By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - R.A. Dickey began 2012 with a climb to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro and ended his greatest baseball season by reaching the top of his profession by winning the National League Cy Young Award on Wednesday.
Dickey, in the 10th year of a Major League Baseball career that has produced a 41-50 record, used his baffling knuckleball to post a 20-6 mark with a 2.73 earned run average for the New York Mets, leading the league with 233.2 innings and 230 strikeouts.
The 38-year-old from Tennessee became the first knuckleballer to win a Cy Young Award and the first Mets pitcher to win it since Doc Gooden in 1985.
"This brings a degree of legitimacy to the knuckleball fraternity, and I'm glad to represent them and I'm grateful to all those guys," said Dickey, who singled out Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield and Charlie Hough for their help and support.
"It's a victory for all of us."
Three years ago, Dickey was an overlooked free agent, who came to the Mets and was among their first Spring Training cuts but given a chance to refine his knuckler at Triple A Buffalo.
The knuckleball has been used by a handful of pitchers over the decades able to project a mystifying delivery that is pushed from the hand in its delivery in order to impart as little spin as possible, enabling it to move unpredictably through the air.
A rarity among knuckleballers, Dickey is able to vary the speed of his pitch, tossing the customarily slow version at around 60 miles per hour, but able to deliver it up to a brisk 80 mph to give hitters even more to disrupt their timing.
Dickey mastered the pitch, throwing a stretch of more than 44 innings without yielding an earned run this season including back-to-back, complete game, one-hit shutouts over the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles in June.
He singled out his wife for her "relentless encouragement" and thanked Baseball Writers' Association of America voters for shunning prejudices about the knuckleball.
"We live in a culture now that has a very progressive mentality, which is fantastic as far as the association with the knuckleball goes," Dickey, who won 20 games for a Mets team that won only 74, told reporters on a conference call.
"They (voters) didn't see the knuckleball as a trick pitch, some kind of an illegitimate weapon that isn't worthy.
"It is a legitimate weapon that has one purpose, to get big league hitters out consistently."
The right-hander proved his point by leading the league in complete games (5) and shutouts (3).
He joined a charity climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro before the season along with friends Kevin Slowey of the Colorado Rockies and Mets' bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello, despite the team telling him he would be at risk of voiding his $4.25 million contract if he were to be injured.
Dickey participated to raise money and awareness for a charity called Bombay Teen Challenge, aimed at fighting human trafficking in Mumbai.
Ten days after leaving his Nashville home, Dickey and his fellow hikers reached the African summit.
Back at home watching the Cy Young Awards show in his living room on Wednesday, Dickey jumped for joy when he heard fellow-Nashville resident David Price of Tampa Bay named the American League winner.
"I know how hard he's worked," said Dickey. "He's a left-hander who can throw 97 miles an hour and can hit a gnat in the butt. Two people who have come from the same city. It's pretty supernatural. It transcends R.A. Dickey.
"That's what I think is so awesome," he added. "A guy who throws 100 on one side, and a guy who grinds it out with a knuckleball. There's more than one way to do it."
(Editing by Alastair Himmer)