It isn't his knuckleball that separates Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey from his peers. It's what goes beyond baseball.
“Ultimately the thing that helped me find some healing [was when] I learned that life was not about turning the page, or getting to the other side of something. It’s about holding what is broken about the world and holding what is joyful about the world, and being able to take a step forward with both. That is living well in the moment. And that’s what I’ve tried to make a discipline of.”
I can’t stop thinking about R.A. Dickey. More precisely, I can’t stop thinking about what R.A. Dickey has meant to me, as a sexual assault survivor, ever since he joined the Blue Jays.
Way back on January 8, 2013, Dickey did his first press conference after being acquired by the team in a blockbuster trade that blew our minds. With his sad eyes and slow southern drawl, gingham button down shirt and dad sweater, he was exactly as legendary sportswriter Roger Angell described him: “(his) full beard and peaceable appearance suggest a retired up-country hunting dog.”
That day, I remember watching him answer questions, completely awed by the fact that not only did he fall so outside the hyper-machismo bro-bravado that sports is so well known for, but that here was a professional athlete talking candidly about sexual assault to a room full of sports journalists.
Sports culture at large has been notoriously bad at dealing with sexual violence, and for survivors like myself, it was incredible to see our experiences reflected in such a high profile way. It was buoying to know that someone who had experienced trauma was so bravely discussing it, and used his position to help others who were struggling. It’s not an exaggeration to say he changed the conversation by simply being open and authentic, all the while having an unquestionable humility about his contribution. I would go as far as to say that he did a great deal in terms of making rape survivors feel welcome—even safe—in the sports conversation. Further, Dickey was never afraid to admit that healing was an ongoing process that he was still in the midst of, that sexual abuse was not something to “move on from” and “overcome,” but rather something you learn to cope with each passing day.
At the time Dickey was acquired I was covering books for the National Post, and knowing I didn’t have the coveted access to interview Dickey for any given sports venue, I contacted his publisher to set up a discussion around his memoir and new children’s book, released in Canada that spring. It was my very first interview with a professional athlete, a phone call set up from spring training in Dunedin, Florida to my day job desk at the Walrus magazine. I nervously wrote and rewrote my questions throughout the morning, but was inevitably caught off guard when my phone rang about 40 minutes before our scheduled call.
“Stacey May? It’s R.A. Dickey.”
I’m not embarrassed to say that R.A. Dickey made me cry that day. About half way through our hour-long conversation, after talking about his favourite books and writers, and the difficult task of writing a memoir, I raised the fact that I was also sexual assault survivor–my disclosure a way of relaying to him that I understood the courage necessary in telling his story. He then thoughtfully interrupted me, genuinely expressing how sorry he was for what had happened in my past. When things get especially hard, I now hear his voice in my head: “I’m so sorry that happened to you, Stacey May.”
Dickey’s humanity knocked me loose from being a “professional journalist” for a moment. Suddenly we were just two human beings talking about something that is so notoriously difficult to discuss, something that the world constantly asks us to hide away. I was so completely moved and impressed by his kindness and intelligence, that when I finally filed the piece my editor actually asked me to tone it down a bit.
“I had somebody ask me the other day, ‘How does it feel now that you’ve gotten to the next place?’” Dickey told me during that interview. “I said to them, ‘I think that’s one of the great misunderstandings about people who have been sexually abused. Is that you go through your work, and you do the counselling, and you’re diligent and you really truly try to unpack it. And then you get to this place where you never have to think about it again.’ Well the truth is, there’s not a day that goes by, even for a millisecond that I don’t think about it. That’s part of it. Knowing that you have to live with it. It’s constant work.”
We all know I love this team, and that there are reasons unique to each member why we should go on to the World Series. But I think a win for R.A. Dickey holds the most meaning for me as someone who has struggled through trauma throughout my life. Those who have experienced sexual violence understand that it robs you of the safety and comfort that can come so easily to other people, fills you with self doubt and even self hatred, dismantles your confidence, and your ability to care about and for yourself. It makes you anxious and afraid, makes you see yourself as a failure regardless of the progress you’re making, makes you feel like nothing you do is ever good enough. And here is a survivor, like us, taking the mound during the playoffs. Even if it’s in a small way, he makes us feel better, make us feel like we don’t have to hide, and that we’re not so alone.
To see Dickey succeed, while also honestly expressing his own ongoing struggles, is a rare and necessary inspiration in the world of sports. He exists as a generous lesson to those who have endured sexual abuse that things can and do get easier, and that healing is still a challenge even for someone as accomplished as a playoff pitching Cy Young winner.
Dickey pitches Game Four today, and it’s hard not to pull out that cliché that it doesn’t really matter what happens given everything he’s done, everything he’s achieved, everything he’s given us. Sportswriters have debated his consistency to death, repeatedly asking if we can rely on him and his temperamental knuckleball in such a pivotal game. But it is Dickey’s fallibility that actually inspires the most faith and belief in his success. He knows there are greater things than this game, more meaningful contributions than those that happen on the mound, and that’s precisely why he’s able to perform so well, and why it’s so easy to believe in him.
It needs to be said that it means a lot to many survivors to see him out there today, and I for one definitely believe in him—both on and off the mound.
Stacey May Fowles is a novelist and essayist. She curates baseball feelings from across the league into a weekly newsletter called Baseball Life Advice.