Huggins: Nashville serves as starting point on sports comeback trails

Sunday, July 8, 2012 at 7:48pm

In the last couple of months, Nashville has received a double shot of national attention with two local athletes who have risen from the ashes of virtual athletics oblivion.

And just past the mid-point of the year it is conceivable that both R.A. Dickey and Brian Baker will receive considerable consideration for “Comeback Player of the Year” awards in Major League Baseball and at the ATP World Tour, respectively.

Perhaps never has Nashville seen two of its athletes come so far and receive so much publicity for sporting second acts.

Both lived just a short distance of each other and attended West Nashville schools Montgomery Bell Academy (Dickey) and Hillwood High (Baker).

They were successful early. Dickey was an ace when he was with the 11-12 Cardinals in the Lipscomb-Green Hills League in the mid-1980s. Baker won many local tournaments, among them the Sequoia Invitational 10-under singles at age seven, in the early 1990s.

That was long before both endured considerable hardships.

Dickey, now 37, was a star pitcher at Montgomery Bell Academy, then at the University of Tennessee. He found out not long after the Texas Rangers drafted him that he was missing a ligament in his pitching arm. It cost him an early shot at the big time, not to mention a hefty hit in an originally lucrative contract.

He suffered through several injuries and personal hardships in both the minor and major leagues. But he gained new life with his knuckleball, which he started to throw a few years ago and virtually mastered this year with the New York Mets.

“Hitting it is like trying to catch a fish in the water with your just hands,” Mets catcher Dave Racaniello recently told ESPN.

Dickey is set to pitch in his first Major League Baseball All-Star Game on Tuesday (the starting pitchers will be announced Monday) and reached the break in the season tied for the most wins (12) and third in strikeouts (123) in the sport.

According to Fangraphs.com, Dickey is among the leader in pitches for strikes and getting batters to swing and miss.

“It’s surreal,” Dickey told USA Today last week. “I don’t feel like it’s a dream, but I do feel like it’s fun and enjoyable. I’ve always felt like I had a pretty good knuckleball. I’ve worked hard to do that.”

Baker, 27, won the state high school tournament as a freshman at Hillwood in 2000 followed with a number of national junior title and finished runner-up in the French Open Juniors in 2003, when he reached the No. 2 junior ranking in the world.

He turned pro shortly afterward. A promising career looked in the works until suffered his first major injury — it was to his knee — in 2005 at Wimbledon.

Then it seemed he was headed down a one-way alley to nowhere. But with constant rehab necessitated by five major operations (two to his hips and one each to his knee, elbow and for a hernia) in six years off the tour, he returned with a bang a month ago.

His comeback actually started last year with the championship at a Futures tour event in Pittsburgh. This year, though, the entire tennis world took notice when he played his way into the French Open, where he won one match, and Wimbledon, where he won three and made it to the second week of competition.

Former player and current TV analyst Justin Gimelstob recently proclaimed that, “given all Brian’s gone through and his injuries, his return is, in my opinion, the greatest comeback in the history of tennis.”

There aren’t many “comeback” stories anywhere as compelling as his. Except right here in Nashville, that is.