NEW YORK — R.A. Dickey’s face lit up when he saw Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield, and the New York Mets’ ace greeted both with a big hug in front of the dugout.
The next thing they knew, the mini-fraternity of major league knuckleballers was talking shop and trading barbs.
“We get giddy when we get around each other. We’re like teenagers,” Dickey said Wednesday at Citi Field. “It’s an instant bond, because we know how hard it is.”
All three pitchers are featured in a documentary film called “Knuckleball,” which premieres tonight in New York City. The Mets were supposed to be off and Dickey had planned to attend, but unfortunately he won’t be able to anymore because they have a makeup game against Philadelphia after getting rained out Tuesday night.
Dickey is having an outstanding season and many fans have become familiar with his feel-good story of faith and perseverance that’s taken him from first-round draft pick to big league cast-off and now National League All-Star.
The 37-year-old right-hander is 18-6 with a 2.67 ERA and 205 strikeouts, making him a leading contender for the Cy Young Award.
“He’s making us all proud,” Niekro said, noting that no knuckleballer has ever won baseball’s top pitching honor. “Everybody who’s thrown a knuckleball, you can’t imagine how much we’re pulling for this guy.”
And if Dickey wins, Wakefield wants to be at the ceremony.
“There’s one guy carrying the torch now,” he said.
Proud of the film, the trio shares a rare kinship with other former knuckleballers such as Tom Candiotti and Charlie Hough. Dickey turns to them for advice and stays in regular contact. Niekro and Wakefield said they eagerly follow Dickey’s outings online and in boxscores.
“They’re on my speed dial,” Dickey said. “It’s a family, that’s for sure.”
Niekro won 318 games in a 24-year career spent mostly with the Atlanta Braves. He retired at age 48 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997.
Wakefield finished with 200 wins, finally calling it quits last year at age 45 after 19 major league seasons — the last 17 with the Boston Red Sox.
Dickey is grateful to both for giving him “the gift” of their knuckleball knowledge. But he said an important moment in his twisting journey to stardom was when he finally stopped trying to emulate Wakefield or Hough and fully embraced his own unique knuckler, which he often throws much harder than nearly all his predecessors.
“I didn’t get it right away,” Dickey said. “When I really committed and surrendered to being a knuckleballer, I got pretty good at it.”
Now he hopes his success — and the film — will help “spawn a new generation” of knuckleballers and big league clubs that give them an opportunity to master their unusual craft.
“It takes both,” he said. “It’s not a freak of nature. Or if it is a freak of nature, it is one that can be extremely valuable to an organization. ... The more we can kind of evangelize the knuckleball, the better. Because it’ll stick.”
Dickey has already been contacted by several hurlers hoping to build a big league career with the dancing, floating pitch — everyone from amateurs to guys toiling in independent leagues to the son of former Twins and Mets ace Frank Viola.
“Anybody could become what I am if they’re given the opportunity,” Dickey said.
Niekro, wearing a sports coat and Braves cap, pointed out that it just takes a good knuckleball teacher — although they’re certainly in short supply.
“Me and Tim are available,” he said. “I know that.”