Journeyman pitcher R.A. Dickey was in trouble, deep trouble. He was tiring and needed help.
That's when Grant Balfour, now an A's reliever, made the biggest save of his life.
Five years ago, when he and Dickey were minor league teammates, Balfour plucked a struggling Dickey from the fast-moving Missouri River.
Today, Dickey is the talk of baseball with a quirky knuckleball that made him a National League All-Star. That wouldn't have happened, he believes, without Balfour.
"That was as close to death as I had ever been," Dickey said in a phone interview. "He was the only teammate who ran along the bank as I was swept down river. Fortunately he was there for me. I wouldn't be here without him."
Balfour, though, was surprised to learn recently that Dickey had anointed him a hero in his best-selling autobiography, "Wherever I Wind Up" -- which chronicles how that stunt of trying to swim the Missouri was a career turning point.
"I'm not trying to be modest here, but he really saved himself," Balfour said. "He had done most of the work to get himself close to the shore. I'm just the guy who put my arm out to him."
Balfour is being modest, Dickey countered.
As the New York Mets visit the Giants for a four-game series that begins Monday night, Dickey has a 14-2 record with a 2.83 ERA. (He will not face the Giants after pitching Sunday at Arizona, allowing no earned runs in seven innings of a 5-1 Mets
But on June 9, 2007, he was a 32-year-old has-been with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds, failing to make the conversion from conventional pitcher to knuckleballer.
Dickey thought he was at the end of an unheralded career that began as a Texas Rangers' first-round pick who had his signing bonus cut from $810,000 to $75,000 after doctors discovered he was born without an ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
He decided that swimming the 250 yards across the Missouri near the team's hotel in Council Bluffs, Iowa, during a road trip could be a confidence boost.
"I was searching for something," Dickey said. "I thought maybe it would give me an edge that we're all looking for as competitors to do great things. I was at a point where I needed to do something great. But it was an idiotic thing to try. I guess taking risks is just in my DNA."
It began as an adventure that could have been a deleted scene from "Bull Durham."
"All these players went down to watch him thinking, 'Ah, he'll be all right,' " Balfour recalled. "There were a couple of guys who said, 'Man, you probably shouldn't.' But the next thing you know, there was about $1,000 in the (betting) pot. But I could see it was a little more than just jumping in a river and trying to swim across it."
The native Australian has a healthy respect for the power of water. Balfour had his own near-drowning experience on a Sydney beach at age 19.
"I was just being dragged out by a rip (tide) into the ocean," Balfour said. "I had to make the decision to swim into a wave and ended up crashing against the rocks and just held on before I could pull myself out. It was scary."
Maybe that's why Balfour sensed trouble.
The Missouri is swift and murky with a significant undertow. Dickey quickly became exhausted and turned back near the middle, his strokes reduced to a weak dog paddle. As he slipped beneath the surface, Dickey accepted the fact that he probably would drown.
"I really did have the feeling of weeping underwater," he said. "I didn't expect to survive."
But when his feet touched the bottom, it gave him an adrenaline rush to make one last push toward the bank.
Meanwhile, Balfour had been following along, climbing fences and circumventing other obstacles as he kept Dickey in sight. When his teammate drifted close enough, Balfour got down on his stomach and stretched out his arm.
"I just let him pull me out," Dickey said. "He's a strong fellow, and not everybody could do what he did. I had to crawl up the bank because I had nothing left. There's a bravado in baseball, and you never want to let on that you're hurting. So it wasn't like I was hugging and kissing him for saving my life."
But, he said, Balfour did just that.
Dickey came to see that day as a baptism of sorts. He emerged from the water a changed ballplayer who would be named the PCL Pitcher of the Year.
"He pitched lights-out the rest of that season, and he just took off from there," Balfour said.
After a couple more years of shuttling between the majors and minors, Dickey found a home with the Mets as the big league's only knuckleball pitcher. He has mastered a baffling pitch that is thrown slowly with little spin so it can wobble unpredictably at the whim of air currents.
"When you go through something like that, you certainly look at life through a different lens," said Dickey, who is married with four children. "For me, it was about surrendering to God. So much of my identity was wrapped up in baseball, and when I got out of that river, I vowed that I wasn't going to do that anymore."
Dickey said one bonus of the surprising success of his book -- which includes his revelation of being sexually abused as a child -- is that Balfour is being recognized for what he did that day.
"The funny thing to me is he doesn't think it was that big a deal," Dickey said. "Every time I see him pitching on TV, I'm really happy for his success."
But the first thing he thinks about, he added, is the Missouri.
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.