This has been a January unlike any other for pitcher R.A. Dickey, and he isn't complaining one bit.
The 43-year-old made 31 starts last season for the Atlanta Braves, compiling a 10-10 record with a 4.26 earned run average. Atlanta was the seventh major league team for the former Montgomery Bell Academy and University of Tennessee standout, and there has been no rush to find an eighth locale.
"It's been great being with my family and getting to be a full-time father and full-time husband after 21 years of having to get ready for spring training," Dickey said. "I probably will not be going to spring training with a ball club, but I have not officially retired. I would be available for a team around the All-Star break, when teams are looking for trades and veteran leadership and guys who can eat innings to protect some younger guys.
"I don't know if the itch is completely out of me, but I know that God has called me with conviction to step away from it in the early months of spring and summer to be with my family."
Dickey, who made baseball history in 2012 by becoming the first knuckleball pitcher to win the Cy Young Award, will be the featured speaker Tuesday evening at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' annual Road to Victory Banquet at the Catoosa County Colonnade. The banquet starts at 6:30, though Dickey will be arriving earlier at the Colonnade to lead a clinic.
"The FCA has been a part of R.A. Dickey's story going back to middle school," FCA area director Jay Fowler said, "and he's just an incredible story when you consider all that he has overcome. He reached the pinnacle of baseball as a Cy Young winner, and we're thrilled that he's coming to speak to us."
Dickey was the 18th overall pick of the 1996 draft by the Texas Rangers and was set to earn a signing bonus of more than $800,000, but most of that was scratched when team doctors discovered he was missing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Dickey had compiled a 38-10 record with the Volunteers from 1994 to 1996, but he was forced to leave his conventional pitching practices as a professional and join the knuckleball likes of Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield.
Overhauling his repertoire to become a Cy Young winner with the New York Mets may be the most recognized obstacle Dickey has overcome, but he revealed in a March 2012 autobiography that he had been sexually abused as an 8-year-old boy by a 13-year-old female babysitter and later by a teenage boy in a secluded area. Dickey kept those incidents secret until he was 31, and he credits his spiritual beliefs for helping him combat emotional issues that included even suicidal thoughts in the years since.
"Having that foundational faith is so important," said Dickey, who was a recent guest of "Press Row" on Chattanooga's ESPN 105.1 FM. "I had to relearn how to go about relationships. When you suffer sexual abuse at an early age, there is a lot of dysfunction and toxicity that comes with it. You don't want to get close to anybody, because you're afraid of getting hurt.
"I had help from people who nurtured my faith along, loved me and, frankly, saved my life on a number of occasions."
Dickey's willingness to speak about what he endured comes at a time when both Hollywood and the athletic world have been rocked by sex-abuse scandals. Just last week, doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced up to 175 years for sexually abusing gymnasts at Michigan State and with the U.S. Olympic team.
"It's a recurring theme in our society, and to be able to speak to that through experience in order to help with the understanding and the healing that comes later is something that I consider a real privilege," he said. "When things seem so dark in the moment — and things have been dark many times in my life — God can really use that and has used that in many special ways."
Dickey is certain to have a powerful message Tuesday night in Ringgold, and he won't shy from talking about the Braves, either. Atlanta went 68-93 during the 2016 season and was looking for significant improvement last spring when the Braves had Dickey and fellow veterans Bartolo Colon and Jaime Garcia in their opening rotation.
The Braves wound up only marginally better at 72-90 despite being 45-45 on July 16, but Dickey believes this season will be different.
"There was a dark cloud for a minute there with what happened with John Coppolella and when John Hart stepped away, but there have been a lot of changes at the executive level that I think can result in an opportunity for a fresh start," Dickey said. "There are a lot of incredibly special players in that farm system who will be coming up, and I think everybody last year knew that it was kind of a bridge year. You want to be competitive, and if everything hits just right, maybe you can squeak into a wild card, but I think last year will still wind up as a steppingstone for things to come.
"You've got the Nats in that division, but outside of them, we can consistently compete with anybody. If (Mike) Foltynewicz can take a step forward and (Sean) Newcomb can build on what he did — they've got (Luiz) Gohara, who is a really good left-handed prospect, and you have two or three really young guys, too. You can also supplement that with (Brandon) McCarthy and (Scott) Kazmir and (Julio) Teheran, so you've got a good mix. I'm not going to sit here and say they're going to the World Series, but I think Braves fans will be pleasantly surprised with the direction."
Limited spots for Tuesday's banquet remain, and they can be obtained by contacting Fowler at 423-309-4255 before noon Monday.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.