Balfour lends a hand to Dickey
A's reliever stepped up when Mets knuckleballer needed him
It was, without doubt, the best and most important save of Athletics reliever Grant Balfour's career.
It didn't happen on the mound in a ballpark, but rather along the banks of the Missouri River, where he pulled then-teammate R.A. Dickey out of the swirling water. The swift current was pulling Dickey along and the undertow had threatened to pull him under.
The drama is part of a just-published autobiography, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, by Dickey, now a starter for the Mets.
"I didn't realize how serious [the situation] was," Balfour, a native of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, said. "He thought he was going to die. I didn't realize that until he mentioned it in the book."
They were teammates the first half of the 2007 season with the Nashville Sounds, the Brewers' Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. It was their only time together. Midway through that season Balfour was traded to Tampa Bay. He joined Oakland in 2011.
Dickey was, as Balfour recalled, "pretty adventurous."
The Sounds were visiting the Omaha Royals (now Storm Chasers), Kansas City's top farm team, and staying at a Council Bluffs, Iowa, hotel overlooking the Missouri River, about half a mile wide at that point.
"He decided he wanted to swim across it," Balfour said.
Dickey admits in his book that it was one of his not-particularly-smart stunts. Naturally, the first thing Dickey's teammates did was collect money.
"It's baseball," Balfour said. "If he's going to do it, there's going to be a pool on whether he makes it. You know what I mean? There was about $1,000. In Triple-A that's a lot of money."
There were about half a dozen teammates at the shore the next day when Dickey jumped into the Missouri River. The current was strong, Balfour said, "and we all start to panic, like 'This could be bad.'
"He starts swimming, and he looks up and he's nowhere near where he thinks he was -- this is what he tells us later -- and he's getting pulled downstream and the undertow's pulling him down," Balfour said.
"I think he started to panic when he was about a third of the way out there, and you could see it was getting tough to stay above water, and we're thinking, 'Man, what are we going to do if, y'know, if he starts to go down? Maybe we have to jump in to get him.' I guess it's just one of those things where your instincts kind of take over."
By this time Dickey's teammates could tell he'd decided he couldn't make it across and was trying to get back to the shore. As he was being pulled down, he felt solid ground under his feet.
He pushed off of the bottom and began working his way back to shore, still being swept along by the current. His teammates started to run along the shore, leaping over a big fence at one point to keep up with him.
Eventually, Dickey got within about 10 feet of the bank, "and I remember trying to reach him," Balfour said. "I couldn't, and I thought, 'It's probably not a smart idea to jump in and get two of us drowned.'
"I remember grabbing a stick and hanging it out there, and he grabbed hold of it and I pulled him in and up the river bank. It was an ordeal. I think we were both pretty lucky."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.