcher after coming to the Mets and renewing himself as a knuckleballer. But by June of this season it was starting to become apparent that Dickey had gained full control of his knuckleball and could contol it in a way no one really had before. This particular outing was his second one-hitter in a row (this first one was one bad hop at third base away from being a no-no) and it lifted Dickey to a stunning 11-1 record. It was exactly two months since his last losing decision, and one could have made the argument that for this two-month stretch, Dickey was the most dominant pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball.

For this and so many more reasons it is with wistfulness and complicated emotions that most Mets fans said goodbye to Dickey this week, the centerpiece of a seven-player trade with the Toronto Blue Jays. Dickey's time with the Mets was short -- just three seasons -- and the first two were unspectacular though decent. For many fans it seemed we had gotten a capable Major League starter on the cheap, one likeable due to his comeback story as he worked his way out of exile in the minors, but not much more than a 14 or 15 game winner at the high end.

In the last calendar year, though, something strange happened. First Dickey raised money for the victims of child sex trafficking while climbing Kilimanjaro. Then he released a book about his experiences that revealed not only his own literary genius and appreciation, to say nothing of his gift of prose and self-introspection, but  his own difficult experiences with baseball struggles and being sexual abused by a babysitter as a child. The book became a best seller. Both of these things continued to make Dickey an even more likeable and appreciated player, whose obvious gratitude for the chance to stay in the Majors and ultimately succeed had made him a fan favorite; he was a player you wanted to root for.

Then the 2012 season started. And he pitched.

R.A. Dickey's rise to prominence wasn't exactly out of nowhere, but no one, in their wildest dreams, could have foreseen the Mets' first 20-win season since  Frank Viola's in 1990 and their first Cy Young since Doc Gooden's remarkable 1985 season. Just for good measure, Dickey was the first knuckleballer in history to win the award as the league's top pitcher.

All of this was wonderful, but it also led to complications with Dickey entering the final season of a $5-million-per-season deal -- a stunning discount in this market -- and wanting longterm security. At the same time the Mets are by consensus still at least two or three seasons from championship contention, though the crop of prospects including Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler is promising. By the time the Mets were able to compete, would the 38-year-old Dickey still be able to pitch at this level? And if not, did it make sense for the Mets to pay him his worth without the prospect of championship-level competitiveness when his value could bring in a new crop of prospects to bolster the franchise's longterm health?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Dickey will be dominant for several seasons yet, but even if that were so, his success may do no better than bring the Mets to an 80-win season instead of a 72-win one. Many fans of the franchise have been torn over the developments, none moreso than me, but there was heavy sentiment that dealing R.A. for a bumper crop of prospects, if such a package could be found, was the right move.

In the end, that is what happened.

The jury will be out for quite some time and many will debate whether or not the move was the right one until 20 years have passed or the Mets win a World Series with the core built in part by this trade, but for the time being it is the belief of many that Mets GM Sandy Alderson, given where the Mets were and where Dickey was, made the right decision. Was in unerving to see Dickey leave because the Mets were unwilling to come up from their offer of a two-year $20-million extension when all Dickey asked for was two years at $26 million, a significant value and the rough equivalent of what Ryan Dempster is getting from the Boston Red Sox? Perhaps most significantly, was it simply tough to say goodbye to someone the fans had grown so fond of so quickly?

The answers to both of these questions was yes. But in the end the catch reeled in may prove worth losing the big fish, and Alderson may have seen the forest instead of the trees. In exchange for the reigning Cy Young winner, Toronto sent the Mets Travis D'Arnaud, considered by many the top prospect in Toronto's system and the best catching prospect in the game, filling a need at a position the Mets have failed to fill with any real suitability since Paul Lo Duca or maybe even Mike Piazza. In additon, the Mets also get Noah Snydergaard, a pitcher many had rated as Toronto's third-best prospect. Other ancillary pieces went both ways in the deal, but these are the two blue chips that make the move worth while.

In the end, it may yet prove the right move. In fact, for the rational part of my brain, it's very difficult to think otherwise. But the heart is strong. This now feels like a separation neither side wanted, but both realized had to happen once Dickey proved himself such a valuable commodity. I would never claim Dickey's significance in Mets franchise history is on par with, say, Peyton Manning's with the Indianapolis Colts, but the emotions in their divorces are similar. Both sides painfully acknowledging it is for the best even if neither side really wanted it to happen.

In life that is sometimes how things go. Still, R.A. Dickey's brief tenure in New York proved many things to the baseball world and its fans. It proved that if you work hard enough, you can control and master the knuckleball. It proved that for good, decent people, stories of a dramatic rise from the depths to heightened levels of success are possible and that they are as satisfying as you think they can be, particularly when the man who accomplishes it is himself so genuine and likeable.

More than anything else, however, Robert Allen Dickey's brief time as a Met showed that no matter how long you're a part of something, it can be hard to say goodbye.

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