NEW YORK -- R.A. Dickey needed to overcome an unworthy baseball team to make it to 20 victories, an appropriate epitaph to his season in the sun. He had to clear so many hurdles on his stormy voyage into manhood, on his journey from one of the game's worst starters to one of its very best, that it was fitting this had to be done the hard way.
The New York Mets' way.
So Dickey sat there with a white towel over his shoulder and watched Jon Rauch surrender a two-run homer in the ninth, watched his 6-3 lead become his 6-5 lead, before he had a little conversation with himself. The Mets were 71-84 for a reason, and the pitcher trying to become their first 20-game winner since Frank Viola in 1990 knew his team was fully capable of chewing up his moment and spitting it onto the dugout floor.
"I had to be OK with whatever happened," Dickey would explain, "knowing that I did what I came here to do."
He had, in his words, "sucked the marrow out of every second" of this draining, complicated day. In the middle of the game, with the Pittsburgh Pirates having already knocked him around for seven hits, a homer, and three runs, Dickey felt exasperated and fatigued. The starter wasn't himself, and the knuckleball wasn't itself. Neither the pitcher nor the pitch projected the vibe of certainty that framed the back-to-back one-hitters in June.
But the last Citi Field crowd of a long, lost season would find a creative way to propel Dickey toward a monumental achievement to bookend Johan Santana's no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals, a franchise first that felt like it happened five years ago.
Dickey would walk to the plate to take his feeble cuts, "And I would hear this kind of growing surge," he'd say, "and it was really neat. I don't know if I've ever experienced that before, and maybe I never will again."
The fans, some 31,506 strong, stood and cheered and chanted Dickey's name as if he were a slugger representing the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. "How can you not be motivated to go out there and give the fans and your teammates and yourself all that you have?" Dickey asked. He'd never been more exhausted on the mound, never been more willing to call it a day after six innings, and yet he had to keep pitching, keep pushing.
"I wanted to give them that gift," he said.
And everyone around him wanted to return the favor. Dickey struck out the side in the fifth and then watched David Wright bat on a TV screen behind the dugout. He was speaking with the pitching coach, Dan Warthen, when Warthen hopefully suggested, "Just a little ball away and David will handle it." As soon as the coach said it, bam, Wright blasted Kevin Correia's next pitch the opposite way and over the head of Travis Snider, who'd earlier robbed Mike Baxter of a homer with a fence-climbing catch that put Endy Chavez's to shame.
Only this time Snider chased and jumped in vain, tearing a hole in the Xerox sign in right center while the crowd celebrated the three-run homer that changed everything. Dickey gave Warthen a high-five and then headed off to greet Wright. "It was a load off," the pitcher said. "It was a breath ... I felt like it was a sign that, 'Hey, here's your window. You've got to take it.'"
Dickey took it into the seventh and struck out Josh Harrison on a floater that was practically over the second baseman's head, leaving Harrison wincing and holding the bat over his helmet as if ready to snap it in two. The starter was back to being himself, and the knuckleball was back to being itself.
Terry Collins had his mind made up when Dickey approached him, his right arm having already delivered 111 pitches. Dickey wasn't lobbying to go out for the eighth. "He was pooped," Collins said, and the manager didn't much care.
"Look, this ballpark's filled with energy today," Collins told Dickey. "Use it to your advantage. Go out on that mound and ... we'll go hitter by hitter. Somebody gets on, you're coming out. But these people deserve to see you walk off the mound."
Dickey nodded. "Don't leave me hanging," he said.
"I won't," Collins agreed.
But first the pitcher had to hit one more time. Collins ordered Dickey to stand there with the wood on his shoulder, and with the fans standing and chanting his name one more time, the competitor inside Dickey couldn't bring himself to obey. He took a hack at the first pitch, and the second, and sure enough the dribbler toward third stayed fair and forced Dickey to race down the line.
"I couldn't help it," the pitcher later explained to his boss.
Of course he couldn't. That 90-foot sprint explained why he was about to become the sixth Met to win 20 games.
"He's willing to sacrifice everything to be great," Collins said.
Forced at second, Dickey returned to the dugout as fans saluted him with a we're-not-worthy bowing and waving of their arms. As the crowd willed him toward the finish line, Dickey struck out the first two Pirates in the eighth, matching his career high of 13 whiffs. He had a 1-2 count on Snider but couldn't put him away, allowing the walk and forcing Collins to jog out to the mound under loud booing and honor his pledge.
"This was about R.A. today," the manager said. "It was about him. It was about his connection with the fans, his connection with the city."
On exit Dickey removed his cap and waved it. He survived the scare in the ninth, the scare that died in the glove of Baxter, the same outfielder who gave up his body to preserve Santana's no-no.
Back at Dickey's Nashville home, his wife Anne was packing up the mini-van for the drive to Atlanta with their four children to reunite with the man who had just made Mets history. Anne was listening to the game on a radio call that was half a minute or so ahead of the images on her iPad. In a phone interview with ESPNNewYork.com, Anne reported that she isn't much of a crier, but that she did get weepy in the eighth as R.A. tried to head for home.
Dickey called her from the team bus 45 minutes after the victory, and after blowing by the 65 text messages already waiting on his phone. "We did it together," R.A. told Anne. "We're a team. I couldn't have done it without you."
In his book "Wherever I Wind Up," written with Wayne Coffey, Dickey revealed that his mother was an alcoholic, that he'd been sexually abused as a child by a female babysitter and a teenage male, that he'd slept in abandoned homes as a teen, and that he'd confronted suicidal thoughts after confessing his infidelity to Anne.
"We had to rebuild out of our rubble," Anne said, and rebuild they did. R.A. said the cathartic disclosures in his book made him comfortable in his own skin for the first time, and helped liberate him in his career to pursue what he called "a metamorphosis from just surviving to being a craftsman, and then ultimately the hope is to be an artist at what you do."
Seven years ago, Dickey was a broken-down Texas Rangers pitcher sent to the minors by Buck Showalter to learn how to be a full-time knuckleballer. He'd run the streets at 11 at night, after putting the kids to bed, and picture himself as a successful big-leaguer striking out the best hitters in the game.
"I never abandoned hope," he said. "I didn't think about winning 100 games, I didn't think about being a Hall of Famer. ... All I thought about was being a trustworthy product for a team."
Dickey became one of baseball's most trusted pitchers by mastering a most untrustworthy pitch, and it should come as no surprise. He did conquer his self-loathing ways, and he did conquer Mount Kilimanjaro, too, climbing 19,341 feet above sea level as part of a campaign to stop sex trafficking in India.
Of course he would conquer the considerable flaws of the New York Mets.
Anne got nervous as she listened to the radio and watched on her iPad in the ninth, just like all of New York got nervous. But soon enough her husband was at the end of a receiving line on the field, chewing on his bubble gum and basking in the triumph.
"It wasn't long ago when we were just hoping to get to the big leagues and keep the house," Anne said. "My hopes never got beyond job security, and now we have this incredible storybook ending."
She was driving the kids to Atlanta as she spoke, driving to meet up with a 37-year-old journeyman who had arrived as an athlete and human being the only way he knew how:
The hard way.