Jason Dickson is definitely not your average retired jock.
The bright, articulate Maritimer, who overcame long odds to pitch professionally for 11 seasons, is now a political junkie, tireless volunteer and vice-president of Baseball Canada who earns his living as a nursing home administrator in his native New Brunswick.
“I’m not the kind of person who sits on the sidelines and waits. I want to be part of things and I want to make change,” said Dickson. “I’m not looking for change for me. I’m looking for change for my kids. I think as you become a parent, your priorities change and you say, ‘I’ve done what I can do. I’ve got my job and some security, but what are the opportunities going to be like for my kids?’”
Above all else, Dickson is a devoted husband to his wife Dana and father to his daughters Alex (10) and Ava (8).
“My girls are 10 and 8 and with the way the economy is going in New Brunswick, my question is, are they going to have to move away from me?” said Dickson, who resides in Fredericton. “They might not want to, but if they have to move to some other province to get a job, then I understand that, because that’s the economy in New Brunswick right now.”
It’s these types of concerns that have inspired Dickson to follow politics closely. In fact in 2006, Dickson ran for the Liberal nomination for the Miramichi-Bay du Vin riding in the provincial election and the spirited ex-major leaguer won’t rule out running again in the future.
“I’m definitely in tune with Canadian politics and New Brunswick politics,” he said. “I took a run at it [the Liberal nomination] when my kids were young. Would I run again? If it’s the right time for me in my life and for my family, absolutely, I’d take a run at it again.”
And in listening to Dickson, who has a track record of beating the odds, you get the feeling that he would make an excellent member of parliament.
Born in London, Ont., in 1973, Dickson moved to Miramichi, N.B. when he was seven. It was there under the tutelage of coach Greg Morris that he blossomed as a pitcher. Unlike many of today’s up-and-comers, however, Dickson didn’t eat, sleep and drink baseball. In fact, Morris encouraged him to play other sports.
“I played basketball because I wasn’t any good at hockey,” said Dickson. “In the end, I probably enjoyed playing basketball as much, maybe even a little bit more than baseball, but I figured there was only a Steve Nash every couple of decades and I definitely wasn’t that guy. So by process of elimination I worked my way into baseball.”
Dickson also met baseball legend Ted Williams when he was a kid. Teddy Ballgame’s affinity for fishing on the Miramichi River has been well documented, and as luck would have it, Dickson’s father, Royce, worked at a hardware store that sold fishing supplies that Williams would frequent. Aware that Dickson was an aspiring big leaguer, Williams returned each summer and asked Royce for an update on his son.
When the talented right-hander reached the midget level, he began hurling for the Chatham Ironmen of the New Brunswick Senior Baseball League, and soon his pitching prowess earned him a tryout with the Canadian National Youth Team that would compete at the World Youth Baseball championships in Brandon, Man., in 1991.
“I was a kid coming from New Brunswick and at the time Ontario, Quebec and B.C. were the real powerhouse baseball provinces,” he recalled. “I wasn’t really sure where I stood, but it was definitely an intimidating experience and I knew I was competing with some guys that were better than I was at that time.”
Gary Picone, the pitching coach of that 1991 National Youth Team, admits he wasn’t initially blown away by Dickson.
“Jason was more of a finished, polished kind of guy,” said Picone. “Nothing wowed you about him, but that might have just been a bad evaluation on our part. . . . He was probably more talented than we gave him credit for.”
After a strong showing at camp, Dickson was the last player chosen for the team, and he capitalized on his opportunity. With his team trailing the U.S. 4-0 with one out in the second inning in the crucial seventh game of the tournament, Dickson relieved Joe Young and held the Americans to one run over the next 5-2/3 innings. His team rallied behind him for a 10-6 comeback win.
“When I came into that game, I was 18 years old and at that point, I was just trying to figure out a way to get hitters out in front of the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in front of, against the best team I’ve ever played against. So I think I was in pure survival mode,” recalled Dickson. “That performance was probably less important for what people [scouts] saw me do than it was for me realizing what I could do. . . . I went out and purely competed that day. I went after guys and threw strikes and got outs, and once I got past survival mode, I think I realized that I could pitch and that I could play with these guys. I think from there I really built my confidence and that kind of springboarded into some other opportunities and then my baseball career really took off.”
The underdog Canadians proceeded to win the tournament by defeating Chinese-Taipei 5-2 in the final in front of 5,000 boisterous fans at Westbran Stadium in Brandon. It remains the only gold that the Canadian junior team has ever won. For their efforts, the team was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992.
