Exclusive SSTN Interview With Former Yankee Chris Dickerson
We are fortunate here at Start Spreading the News because a few weeks ago, former Yankee Chris Dickerson reached out to us to arrange for a phone interview so that he could share his story of how he has battled life-long knee pain and osteoarthritis. He wants to share his story with others so that they can manage this pain and live their lives better.
Since we had Chris Dickerson on the phone, we also took the time to ask a few baseball related questions from his career.
Chris Dickerson was signed by the Cincinnati Reds after the 2003 draft. He reached the Major Leagues in 2008 with the Reds. He played with the Reds until 2010 when he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for Jim Edmonds. In March 2011, he was then traded to the Yankees for Sergio Mitre. Chris Dickerson played two years with the Yankees batting .266 with 3 home runs and 12 runs batted in across 85 games. In 2013, Dickerson played for the Baltimore Orioles. He finished his career in 2014 with the Cleveland Indians. Chris Dickerson was a lifetime .257 hitter across seven seasons in the Major Leagues.
Here is our interview from October 14.
Hello Mr. Dickerson. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I’ll start by thanking you for being a Yankee.
Ha. Well, I appreciate it. And you’re welcome. The organization thanks you too because it ultimately wasn’t my choice, you know how it is. I was just fortunate enough to be in that trade so…
That’s awesome. Let’s focus on the beginning and the message you wish to tell. Why don’t you tell us about your knee injury.
It goes way back. I have been struggling with knee pain since I was a young kid from Southern California. I played every sport that I could get my hands on. It started as baseball, football, and basketball and I played these in sequence, but sometimes there was some overlap, so being a young kid and going from the school league to the rec league, and you have these select teams, the amount of activity I was doing was pretty substantial.
It was probably when I was 12 years old that I noticed that I started having knee pain in my right knee. An x-ray or MRI showed that I had some cartilage that was starting to deteriorate. I had my first knee brace at 12 years old. I remember looking at the video of our first high school championship and I was trying to wear my knee brace like Michael Jordan down around my calf.
It was a very odd circumstance to have it start that young. I think it was from overuse and I think I started to develop what was an issue due to a lack of blood supply to the actual bone structure. This comes from the pounding of the knee joint that I was doing all the time. Eventually the orthopedist told me to take a year off of some sports like soccer, which I was also playing. Since I kicked with my right leg, this would take some of the stress off. But, me being me, and not being able to sit still, I found the next best thing to play that would take the stress off my knee which was hockey.
Was that ice hockey?
Yes, but I started out with roller hockey. That was my substitute. For a couple years I was playing all-star baseball in the summer, but hockey started in the fall so I would actually quit baseball to play hockey. That’s the irony there. The irony is that the only thing I ever quit was baseball.
So, did you enjoy playing hockey more than baseball?
I loved it. I absolutely loved it. It is still one of my favorite sports and for the longest time, even during my professional career, I used to be in a pick-up hockey league with one of my former high school teammates Brett Hayes who was in the big leagues and played for the Marlins and the Kansas City Royals. We thought it would be an awesome way to just stay in shape with one of our favorite sports.
Honestly, baseball was just something I did in the spring to just be around my buddies. It wasn’t really my favorite sport. I was really good at it, but I never had a real hitting lesson until I went to college. I was a very good athlete and I was able to excel in that particular arena but I wasn’t really a polished player until I went o to college and participated in my first years of professional ball.
My favorite sports were always football and soccer…
And the knee pain?
When I was 17, eventually the knee problems became real troublesome. I had severe pain and a loss of range of motion. I did a lot of limping around with the severe knee pain. I remember wondering what was going on. So we had another x-ray and we found that there was a significant advance in this. What was happening was that I had a fracture that was slowly going across my bone. That was the end of my football career, in high school, because I didn’t want to accelerate this.
