Knuckleballer Dickey tries to catch on with Twins

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) -- When Twins pitchers gather on the grass for their daily warmup tosses, R.A. Dickey moves to the side of the formation. His throwing partner, bullpen catcher Nate Dammann, quickly puts on a mask.

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) -- When Twins pitchers gather on the grass for their daily warmup tosses, R.A. Dickey moves to the side of the formation. His throwing partner, bullpen catcher Nate Dammann, quickly puts on a mask.

Dickey lightly follows through with his delivery, deftly pushing the ball with his fingers and watching it flutter forward.

It dives. It ducks. It bends. It breaks.

Then, finally, it lands in Dammann's glove.



"That's my entertainment. Because I can't play catch, I watch him throw to Nate to see if he can hit him in the face or something," said a laughing teammate Pat Neshek, who isn't yet allowed to pitch while he recovers from surgery.

Dickey is one of only a handful of knuckleballers in the game. Minnesota signed the bearded right-hander to a minor league contract, bringing him to spring training for an opportunity to earn a spot as a long reliever. Dickey still hasn't mastered this skill, which isn't exactly a problem for the Twins. They haven't had a knuckleballer in decades.

"I'm trying to pick his brain, when it's right and when it's wrong," pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "You're kind of looking where his arm is when he's right, and I'm kind of learning the whole thing as we're going. When to use it, when not to use it."

The uniqueness and unpredictability of the knuckleball usually draws a crowd. It's like a spin on the old television commercials -- "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen" -- for the famous brokerage firm.

When R.A. Dickey pitches, people watch.

"It's like that everywhere you go," Dickey said. "It's a different thing, so you kind of feel like a circus act for a little while. People are kind of standing around. And I would be doing the same thing."

Tim Wakefield has been a fixture in Boston's rotation for years, but he's the only knuckleballer currently on a major league roster. Dickey, like Charlie Zink with the Red Sox and Charlie Haeger with the Los Angeles Dodgers, is in camp without a guarantee of making the team.

But Dickey has a decent chance with Minnesota, which learned Tuesday that right-hander Boof Bonser will have exploratory surgery on his pitching shoulder. Thus, the Twins need someone to fill a long relief role.


Rule 5 draft pick Jason Jones, who must be returned to the New York Yankees if he's excluded from the 25-man roster for the regular season, is another candidate. So is Phil Humber, one of the players acquired last year in the Johan Santana trade who can't be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers.

Dickey, of course, has a way to differentiate himself from the competition.

"He knows how to pitch," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's had some really good years, most of them in the minor leagues, but some really good years."

Dickey throws his knuckleball nearly 75 mph, 10-15 mph harder than Wakefield and most others who've used it. At the suggestion of former Cy Young Award winner Orel Hershiser, who was the pitching coach for Texas at the time, Dickey became a full-time knuckleballer in 2005 after he had difficulty recovering from a back injury. He still pitches conventionally, occasionally, throwing a cut fastball and a slider or a curve when the knuckleball isn't, well, knuckling.

He's had his moments.

That first outing as a full-time knuckleballer, in Triple-A?

"Five innings, 10 runs, all earned. Like 13 hits," he said. "No strikeouts."

In 2006, he matched a major league record by giving up six homers in a game. Last August at the Metrodome with Seattle, Dickey tied another mark by throwing four wild pitches in one inning.


"The process has been hard," he said, "and not without its adversity."

Dickey's career ERA is 5.57, dating to his debut with the Rangers in 2001. Last year, in 32 appearances (including 14 starts) that covered 112 1-3 innings with the Mariners, he went 5-8 with a 5.21 ERA with 51 walks and 58 strikeouts. But he's excited about the opportunity to focus on a specific role, rather than bouncing back and forth between the rotation and bullpen.

"It's really just trying to embrace the mentality of 'right now' for me," said Dickey, an English literature major at the University of Tennessee whose full name is Robert Alan. "I'll never get it back, so to really try to commit to that helps me to have a more consistent knuckleball and a more consistent approach to pitching. I hate that it's taken me so long to do that, but I'm hoping I've got six or seven good years left.

"I'm 34 years old, so that's like 26 in knuckleball years."

Throwing strikes is critical. He won't make the team if the Twins can't trust him to do that. Developing a rhythm with the catchers is always a challenge, too. Veteran backup Mike Redmond has picked it up, having caught knuckleballers Charlie Hough and Dennis Springer in the past.

"You let the ball get as deep as you can into your body and kind of take out the break and just react to it," Redmond said.

Joe Mauer, however, has never done this. He's currently unable to catch, too, while recovering from offseason kidney surgery.

"I've seen it, but I haven't tried to stop it," Mauer said, laughing.

Dickey is excited, too, about the chance to pitch in the climate-controlled Metrodome. Without the wind or other natural weather effects to worry about, the knuckleball can be more effective.

"It's kind of a natural air conditioner," Dickey said. "The ball grabs that air that's shooting right into you and throws it pretty well, so I'm looking forward to it."

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