MIAMI -- R.A. Dickey is writing a memoir. He is planning to hike Mount Kilimanjaro next winter. He is perhaps the most interesting player in baseball, which makes it easy to overlook the fact that he is just that: a baseball player. A baseball player critical to his team's success.
Those considering Dickey's revelatory 2010 season a fluke were forced to rest their cynicism Sunday, when Dickey quieted the Marlins over six effective innings at Sun Life Stadium. In his first start of 2011, Dickey mirrored most of his outings from '10, this time teaming with Willie Harris to lead the Mets in a 9-2 victory.
"When I go out there, I have a pretty high expectation of myself," Dickey said. "I just want to try to meet that expectation every time, regardless of the past or the future. I really try to be in the moment with it."
Though Dickey's transformation from journeyman to staff leader ranked among the more remarkable stories of last season -- of any season, really -- it came with no guarantees for an encore. The Mets displayed their own internal faith, inking Dickey to a two-year, $7.8 million contract extension last winter -- but they did so acknowledging all the associated risks. Only in baseball could a front office commit $7.8 million to a 36-year-old without an ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, base that decision on five months of big league success, and have it seem like a steal.
But the sheer incomprehensibility of Dickey's journey will always spawn doubters. To that end, he began his vindication tour Sunday, limiting the Marlins to one run over six innings while striking out seven. Only in the third did the Marlins break through off Dickey, using two walks, a wild pitch and a passed ball to their advantage. Swirling winds danced about Sun Life Stadium for most of the afternoon, forcing Dickey to adjust what he considered an otherwise adequate knuckleball. His connection with his catcher, meanwhile, improved after Josh Thole ditched his stiff new mitt in favor of an old one.
By that time, the Mets were already riding the high of Harris' season-opening hot streak, using his two-run homer in the first to take a quick lead on Marlins starter Javier Vazquez. An error gave the Mets another run in the first, before an Ike Davis homer, a Daniel Murphy double and another Marlins miscue pushed the margin to 7-0 in the third.
"This club has been built on pitching and defense," Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "We failed in both areas today."
So the Mets made sure to capitalize. Harris' box score included a walk, a homer and a hustle play in which he beat out a potential double-play ball to extend a Mets rally in the eighth. Davis' afternoon included his own homer, a single and two runs scored. Jose Reyes finished with two hits and was robbed on what would have been a third. David Wright also reached base twice.
The result was a series victory for the Mets, who did not win their first road series last year until mid-June.
"It's very important psychologically, if for no other reason," Dickey said. "The earlier you do that, and the more you can have the identity that you play well on the road, you can really roll with that."
Just like Dickey can roll with his new reputation as one of the National League's best starters. He finished 10th in the Majors in ERA last season, cracking a list filled with upstart youngsters and usual suspects. Dickey is neither. But "he is legitimate," as manager Terry Collins said Sunday, with few around the game now daring to doubt that.
"It's just a matter of me being self-aware and knowing what my body's got that day, what kind of knuckleball I've got that day, and who I'm facing," Dickey said. "If I can manage that in my mind, I can usually manage an outing pretty well."
Perhaps, then, for all the talk of Mike Pelfrey stepping up in place of the injured Johan Santana, there is still improvement to be had for Dickey. Last season, at 35 years old, he often joked that he was "24 or 25 in knuckleball years" -- still learning the nuances of the game's most intriguing pitch. This season, Dickey can combine that much more wisdom with equal desire.
And if it rubs off on the Mets, all the better for a team accused of being far too lethargic in recent seasons. A thumping of the Marlins on Sunday hinted that this could evolve into a different sort of team. A series victory indicated likewise.
"Hopefully," Collins said, "this is what this team's going to be made of -- that they can rally back and hang on."