We all search for baseball players to root for, quickly settling on them because we can identify with them in some concrete way.
Growing up a Mets fan, I pulled for Darryl Strawberry. Like Straw, I was tall, left-handed, and my teachers described my performance the same way writers denigrated Strawberry's: failure to live up to potential.
It is this search, I believe, that leads fans to identify with players who share ethnic backgrounds, hometowns, and other similarities. The Mets have plenty of these players in 2010, whether you are Jewish (Ike Davis) or Japanese (Hisanori Takahashi) or have trouble with righties (Pedro Feliciano).
But in R.A. Dickey, a singular quality stands out for me. I finally have a player to follow who loves books as much as I do.
I've been down false trails before, finding players who read newspapers, magazines, and plenty who have read books but without that addiction to books that some people have. This is not just a ballplayer thing. This is a people thing.
One former Yankee, I was told by a teammate, was "a big reader." I walked over to his locker eager to find a literature discussion. There he was, book in hand and it was Angels and Demons by Dan Brown.
Nothing against Dan Brown, whose books many of you may own (based on sales figures, 3-4 copies of each). But this is kind of like getting introduced to someone at a party described as "a huge Mets fan" and it turns out he knows who David Wright is.
Dickey, on the other hand? Well, let me put it this way: find me another pitcher who talks to reporters about his starts in front of a locker containing both the poetry anthology "The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart" and debut fiction by literary heartthrob Junot Diaz. Go ahead. I'll wait.
Dickey has described his backup job, had baseball not worked out, as English professor. And like all other fellow English majors, I was extremely impressed that Dickey had managed to figure out both a job and, incredibly, a backup job. This is relatively new territory for us, though managing to find steady work by age 35 after wandering for a decade and a half sounds about right.
So what would the Professor Dickey curriculum be like?
There would be a healthy dose of poetry -- the pitcher's interest in it dates back to seventh grade, when he entered, and won, a poetry contest.
"Anytime that you win something, it really spurs you on to greater heights," Dickey said as we spoke at his locker prior to Thursday's game.
Of course, Dickey had some other things to do at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. From a future earnings standpoint, baseball offers slightly more reward than poetry.
"I got so busy with sports that I really didn't read as much as I would have liked in high school," Dickey said. "But when I got to college, and then into pro ball, that really changed."
Think about it from an obsessive reader's perspective. You have tons of travel time, in buses, and elsewhere, and only once in every five games do you need to take the mound. It's like that Twilight Zone episode, except without the guy breaking his glasses.
No wonder Moe Berg, another baseball player who moved well beyond standard fare in his reading taste, loved being a backup catcher so much.
Unsurprisingly, Dickey's reading pace and appreciation have accelerated as he's accumulated time within this lifestyle.
"Even in the last five years of my life, I feel like my reading, and my aptitude, has really changed," Dickey said, "Reading is one of the things that I love, and I've really emphasized doing those things that I love well."
We ran out of time, leaving discussion of Hemingway and Dickens for another time, though rest assured Dickey would have a healthy dose of Southern authors on the syllabus as well (he became the first baseball player I ever interviewed to namedrop Eudora Welty).
For Dickey, his poetry love begins with Frost, Shakespeare's sonnets and William Wordsworth -- though his familiarity extends well beyond the most famous lines. So it feels cheap to describe Dickey's 2010 this way.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
That's kind of the Angels and Demons of Frost work. Instead, I'll reach for this concluding stanza from Wordsworth's 1828 poem "To the Moon", which I think will best express how Dickey is viewed by Mets fans in 2010:
To cheer the long dark hours of vacant night
Oft with his musings does thy image blend,
In his mind's eye thy crescent horns ascend,
And thou art still, O Moon, that SAILOR'S FRIEND!