You may have noticed the Toronto sports media going a bit ga-ga today. Yesterday, the Toronto Blue Jays introduced recently acquired pitcher R.A. Dickey in a media conference and, almost universally, the reports focused as much on his intelligence and personality as they did on his pitching skills.
"(T)he English major is remarkably erudite for a professional athlete," notes the Toronto Star's Rosie Dimanno. After interviewing Dickey on the syndicated Prime Time Sports show with Bob McCown, Damien Cox opined that Dickey was among the most interesting interviews in professional sports today. John Lott's National Post summary of the newser noted that, "between his soliloquies on the knuckleball and the local baseball team's prospects of a winning a long-awaited championship" came stories of passion for charity and teaching his daughters. It's not every day that a sports celebrity is introduced as a "philanthropist, born-again Christian, sex-abuse survivor, and best-selling author."
To be sure, the R.A. Dickey story is an interesting one. After spending the longest part of his career as a marginal major leaguer who did not live up to the hyped potential he had as a teen (he was featured on the cover of Baseball America at 18), Dickey mastered the rarely-mastered knuckleball pitch with over 360,000 practice throws (many against a wall) over a seven-year period. Over the past few years, he has been among baseball's best pitchers and was recognized as such with the National League Cy Young award in 2012.
But it isn't just the redemption story—of his career, or of his overcoming sexual abuse, parental neglect, and a host of other challenges—that make Dickey compelling. Rather it is the attitude of sincerity backed by the conviction of action which seemed to convince even jaded sports journalists that Dickey is the real deal. Donating the maximum allowed in his contract to the Blue Jays charity; taking his daughters to India to celebrate the transformation of a brothel into a health clinic by a charity he has supported; and speaking candidly about athlete's responsibilities "to do some things that transcend the game"—this is the stuff (with a few Zen and Star Wars references thrown in for good measure) that's attracted the media's fascination.
The Dickey story provides a welcome contrast to contract disputes between hockey millionaires and billionaires, although ironically the media conference followed Dickey's signing a two-year $25 million contract extension. The intrigue, however, comes from this athlete's ability to put sports into the larger context of life.
We are aware of R.A. Dickey because he is a talented baseball pitcher. We are attracted to him because he communicates, in his eloquent words but also through behaviours that make these words credible, that life is more than a game. He doesn't simply use the game as a metaphor for life; he deals with the various aspects of life including the game in a transparent and up-building manner. "My off-the-field growth as a human being is paralleled by my on-the-field growth as a baseball player," is the quote CBC's The National chose to highlight.
The sports fan in me was more than familiar with most of what Dickey brings to Toronto, but I must admit to being a bit surprised by the media's enthusiasm for him. DiManno's line that "it's not mere hyperbole, his descriptor as the most interesting man in baseball," prompted me to wonder what made it so. It's clearly not his pitching—no one has yet seen him pitch in a Blue Jay uniform. I think rather it is a recognition that in Dickey there is a substance that transcends the hollow one-dimensional celebrities usually covered in the media. The gushing you read in the papers today is that aspiration for substance that in public life today is too rarely experienced.