An old friend suggested I go to the ballpark and interview a man who "reads Melville by day and tries to set down McCutchen by night." The idea was intriguing. So I arranged a meeting with New York Mets starting pitcher R.A. Dickey Monday afternoon at PNC Park. It might have been the most fascinating hour I've spent all year.
You've heard of the world's most interesting man? Dickey might be baseball's most interesting player. The best part? He's real. As he will tell you, he's painfully real.
You might know Dickey is baseball's final knuckleballer standing. That's reason to watch him pitch tonight against Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates. You might also know he has no ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, which means he shouldn't be able to throw a ball let alone take a 5-1 record and a 3.75 ERA into the game. "I guess I'm freaky," he said. You might even know he was an English Literature major during the Peyton Manning years at the University of Tennessee. That makes him something of an oddity in a big league clubhouse.
But what makes Dickey so riveting is his insights into the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case at Penn State. He was sexually molested as an 8-year-old -- by a 13-year-old girl baby sitter on multiple occasions and by a 16- or 17-year-old boy one time in what he described as a "much more violent act." Somehow, he was able to write eloquently about it in his book -- "Wherever I Wind Up" with Wayne Coffey -- which made the New York Times best-seller list earlier this year.
"I wanted to write a book of redemption and hope," Dickey said. "I had bottled up so many things for so long. To step up and take a risk like that wasn't easy for me. To get to the places I wanted to get with the book, I had to walk through a lot of darkness."
Dickey didn't avoid any of it in our chat in the Mets dugout, but, surprisingly, he began by expressing the slightest trace of sympathy for his abusers, for Sandusky, who has yet to be convicted of any crimes, and for those predators who "are committing sexual abuse somewhere this very minute as we sit here and speak."
"This is real hard for me to say and it will be controversial to some, but everybody has his or her own story," Dickey said. "That goes for the abusers, too. You wonder, on some level, if they were abused themselves."
What Dickey knows for sure is the pain he felt after he was abused.
"You feel like you've been a part of something very wicked. That's the genesis of keeping quiet. You're afraid if people know how damaged you really are, they'll throw up their arms and run away and not want to have anything to do with you. You already feel like less of a human being. You're already fractured. To be alienated like that is the one thing that can fracture you into a million pieces. You are afraid to take that risk."
Dickey, 37, kept his dark secrets for almost 25 years. He's convinced that's why he took foolish, even dangerous, risks such as breaking into vacant homes to sleep in his hometown of Nashville, fishing golf balls out of an alligator-infested lake and trying to swim across the Missouri River. He's convinced that made him less of a pitcher, but, more significantly, less of a son, a husband, a father and a man.
"I never wanted to look inside me because I was afraid of what I'd find," Dickey writes in his book.
Eventually, the weight of the secrets nearly crushed Dickey.
"I hated myself, hated what I had become," he said in the dugout. "Oh, yeah, I thought about [suicide]. I was always looking for mechanisms of escape. It's easy to want to go to the other side where things aren't as painful. Suicide is the ultimate escape."
If Dickey had a message in the dugout and the book, it's that abuse victims don't have to suffer alone. "The Great Lie," he called his fear of people shunning him. His faith carried him through the darkest times and, in his mind, led him to Nashville psychotherapist Stephen James. His breakthrough came when he finally told James his story. It took several visits, but he finally revealed to James his abuse at the hands of the teenage boy.
"That was the part that cut the deepest for me," Dickey said.
No, Dickey isn't whole. He said he never will be. But his family life has never been better. He and his wife, Anne, celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary in December and have four kids. His baseball life has never been better. He's finishing a two-year, $7.8 million contract this season and the Mets have a $5 million option for next season.
There's a passage in Dickey's book that's worth repeating for victims of abuse everywhere. That seems especially true as the Sandusky trial gets ready to unfold on a national stage.
The words belong to James:
If you aren't willing to face your demons -- if you can't find the courage to take on your fear and hurt and anger -- you might as well wrap them up with a bow and give them to your children. Because they will be carrying the same thing ... unless you are willing to do the work."
Sure, Dickey wrote the book for himself. "It became a real cathartic experience for me."
But Dickey also wrote it to help others. "When you do this type of literature, you kind of hope it can live on by impacting people in some positive way."
It was an ambitious task.
Dickey accomplished it.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.