Andrew McGilligan | Out of WriteField
With fans around the world anticipating the start of the Major League Baseball season on Sunday, we at Out of WriteField decided to find out how a former Major League player viewed spring training and the start of a new season. We spoke with former MLB pitcher Jason Dickson about his first big-league spring training and the early days of his inaugural season in the big leagues.
Andrew McGilligan |Out of WriteField
It was the sixth inning of the second day of the Major League Baseball season when Jason Dickson felt that he could finally exhale and relax on the mound. To that point in the game on April 3, 1997, pitching at home for the California Angels against the Boston Red Sox, Dickson had been masterful, allowing only a pair of hits in what was then a scoreless game.
The start was the first of his rookie season – he had appeared in seven games the year before – but that day, that season, marked a series of first in his young career.
“That first game of the year, the first start, all I was really hoping for was nothing to be a disaster,” Dickson said. “By the time the fifth inning was over and nothing major had gone wrong, it was a sense of relief. I thought to myself, ‘You’ve proven you can do it, so just keep pegging away.”
He would surrender just three more hits the rest of the way in the Angels 2-0 win, tossing a complete-game shutout – the only one of his career. His final line for the day, nine innings, no runs, five hits, five strikeouts (including fanning Fenway slugger Mo Vaughan) and no walks. Not a bad debut for the rookie hurler from New Brunswick.
Coming into spring training, Dickson didn’t think he would crack the major league roster; not many players do their first time out. Despite having been called up the year before, ’97 was his first big-league camp.
“Every year, right around the time spring training starts, I still get the itch be down there, be around the guy and the atmosphere and that all stems back to that first camp,” he said. “You’re excited to be back on the field and in the warm weather.”
Arriving at camp, Dickson figured there were five or six pitchers ahead of him and he would probably return to AAA Vancouver to start the season. The starting pitchers in camp with him included Chuck Finley and Jim Abbott.
“I really had no expectation of making the team,” he said. “I just went out and threw. I was just excited to be there, but at the same time with no expectations, I was doing well, having a pretty good spring.”
As spring wore on, cuts started being made and Dickson was not among them.
“When you start to see the cuts and the guys that are cut are the ones you’re competing with, you start to think you might get the chance to start the season with the big club when spring training breaks.”
This spring training, his first, was also when he learned how tough the business of baseball can be. In order for him to make the starting rotation, a spot had to be opened up; a veteran pitcher would need to be released. Dickson had gotten to know Abbott throughout the spring and considered him a friend, which made it even more difficult when the Angels cut the iconic one-armed pitcher to make room.
“That’s so tough because on one hand, it’s a friend being released, but it also means you’re going to stay. I remember reading Jim’s book a few months ago and he wrote about how tough that was for him. It definitely was a hard situation.”
Making the roster, being part of Opening Day, his win in the second game of the opening series against the Red Sox and earning an All-Star berth was all part of his first full season in The Show. Despite having played baseball his whole life, Dickson said he wasn’t prepared for some of the things that come with being a major league player, things you can’t prepare for.
“Your teammates are guys you had on posters on your wall growing up,” he said. “Everything is bigger, from the clubhouse to the stadiums. You go from being anonymous to being known overnight.
“You go from walking out of the park with no one around in the minors to driving your car past a large group of fans waiting for you after the games. You learn not to use your own name in New York City hotels because you’ll either end up with autograph seekers waiting for you or people leaving you death threats.”
As for Opening Day 2013, Dickson said he’ll be watching, especially the Toronto Blue Jays to see how they handle the pressure given the headline-grabbing offseason. He’ll also think about that first start of 1997 against Boston, standing on the mound trying not to be overwhelmed by the realization he had achieved a life-long dream.
“For the first little while that season everything was awkward, I didn’t really know what I was supposed to be doing. The only time it felt normal was when I was on the mound making pitches.
“All I was trying to do was convince myself this was no fluke, that I belonged. Just pitch well enough to get four or five more starts.”
He would get 31 more chances that season, earning his way to an all-star game and third-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting.