NEW YORK – R.A. Dickey languished in the minors for 14 years, bouncing from one team to another before finally perfecting that perplexing knuckleball that made him a major league star.
David Price was the top pick in the draft and an ace by age 25, throwing 98 mph heat with a left arm live enough to make the most hardened scout sing.
Raised only 34 miles apart in central Tennessee, Dickey and Price won baseball’s Cy Young awards Wednesday – one by a wide margin, the other in a tight vote.
Two paths to the pantheon of pitching have rarely been more different.
“Isn’t that awesome?” said Dickey, the first knuckleballer to win a Cy Young. “It just shows you there’s not just one way to do it, and it gives hope to a lot of people.”
Dickey said he jumped up and yelled in excitement, scaring one of his kids, when he saw on television that Price edged Justin Verlander for the American League prize. Both winners are represented by Bo McKinnis, who watched the announcements with Dickey at his home in Nashville, Tenn.
“I guess we can call him Cy agent now,” Price quipped on a conference call.
The hard-throwing lefty barely beat out Verlander in balloting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, preventing the Detroit Tigers’ ace from winning consecutive Cy Youngs.
Runner-up two years ago, Price was the pick this time. He received 14 of 28 first-place votes and finished with 153 points to 149 for Verlander, chosen first on 13 ballots.
“It means a lot,” Price said. “It’s something that I’ll always have. It’s something that they can’t take away from me.”
Other than a 1969 tie between Mike Cuellar and Denny McLain, it was the closest race in the history of the AL award.
Rays closer Fernando Rodney got the other first-place vote and came in fifth.
The 38-year-old Dickey was listed first on 27 of 32 National League ballots and totaled 209 points, 113 more than 2011 winner Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Washington lefty Gio Gonzalez finished third.
Cincinnati right-hander Johnny Cueto and Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel each received a first-place vote, as did Gonzalez. Kershaw had two.
Dickey joined Dwight Gooden (1985) and three-time winner Tom Seaver as the only Mets to win the award. The right-hander went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA, making him the club’s first 20-game winner since Frank Viola in 1990, and became the first major leaguer in 24 years to throw consecutive one-hitters.
Perhaps most impressive, Dickey did it all during a season when the fourth-place Mets finished 74-88.
“It just feels good all over,” he said on MLB Network.
Dickey switched from conventional pitcher to full-time knuckleballer in a last-ditch effort to save his career. It took him years to finally master the floating, darting pitch, which he often throws harder (around 80 mph) and with more precision than almost anyone who used it before him.
“I knew what I was going to be up against in some regard when I embraced this pitch,” Dickey said.
He was the first cut at Mets spring training in 2010 but earned a spot in the big league rotation later that season and blossomed into a dominant All-Star this year. He led the NL in strikeouts (230), innings (233 2-3), complete games (five) and shutouts (three) — pitching through an abdominal injury most of the way.
“I am not a self-made man by any stretch of the imagination,” Dickey said. “The height of this story, it’s mind-blowing to me, it really is.”
A member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team and a first-round draft pick out of Tennessee, Dickey was devastated when the Texas Rangers reduced their signing-bonus offer from more than $800,000 to $75,000 after they discovered during a physical that he was missing a major ligament in his pitching elbow.
Undeterred, perseverance got him to the big leagues anyway. When he failed, the knuckleball brought him back.
Among those he thanked ceaselessly for helping him on that long and winding road to success were all his proud knuckleball mentors, including Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro.
“It brings a real degree of legitimacy I think to the knuckleball fraternity and I’m glad to represent them and I’m certainly grateful to all those guys,” Dickey said. “This was a victory for all of us.”
Dickey said he received 127 text messages and 35-40 phone calls in the moments immediately following the Cy Young announcement.
The only call he took was from Niekro, a 318-game winner from 1964-87. The first texts Dickey responded to were from Wakefield and Hough.
“Most well-deserved,” Niekro said in a comment provided by the Hall of Fame. “I’m super proud of him, as a pitcher and as an individual.”
Dickey has one year left on his contract at $5.25 million and New York general manager Sandy Alderson has said signing the pitcher to a multiyear deal is one of his top offseason priorities. Alderson, however, would not rule out trading his unlikely ace.
“I believe the Mets are going to be a lot better and I want to be part of the solution,” Dickey said, adding that he hopes the sides can strike a deal and he’d be happy to end his career in New York.
“I want to be loyal to an organization that’s given me an opportunity,” he said. “At the same time, you don’t want to be taken advantage of. I’ve been on that side of it, too, as a player.”
Price went 20-5 to tie Jered Weaver for the American League lead in victories and winning percentage. The 27-year-old lefty had the lowest ERA at 2.56 and finished sixth in strikeouts with 205.
Verlander, also the league MVP a year ago, followed that up by going 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA and pitching the Detroit Tigers to the World Series. He led the majors in strikeouts (239), innings (238 1-3) and complete games (six).
Price tossed 211 innings in 31 starts, while Verlander made 33. One factor that could have swung some votes, however, was this: Price faced stiffer competition in the rugged AL East than Verlander did in the AL Central.
“I guess it’s a blessing and a curse at the same time,” Price said. “There’s not an easy out in the lineups every game. It feels like a postseason game.”
The No. 1 pick in the 2007 amateur draft out of Vanderbilt, Price reached the majors the following year and has made three straight All-Star teams.
Despite going 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA in 2010, he finished a distant second in Cy Young voting to Felix Hernandez, who won only 13 games for last-place Seattle but dominated most other statistical categories that year.
The two MVP awards will be announced Thursday. Verlander’s teammate, Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, is a leading contender in the American League.
NOTES: The last AL pitcher to win back-to-back Cy Youngs was Boston’s Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000. San Francisco RHP Tim Lincecum did it in the National League in 2008-09. ... Price and Dickey became the fourth pair of Cy Young winners born in the same state, according to STATS. The others were Jim Lonborg and Mike McCormick in 1967 (California), Viola and Orel Hershiser in 1988 (New York) and Pat Hentgen and John Smoltz in 1996 (Michigan). ... Niekro and his brother, Joe, both finished second in Cy Young voting, as did fellow knuckleballer Wilbur Wood.