The baseball season is in full swing now, and as a long-suffering fan of the New York Mets, I've learned to content myself with the small pleasures of the game. The Mets started the season with a road trip, going 3-3 — not bad, I'll take it. Pitching in today's home opener at Citi Field is R.A. Dickey, who has emerged as a fan favorite, not just for his way with a knuckleball, but for his way with words.
Listen to Dickey talk to Boomer & Carlton in a interview broadcast on WFAN yesterday and you'll get an idea of what a thoughtful speaker he is. The way he chooses his words is always refreshing. Speaking of his fellow pitcher Mike Pelfrey, Dickey said he hoped Pelfrey would arrest his early-season jitters after two tough outings. As Greg Prince wrote on the wonderfully literate Mets blog Faith and Fear in Flushing, "he said 'arrest' as in 'stop' or 'halt' when the rest of us would have stopped or halted at 'stop' or 'halt.'" Later in the interview, he corrected a rumor that during his minor-league days he once tried to swim across the Mississippi River. No, he explained, "I tried to traverse the Missouri River."
Not cross, traverse. That's just not a word you hear from a big-league pitcher too often. But it's entirely typical of Dickey. In a profile in the North Jersey Record last year, sportswriter Jeff Roberts said Dickey "looks more like an English professor than a major leaguer." In fact, he studied English at the University of Tennessee before getting drafted and is working toward a degree in literature. Roberts also revealed what was on the top shelf of Dickey's locker: nine books, including a dictionary, a thesaurus, Life of Pi, and A Year With C.S. Lewis.
The way that Dickey uses words like arrest and traverse in interviews with reporters never sounds labored or pretentious. He just has a gift for speaking, and listening to his Tennessee-inflected comments before and after games you can readily imagine him delivering an easy-going lecture as an English lit professor — which happens to be his fallback career.
Last season, Prince compiled "The Collected Wisdom of R.A. Dickey" for the Faith and Fear blog, with some of the choicest nuggets from Dickey's postgame interviews. Words that might have originated from the thesaurus in his locker sit comfortably with earthier baseball language:
I don't know what kind of season the Mets are going to have, but I do know that listening to Dickey's well-spoken reflections on the game will remain a sublime treat. And that's hardly inconsequential.
[P.S.: During the pre-season, Dickey was asked by New York Times reporter David Waldstein about two brainy additions to the Mets pitching staff — Chris Capuano (economics major at Duke University) and Chris Young (politics major at Princeton). Dickey said, "I'm not sure I belong in the same category as those guys; I'm autodidactic." That's right: autodidactic. Waldstein also reported that Dickey was working his way through Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev.]
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer