By Jason Keidel
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Baseball is no longer our nation’s favorite sport — football has seen to that — but it’s still our pastime. It doesn’t cave to the rampant cultural vanity we see in the NFL and NBA, where comic book bodies and trendy suits are as much of the motif as crossing patterns and pick-and-rolls.
Baseball still trades in the Horatio Alger narrative, in the rags-to-riches arc that used to be the province of boxers. Baseball is one of the last, pure pipelines into the American Dream. From Mike Piazza to Tim Wakefield, there are still players plucked from the bowels of the baseball draft who can will their way to stardom, given the right confluence of timing and talent.
There’s still room for John Kruk, Cecil and Prince Fielder, CC Sabathia and other hefty athletes who won’t preen shirtless from the cover of GQ anytime soon. On a baseball diamond, you needn’t look good to be good.
Kind of like a knuckleball. And thus it’s impossible not to grin when pondering the pitcher-philosopher named R.A. Dickey. Left on the landfill of failed players, he took a most circuitous route back to baseball, with his last quarter in the sporting slot machine being a shot-put from 60 feet away.
If you’ve read this column over the last two-plus years you know there’s no love for the Mets, and even less sympathy for a forlorn franchise who has nothing or no one to blame but their bungling owners for their fates. The maxim is that it’s better to be lucky than good. The Mets have been neither since Endy Chavez made the catch of the young century, only to be upstaged by Yadier Molina and an epic, off the cliff curve from Adam Wainwright.
Putting a little sizzle on a pitch that dances like a butterfly before bending toward home plate, Dickey has been dominant this year. And he has cemented his place not only in Mets lore, but also in New York history. For all the gentrification, from freezing Hell’s Kitchen to the sterilization of our Melting Pot, we’re still a baseball town. And you need not be a Mets fan to root for Dickey.
Dickey won his 20th game yesterday, which accounts for about a quarter of the Mets’ wins this year. It’s an astonishing number even for Johan Santana, much less an English-teaching, Kilimanjaro-climbing thesaurus with Southern charm, whose Tennessee twang has disarmed a city despite a dreadful season from his employer.
It says here that the man with the big brain is a no-brainer for the Cy Young Award this year.
It’s been said that the novelty of his pitch could corrupt his chances of winning the pitcher’s ultimate prize. Hogwash. If anything, the fact that Dickey has put a twist on the tormenting pitch makes him even more appealing and qualified for the award. And if Felix Hernandez broke the barrier on awarding the Cy Young only to pennant contenders, then Dickey deserves the 2012 iteration.
This isn’t a sympathy vote. Dickey is at the top or in the top three in every important category. And if you consider Gio Gonzalez to be Dickey’s primary competition, then consider that Dickey has a better ERA, more innings pitched, a lower WHIP and more strikeouts.
If anything, Dickey’s dominance is exponentially more impressive when considering the players behind him on the diamond. After a 4-24 stretch at home, the Mets went on a little run this week to sweeten a sour season, But Dickey kept the Mets from being historically bad. He pitched on a team with no talent, no morale and no hope, and still grinded out 20 wins. By contrast, Gonzalez is pitching for a first-place team that will finish with about 25 more wins than the Mets.
Even without the after-school-special theme to his season — the endless metaphysical lessons Dickey has taught us about perseverance, courage, will and skill — Dickey can win just on his numbers. And while baseball is long wed to its statistical prerogatives, we take a shine to our pastime because it doesn’t conform to one thing.
We love that every ballpark is different. Not every game is played within 100 yards or on 90 feet or parquet. Baseball is quirky, superstitious and just plain odd. How else do you explain the voodoo of a knuckleball or the men who have thrown it — or the man of the year throwing it this year?
We don’t want an explanation for R.A. Dickey. We just want to enjoy him for however many days, months or years his old bones can put a spell on that spellbinding pitch — one that should put a trance on the Cy Young voters.
Has Dickey been the best story in the Major Leagues this season? If not, what has been more compelling? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below…