He grew up on the self-described wrong side of the tracks, found God, became a multisport high-school star, found English literature, became a pro, struggled, mastered the knuckleball, became a wealthy pro, and by consequence of all the above, today his preteen daughters are growing up on the so-called right side of the tracks.
In his book, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey revealed he was sexually abused as a boy. As a 38-year-old adult, he has leveraged fame to fight the exploitation of children in India’s sex trade. Prior to the 2012 season, he helped to raise $130,000 by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the money going to finance conversion of a brothel to a medical clinic in the red-light district of Mumbai.

He went to Mumbai last winter to present the money personally, and decided after “praying on it” to bring Gabriel, 11, and Lila, 9, on the 20-hour journey from Nashville. Not as a “gratitude check,” he says, rather to plant the seeds of charity and compassion. As rationale, he cites the parable of the starfish. A man walks down a beach at low tide when thousands of starfish have washed up on the sand, encounters a boy tossing individual starfish back into the sea, asks why it matters since the boy can’t possibly save them all, and the boy responds: “It matters to this one.”

“I have hope in humility,” said Dickey, 38, the father of two boys and two girls. “I am hoping my kids see a beautiful world that is also a broken world. How can you live in both? That is my gift to them.”

On Monday, in recognition of his work in India, Dickey is to receive an honorary Master of Sacred Letters from Wycliffe College of the University of Toronto.

“He has a heart for the vulnerable,” said George Sumner, Principal and Professor of World Mission at Wycliffe, explaining that Dickey personifies the connection between religious faith, global awareness and social consciousness.

Dickey, 6 foot 4 and 215 pounds, wears his brown hair in a Southern-styled mop and speaks with a charming drawl right out of The Sound and the Fury. An English Lit student at the University of Tennessee, he projects his life in conversation as a personal “narrative,” as someone writing a screenplay about his own character and playing the character simultaneously. He has acquired a Joe Torre-like knack of telling the same story over and over, as though telling it for the first time.

In Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, published in March of 2012, Dickey wrote that his father worked two jobs and that a heavily drinking mother would party at night, sometimes leaving him at age 8 with a sexually curious female babysitter, four or five years older. The babysitter took advantage of him repeatedly, he alleges, and later, in Grade 4, a teenage boy abused him. Until writing the book, he had kept his shame private, finding escape in reading and playing sports. In that he had internalized the personal turmoil, he was compelled by the sex-trade slaves of Mumbai “in the sense of people being victimized.”

“My personal narrative, the sexual abuse I endured as a kid, I know what that is like,” he said. “It just resonated with me. It’s just something inside that draws you to that particular outreach, where people have been sexually exploited.”

During high school, his best friend was Bo Bartholomew, whose younger sister Anne became Dickey’s wife in 1997. The year before, Dickey had been drafted by the Texas Rangers in the first round, then offered an $810,000 bonus that was withdrawn when tests showed the absence of the ulnar collateral nerve in his elbow. The Bartholomews grew up in Belle Meade, an enclave of old money in Nashville, on the right side of the tracks. Inspired by Bo’s example, Dickey became a reborn Christian and learned of the Bombay Teen Challenge (bombayteenchallenge.org) through his church in Nashville.

As prepared as he could be for Mumbai through research, he wasn’t ready for what he encountered. “What’s going on there is very dark,” he said. “The paradigm recruiters will use is, they will pose as people trying to help: ‘Let us take your daughter, we’ll get her work cleaning buildings and she’ll send money back to you.’ These are people who are not registered, so when they are taken, they don’t have a voice. I saw people rescued who are eight years old. It’s unbelievable. A lot of times, the younger the prostitute, the more money they will generate.”

On the streets they encountered “incredible filth,” kids without no shirts or shoes and with open sores on their bodies, feces floating in the gutters, a world opposite to the existence they know. Dickey’s destination was Ashagram, where people are rescued from the sex trade and rehabilitated to integrate back into society.