The cards were stacked against me from the beginning, but I ended up having major knee surgery when I was seventeen. This piece of bone actually fell out of my knee. They put a three-inch metal screw into my knee, and then four months later, I had another surgery to take that screw out. It was a very invasive process. It wasn’t great. The orthopedist told me that I probably wouldn’t play competitive sports past the age of 22 or 23. It was devastating to hear that at such a young age.
This is a lesson I want to pass on to more people. It doesn’t matter what people tell you, it’s how you respond. It’s how you can overcome these obstacles. You know, I was in tremendous pain, but I worked really hard to get back, and I ended up going to college on a scholarship and the rest is history…
But that knee pain followed me the rest of my career. It’s always been a challenge to warm up. I had to manage the pain and the swelling. It’s been fifteen years of that. This osteoarthritis.
I am glad that I have this campaign to get my story out there. To help other people.
Is this the same pain that C.C. Sabathia battled?
Yes, it’s very similar. I believe he had micro-fracture surgery. He had the problem of bone-on-bone. He said in an article earlier this year that his pain is an 8 to a 10 (on a scale of 10) every day. I can only imagine… I twinge at that, just the sound. I can personally and physically relate to what that’s like, especially in his last season.
You mentioned that you are on a campaign to get people to be aware of the injury. Would you like people to donate to a cause, or… What exactly is the aim of the campaign?
The campaign is to raise awareness for osteoarthritis of the knee and the fact that new treatments are available today through orthopedic specialists. Osteoarthritis is one of the most common forms of arthritis, and the knee is one of the most commonly affected joints.
I was recently in New York, and after visiting an specialist there, after discussing a number of different treatment options I had a shot of an extended release corticosteroid that has significantly helped to address the pain I had been having for years.
It’s been quite a journey. I have had every treatment under the sun. Finally, this one developed by a biopharma company called Flexion Therapeutics worked well. After my treatment and its positive outcome, I was asked to partner with Flexion to help raise awareness of the impact of osteoarthritis knee pain and to share my story. I know that as a former professional athlete, the general public looks to me and others for what we do to stay healthy. With my knee issues and the pain, I want others to know they don’t have to suffer.
Now that I’m done, I understand what people go through on a daily basis. I know just walking around New York how much my knee bothered me. It’s not that way anymore.
So, what is that solution?
For me, it was the injection I mentioned,but there are so many ways that doctors can help their patients I encourage all people dealing with pain to visit an orthopedic specialist.
Do you have any recommendations for someone who is going through knee pain, let’s say a young athlete. At what point is it something minor or when is it a real problem. How would a young athlete know that?
There is a fundamental point when you can be diagnosed with osteoarthritis.
When the pain really starts to restrict your activity, then I would recommend an orthopedic specialist.
Thank you. You talked about how you had this injury from a young age, and how it impacted your ability to play certain sports. I’m interested in the draft process. Can you tell me how that worked. Did the teams know about the injury? How did that impact on your ability to negotiate a contract, etc.?
That’s a very interesting question. 100%. When I got to college, the strength and conditioning process was much better. Being able to be there with professionals was important to my recovery. The elite strength training program I was able to be part of helped me. I felt better, stronger, and got back much of my range of motion. At one point, I felt faster and stronger than I ever had.
Here’s a funny story. We did a lot of our conditioning workouts on the track around where the football team practiced at the stadium. My next door neighbor in the dorm was the starting quarterback. I started running routes and doing well against the defense in practice. I caught the eye of the coach and he asked me to help out. I started to help out the punters by receiving kicks.
I was slowly making my way into the football program… so I made a deal that if I didn’t get drafted for baseball where I wanted to go, I’d come back and play football (and basketball) for my senior year. So I was put on the spring roster and was able to use that in my negotiating. If I wasn’t given a good enough offer (in baseball), I was ready to return to college to play football.
That worked for a little bit, but when you go for these pre-draft workouts…all across the country…Atlanta to Seattle to Arizona to San Francisco… the knee was really hurting. Each stop it was the same questions about the knees. I was at the mercy of the x-rays.
I was fortunate that I had the surgery so young because I was at the age where I could come back and get strong after it.
