When guys make it to the big leagues for a handful of games, maybe an entire season, later on in their lives they'll say they "had a cup of coffee" in the big leagues. The implication here being, of course, they didn't stay long.
My baseball career was short enough to call it a "shot of espresso," or maybe, "the tiniest, whispered sip of espresso." This metaphor admittedly gets a little complicated, because, after my cup of baseballian coffee, I entered the coffee business. But before I began dispensing non-baseball cups of coffee to thousands of non-baseball-playing Nashvillians, I did have a teeny, David Eckstein-sized cup of coffee for a local college. And while I was swishing around that dirty, grimy coffee in my mouth, I faced R.A. Dickey, Cy Young Award winner.
* * *
My freshman year, I played outfield at Trevecca Nazarene University, a small, Christian college in Nashville that fines you if you miss chapel. Trevecca has a competitive Division II baseball program (the school was in the NAIA during my time)—we finished second in the conference that year. During the fall semester, a block of months reserved collegiately for football and basketball and whatever else, baseball is relegated to conditioning drills, long-tossing, batting cage work, and good-natured rookie hazing. Rules prohibit teams from holding "practice" (rules also prohibited teams from "hazing"—guess shaving our heads and dizzy bat racing us into viritigalian stupors didn't count—so we did all of these other things and didn't call it "practice").
One of the things we did was have a round-robin "Intrasquad World Series." Our 25-man roster was divvied up among three teams—Team Black, Team Gold, and Team Purple. To round out each team's nine-man starting lineups, our three coaches were eligible to play. A draft was held to select the teams—one of our players' dads owned an upscale bowling alley, and we had the live draft there, complete with a draft board and microphone'd podium, in one of the "party rooms" (definitely a place where your ninth birthday was, with a cake and party hats and a clown you're scared of and you're not sure why is there). The three teams were captained by each of our three coaches.
Our head coach, Jeff Forehand (now the coach at Lipscomb University), played high school ball at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, under his father, legendary Nashville coach Fred Forehand. Coach Forehand (our Coach Forehand) was teammates and remains good friends with former MBA and University of Tennessee star, current Toronto Blue Jay, and 2012 Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey. R.A. and Coach Forehand had a yearly standing agreement that, if R.A. was in town, and healthy, and just happened to be near Trevecca Nazarene University's campus during the intrasquad world series, he would pitch for whatever team drafted him. It was a risk--you draft R.A. and he doesn't show, you're down a man on your roster. If you pick him, you get a spot start from one of the best pitchers in the world.
Of course, this was 2005. R.A. Dickey was not one of the best pitchers in the world. He was one of the best pitchers in whatever room he happened to be sitting in, maybe? If he was sitting in a room completely devoid of professional baseball players? At the doctor's office, definitely, he was the best pitcher there. And, say, at the mall, although there are lots of people at the mall sometimes, so you can never be sure. He definitely was the best pitcher at any given moment at any local doctor's office, and he was sure in those a lot. Had a host of shoulder problems and all other kinds of stuff.
Also, he was old.
He'd starred in high school in the early 90's. His good friend and contemporary, Coach Forehand, was our coach, in his late-30's; this is what R.A. should've been doing at this point, settling down, having a family, "giving back" to the game. Instead, he was floundering around minor league bullpens and major league disabled lists. Numerous times, he was a shot of espresso away from being out of baseball entirely, forever.
In 2005, he was technically with the Texas Rangers. Although he was with the Texas Rangers the way you're still married to your wife even though she made you move out and you're eating pizza every single night and she is dating someone new and the divorce is just a matter of paperwork. As a formality, Orel Hershiser (just a totally random and huge name to appear in this saga) told R.A. to learn a knuckleball, like the wife saying to her estranged husband, "Um, get a job that pays six figures, and quit drinking, and dedicate your life to Christ." I'll get right on it, honey!
So R.A. got right on that knuckleball, a fickle, wavering pitch tried by few, mastered by even fewer. Tim Wakefield was able to grasp it, sort of, in the way that you don't really grasp a knuckleball anyway, but just kind of heave it up there, with your knuckles, hoping for the best. It's a long-shot pitch, capable of dancing past bats and ducking catcher's mitts. It can dart and flutter and weave, and it can float there like an eight-year-old's toss.