After his breakout performance in Brandon, Dickson attended the National Baseball Institute in Vancouver and was recruited by Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College. On the strength of a strong sophomore season, Dickson was selected by Anaheim in the sixth round of the 1994 amateur draft.
He toiled in the Angels’ system for nearly three seasons, before making his big league debut at Yankee Stadium on August 21, 1996. But before the young Canadian could even catch his breath, his third big league pitch was deposited over the left field wall by Derek Jeter.
Pitching in his first major league game was nerve-wracking enough, but standing on the mound at Yankee Stadium facing a lineup that included Jeter, Wade Boggs, Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams was enough to intimidate the heartiest of veterans. But true to his character – and track record of defying the odds – Dickson regrouped and shutout the Yankees over the next 6-1/3 innings to record his first big league win.
He followed that up with four losses to close out the 1996 campaign, and heading into spring training the following year, Dickson was slated for triple-A, when he again proved his naysayers wrong by winning a rotation spot with the Angels. His spring success carried over into the regular season and his 8-4 record and 3.51 ERA in the first half, earned him a selection to the American League all-star squad.
Dickson was awestruck when he walked into the clubhouse at Jacobs Field in Cleveland and saw his fellow all-stars.
“That’s one of those times where I was in a room full of guys that I had posters of on my wall when I was growing up and now I couldn’t believe I was on the same level as them,” said Dickson. “It was a little awkward at first. I was trying to figure out what to say. I was trying to think of something intelligent to say to them.”
Eventually Dickson summoned the courage to strike up conversations with Cal Ripken Jr. and Ivan Rodriguez about hitting, while David Cone and Pat Hentgen were kind enough to lead him through many of the festivities. Dickson didn’t appear in the game, but he – along with his parents, Royce and Anne – soaked in as much of the experience as they could.
In all, the Canuck hurler registered 13 wins that season and finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, behind Nomar Garciaparra and Jose Cruz, Jr. But in tossing more than 200 innings, Dickson could feel his arm tiring towards the end of the season. His sophomore campaign was a struggle, but despite spending time on the disabled list and in the minors, he still managed 10 wins.
“For a lot of that year, I just didn’t feel right. My velocity was fine, but I was a big command guy and normally I could throw the ball where I wanted to. But that season it kind of came and went at times,” he said.
Doctors later discovered a torn labrum in his shoulder and he underwent two surgeries that shelved him for the 1999 campaign. He returned to make six starts with the Angels in 2000, but his arm never felt the same after the surgery.
For the next four seasons, the resilient Canuck hurled in the minors for the Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals and in the independent Atlantic League, before suiting up for Canada at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
“The Olympics might be my No. 1 baseball moment,” he said. “A lot of people talk about the all-star game, but that Olympic experience is something altogether different. I mean baseball is its own little world and it’s all baseball. You get on an international stage with the best athletes from all sports and it’s something pretty special.”
He pitched six innings and recorded a win against Italy in the tournament, helping Canada to a fourth-place finish.
After the Olympics, Dickson returned to New Brunswick and served as the executive director of Baseball New Brunswick, before taking on the same post with Sport New Brunswick in 2008. In July 2010, he began his current position as administrator with the Mill Cove Nursing Home near Jemseg, N.B.
His baseball career also came full circle when he returned to pitch for the Chatham Ironmen of the New Brunswick Senior Baseball League until the end of the 2011 season. Dickson continues to be involved in baseball in his home province and at the national level. He has served as Baseball Canada’s vice-president since June 2010.
“Jason has been a terrific vice-president and I haven’t heard anyone step up and say they would like to replace me as president, but I can’t see why he wouldn’t be a prime candidate to take my place down the road,” said Baseball Canada president Ray Carter, adding that Dickson’s big league career combined with his boardroom savvy gives the organization added credibility amongst its sponsors. “Jason is well-liked and he’s a good thinker. He doesn’t shoot from the hip. He thinks things out first. He’s a fine individual. You never hear anyone say that they don’t like Jason Dickson.”
Despite his commitment to Baseball Canada and numerous other volunteer roles, Dickson has made his family his No. 1 priority. His daughters play basketball and he tries to be at their games.
“I’ve always preached the value of sport to my kids,” he said. “Not everybody is going to be a professional athlete and I think we understand that, but sport teaches you to set goals and be part of a team and to be committed to working hard. And it also helps you to understand that you’re going to get knocked down, but you have to get back up.”
And that’s a lesson that Dickson can preach with authority. Despite being knocked down many times in his bid to become a professional athlete, he persevered, and not only did he get back up, but, through hard work and determination, he became a big league all-star.