The language at this year’s Wycliffe College Convocation took an unusual turn. A baseball feeling sneaked into the customary academic parlance as Toronto star pitcher R.A. Dickey-clothed in a scarlet gown instead of his Blue Jays uniform-received an honorary doctorate in sacred letters.
Getting into the game’s metaphor, Principal George Sumner spoke of Jesus Christ as “the starter and closer of our faith.” And instead of following convocation procedure and immediately kneeling to receive her degree, one sports-minded grad went directly to the obliging Dickey to have a baseball autographed.
Dickey, 38, was honoured by this University of Toronto Anglican seminary for his Christian witness and his ministry in India, where he contributed to a charity that fights sex trafficking and helps women trapped in Mumbai brothels and their children. Earlier this year, accompanied by his two daughters, he visited the city’s fetid red-light district and presented the Christian missionary group Bombay Ten Challenge with a cheque for more than $100,000. He raised the money by climbing Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, the world’s highest freestanding mountain, in 2012. The funds transformed a brothel into a medical clinic.
Dickey, an English literature graduate and master of the feared knuckleball, was last year’s winner of the Cy Young Award, making him, at age 37, the outstanding pitcher in the National League and the only knuckleballer ever to receive this honour.
In introducing Dickey as a doctoral candidate, Wycliffe’s Peter Patterson said that in that in all his endeavours, “R.A. seeks to glorify not himself, but his Lord.”
He became a Christian at age 13 and remains a devoted member of a Presbyterian church in his native hometown of Nashville, Tenn. Sexually abused as a child and prone to depression, he almost committed suicide seven years ago. Dickey, who likely would have become an English professor had he not entered professional sports, opens up about the dark parts of his life in his recent autobiographical book, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball.
Those dark aspects include an attempt to end his life in the fall of 2006 by means of carbon monoxide poisoning in his Chevrolet. Realizing he had made some terrible mistakes in life and been the victim of some hard-to-reconcile acts as well, he described himself as being, “at the end of myself… I was about to turn the key when I really felt the Holy Spirit say, ‘R.A., I’m not done with you yet. Don’t do that,’ ” he said. “I do believe that God is calling me to be here. I do believe in divine appointments.”
After that encounter with the spirit, Dickey was encouraged by his pastor to seek help from a Christian counsellor. That assistance changed his life and helped him deal with his toxic past.
Through hard work, he developed disciplines and mechanisms for dealing with “what was very broken about the world and what was also very beautiful about the world” and “the tragedy of this earth and the joy of this earth.”
It was in that transformative period that he began to grow both as a pitcher and as a man, and to trust people and have open relationships. “God had given me the responsibility, whether in the dugout at the Rogers Centre or here with you, to try to invest in every moment, in conversation, in relationship with whomever, and to try to devote myself to the discipline of sucking the marrow out of every second that I can,” Dickey said.
He alluded to the second commandment in Mark’s gospel to love thy neighbour as thyself and to Victor Hugo’s remark in Les Misérables that to love another person is to see is the face of God.
On a lighter note, Dickey thanked Sumner for “his baseball metaphors, making me feel right at home,” while allowing that he knew Sumner was a Boston Red Sox fan. “And I gotta say,” he added, “the way the Blue Jays have been playing early on this year, it’s nice to come to a place that abounds with grace.”
Dickey reminded graduates that their studies have prepared them not only for spiritual growth but also for a life of service in which they will be called to go out and try to make a difference in the lives of others.
He admitted that, within the culture and punishing schedules of baseball, it is not always easy for him to live a Christian life and be a father to his children. “Thank God for Skype!” he said.
Dickey advised graduates to invite into their lives people whom they know and trust, and who will love them well and tell them the truth, as he has done. “It’s not always pretty. Growth is painful sometimes. I know it has been for me… But at the end, you develop a more intimate relationship with the living God.”