R.A. took up the knuckler because he couldn't take up anything else. Injuries had ravaged his other stuff—his fastball was hittable by every two-armed human in the coffee shop you're in right now, his curveball wasn't so much of a curve as a Google Maps "slight left" on its way to being a stand-up double, his fast-less fastball meant his change-up wasn't much of a change from anything, except maybe now every single human being on earth could hit a homer on him. He wouldn't have lasted 15 more minutes for the Rangers.
So he learned the knuckler.
It didn't start well. His first year throwing the knuckler, by some miraculous finagling of the disabled list, Dickey made the Rangers' opening day roster. No pitcher in major league history has given up more home runs than he gave up in his first start of the season. The Detroit Tigers launched six (6!) on him that day, which is half a dozen, and also twice the homers I've hit in all my life.
So he hadn't quite figured out the knuckleball yet. And he wouldn't, either, for a while. Six years it took—one for each of those six bombs—for Dickey to figure it out, or maybe it just took that long for the unpredictable yips and zips of the knuckleball to float the right way for R.A., in a career that had zipped in all the wrong ways for so long.
In 2012, as a member of the New York Mets, Dickey won the Cy Young Award. Six years removed from that ignominious home run record, seven years removed from making a fool of me in the Trevecca instrasquad world series.
* * *
I redshirted my freshman year. Redshirting is code for "looking good for the girls." My sole purpose at Trevecca Nazarene University—other than keeping the pitching charts, which I did with accuracy and aplomb—was to look good for the girls in the stands. I wore my socks just right, high cuffed, with my jersey tucked perfectly into my pants—and I never worried about it becoming dislodged, either, as the fastest move I'd make all season was to swiftly high-five a run-scoring teammate on his way back to the dugout. My actual on-field performance was irrelevant, unnecessary, and, if I was to keep my redshirt designation (which allowed me an extra year of eligibility on the hypothetical back end of my baseball career), prohibited. So I had to make up for it with sartorial swag.
Technically, my freshman year was dedicated to my continual improvement as a baseball player. There was no pressure on me to perform.
And then, in game one of the Intrasquad World Series, R.A. Dickey shows up.
This was not the R.A. Dickey of the Cy Young. In fact, this was not the R.A. Dickey of the major league-record six home runs. This was a half year prior to that, R.A. still testing out the knuckler, recovering from surgery—about 70%, he told us—and basically still figuring out if he could throw a baseball as a means of employment any longer. He was at the end of his rope. He could barely stand a chance on an MLB roster.
And he dominated us.
I faced R.A. four times. I made contact once. I hit it from me to you. Really. If you and I were sitting here talking, that's how far I hit it: a conversation's length. He fielded it, and easily threw me out at first. This after three straight trips ending in strikeouts.
The knuckleball was annihilating.
Maybe it was just 18-year-old me, never having seen anything like it. But it was crazy—nothing like Tim Wakefield, who just lobbed the thing up there like a greased-up watermelon. R.A. pitched the thing, hard—not like, 90-miles-an-hour hard, but hard, low-80's probably. With that amount of heat on it, the knuckler did some funny things. It dropped halfway there and continued on its path, like some sort of horizontal Tetris game. It shifted to the right just as you were about to swing, like a girl in the high school hallway, narrowly avoiding crashing into you. Most of all, it was fast, accurate, deceptive, and dizzying.
That this man couldn't cut it on a major league roster had major league implications for me: I was nowhere close. I had tasted, and I had seen: my cup of coffee tasted nothing like his.
After completing a full season of looking good for the girls at Trevecca, I retired. When he could hardly carry his own arm out to the mound, R.A. Dickey struck out my baseball career.
You can go ahead and pour one out for me—I was about to brew a new cup of coffee anyway.
Raleigh McCool is a staff writer for Grizzly Bear Blues, SB Nation's Memphis Grizzlies community, and is appearing as a guest writer on Bluebird Banter for the first time. You can follow Raleigh on Twitter @raleightatum. A version of this story previously appeared on Raleigh McCool's website at raleighmccool.com.