By J.R. Lebert aka jrlebert

NOTE: At the time of this article, R.A. Dickey sports a 14-2 record, a 2.83 ERA, and 147 K’s in 146.1 IP.

Before this season, you may have heard the name R.A. Dickey a few times. He finished 7th in the ERA race in 2010, with a mark of 2.84. He compiled a rather pedestrian 19-22 record in the previous 2 seasons, albeit with a sparkling ERA of 3.08. And yes, you probably had heard that coming into this season he was baseball’s lone remaining knuckleballer. But unless you are either a fan of Dickey himself, or a pretty fervent fan of the New York Metropolitans, I doubt that the career of one Robert Allen Dickey would have registered on your radar.

Flash forward to the end of July 2012, and R.A. just may be baseball’s most important pitcher of the last 20 years. Not best, although he is certainly giving that title a run this year, but definitely the most important, not only to his team, but to the very history of the grand old game of baseball.

Baseball has seen its fair share of curiosities. Mark “The Byrd” Fydrich, Bill “Space Man” Lee, and Jose Lima are three of baseball’s biggest characters to ever grace the mound. Other pitchers, such as Steve Carlton, Mariano Rivera, or Pedro Martinez, had or have such devastating pitches that they have changed the game with their style and effectiveness. Some, like Jamie Moyer or Nolan Ryan, seemed to get better with age, pitching well into their late 40s with great success. Greats John Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley were able to save their careers with transformations from dominant starters to shutdown closers.

In my opinion, however, not since Hideo Nomo in 1995, was a pitcher as important to his craft has R.A. Dickey has become in 2012.

Nomo is single-handedly responsible for the recent influx of Asian talent to the major leagues, both pitchers and hitters alike. Had the “Nomo Experiment” failed, we may never have seen Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka, or any of the countless position players and pitchers that have been brought over from the Far East. Had Nomo just been able to tread water, or turned in the career of contemporary Mac Suzuki, we may have never had the chance to see current rookies Yu Darvish or Wei-Yin Chen. Being responsible for an entire generation of players from an entire region certainly qualifies as important. However, Dickey may be responsible for an entirely different generation of pitchers, all while being charged with saving baseball’s most unique and difficult pitch to master, the knuckleball.

The knuckleball’s history stretches all the way back to around 1905, with one of baseball’s most infamous players, Eddie Cicotte of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, credited for its invention. Behind the knuckler and an array of other trick pitches, if not for the scandal, Cicotte would probably be a Hall of Famer. Tom Seaton became the first knuckleballer in the National League in 1912, and the following year led the league in wins, innings, and strikeouts, finishing 11th in the MVP vote. The knuckler had arrived in both leagues, and for the next 99 years, seemed destined to stick around.

In a career spanning 19 years through the 20s and 30s, Jesse Haines threw the pitch all the way to Cooperstown, elected in 1970 by the Veterans Committee. The 1940s could be seen as the golden age of knuckleballing. Jim Tobin threw a no hitter in 1944, on his way to an All Star appearance and a top 20 MVP vote. The Hall of Fame career of Ted Lyons was coming to a close, notching the final 39 of his 260 wins in the decade, while compiling a fantastic 2.97 ERA, .70 lower than his career mark. The ultimate barrage of knucklers could be found playing in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. The 1945 version of the Senators trotted out an almost all-knuckleball rotation of Mickey Haefner, Emil Leonard, Johnny Niggleling, and Roger Wolff, on their way to 20 games over .500 and a second place finish in the league.

From the 40s to the close of the century, many other pitchers sported long careers chucking the knuckler. Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm racked up 143 wins and 227 saves in a career spanning 21 seasons. Bob Purkey racked up three All Star appearances, and pitched a fantastic 1962 season, with 23 wins. Phil Niekro joined the exclusive 300 win club in a stellar 24-season career also ending in a HOF nod. Wilbur Wood tallied four straight 20-win seasons and three All Star berths. Relievers Jim Bouton and Eddie Fisher dominated hitters during their long careers, mastering the knuckler out of the bullpen.

The 80s and 90s saw Charlie Hough and Tom Candiotti pitch their way through long careers. Knuckleballs from Kirt Ojala were responsible for both Barry Bonds’ 400th home run and one of Sammy Sosa’s 66 home runs in 1998. Even Wade Boggs threw the knuckleball, throwing 16 of them out of 17 pitches in a relief appearance for the Devil Rays. Steve Sparks, Dennis Springer, Charlie Haeger, and Jared Fernandez brought the knuckler with them into the 2000’s. The reigning godfather of the knuckler, Tim Wakefield, retired after the 2011 season at an even 200 wins, tying a Boston Red Sox record with 186 wins, and striking out over 2,100 hitters over a 19 year career.

With Wakefield out of the game, that left just one player throwing the knuckleball, the Mets enigmatic Dickey. Pitching for 4 different teams in his first 8 seasons, as well as being sent to the minors twice and having his roles switched from starter, to reliever, and then back to starter again, the magical ride Dickey has enjoyed in 2012 almost never happened. Luckily, the Mets gave Dickey one last shot, in 2010, and he has rewarded their faith with both great pitching and leadership in the clubhouse over the past 3 years.

As the last active knuckleballer, Dickey is charged with carrying the torch of one of baseball’s strangest pitches. Just being in the big leagues is not enough to make the pitch last, which makes his 2012 performance all the more important. Leading the majors in wins, with 14, and having a sparkling ERA is a great start. Throwing the pitch differently than most others, using a “fast” knuckler, a slower one, and having an above average fastball has caught the eye of many major league observers.

Overcoming quite a bit of personal tragedy, including enduring unspeakable horrors as a young child, has only served to endear even more fans to Dickey and his quirky pitch. He has used the platform he has earned to bring light to children who have experienced similar fates, and this, in turn, has shed more light on the pitcher and his amazing pitch. Undoubtedly, Dickey’s remarkable combination of overcoming personal tragedy, developing his unique pitch over a tumultuous career, coming back from the minors not once but twice, and now pitching at an All Star level, will serve to inspire a whole new generation of knuckleballers, and quite possibly save the knuckleball.