It did impact the draft status. You see what the teams are saying and all the articles written about yourself. It was dark cloud that hung over it.
…And then you got drafted…
Yeah, I got drafted twice. First out of high school from the Yankees, but I didn’t sign. I didn’t feel I was old enough and I wanted the college experience.
I really enjoyed learning and I wanted to set myself up with a college education so I always had a back-up plan.
I went to the University of Nevada in Reno and really excelled there, despite the injury.
And then you were drafted a second time.
I was drafted the second time to the Reds.
In 2003, within months of being drafted I reported to Billings, Montana for my first year.
The Billings Mustangs?
The Billings Mustangs.
Believe it or not, I think I used to have a Billings Mustangs hat. My parents used to travel to these minor league cities and sometimes they’d buy me a hat.
It’s a great hat. The double horseshoes upside down.
It was a great experience. I was very fortunate. It was a great city; a great league.
You know, minor league baseball is tough in itself, but I definitely look back and realize that I got to see one of the more beautiful regions of the country. You look back and really appreciate it. The amount of travel that baseball provides… the experience to see so much is pretty amazing. Going from the Mid-West League to the Florida State League, and the International League… I’ve been everywhere.
I am very impressed as I hear you speaking, you hear a lot of stories of athletes in the minor leagues and many tell how miserable it was…the midnight bus trips, poor food, hotels that aren’t so great, but you looking at it, in retrospect, seem to have a great deal of appreciation for those experiences.
It is really exceptional. I love to talk with people from those areas. It was incredibly beautiful. I was so fortunate.
The travel was rough though.
I remember a story of our first year playoffs going from Montana to Utah and then we had to go right back and make the 15-hour trip back for a championship. We went to a Leslie’s Pool supply to get some air things to lay down on to get some sleep on the bus. And then you wake up at like 3:00 a.m. sweating to death because your camped out on the floor right above the engine and then you also realize that some guy spilled his Dr. Pepper that he got as the gas station an hour ago all over the floor…
Those are the stories that really stand out.
Then there was the story of the bus breaking down in the middle of a cotton field in Alabama the night of a playoff game.
Half the team wandered around the field for a few hours. The game was pushed back to like 8:00, we arrived at 7:00, trying to get dressed and warming up, getting a few swings, trying to win…
Did you win?
Yes. We did.
It’s one of those things were you just have to laugh at baseball. You can come in, be well rested and warmed up and have a bad day and then you can just roll in and end up going five-for-five.
That’s the beauty of baseball. Any team can beat any team on any given night. We’ve seen that this year in the playoffs…
I love to tell these stories. I wish there were more people who would tell their minor league stories because there are so many out there.
Yes, it sounds phenomenal. Again, I love the enthusiasm as you tell these stories. I can hear the joy in your voice and the great pleasure you took in going through the minor leagues.
As you were in the minor leagues, obviously you saw lots and lots of players. Of the players you played with, was there anyone who made it to the Major Leagues who you were surprised… someone who outperformed what their projection was.
I wouldn’t want Brett to take offense at this, but, I was just talking about Brett Gardner. I remember playing against him in Triple-A and in the Arizona fall league and thinking that this was just a really good slap hitter, great fielder, who was really fast who would steal a lot of bases, but now to see him – a 25-home run a year guy, is truly exceptional. It was a tremendous transformation, especially at that point of his career.
What people won’t notice, it’s not something you just develop, the strength and the power. He’s always been really physically fit and really strong, but it takes incredible bravery to come out of your comfort zone to be a slap-type leadoff hitter and transform into a power hitter.
It is really really extraordinary to be able to do what he did.
What did you think of Brett Gardner banging on the dugout roof this season? Is that something that helps a team? Did it fire up the team? Does it help professionals players play better?
Oh yes. That was the day when Boonie had his tirade.
Did it fire up the team? I don’t think he was doing it to fire up the team. I think he was (angry) and was looking for something to bang on – a way to make the most noise, other than jamming the bat into the bat rack multiple times which is usually the anger protocol if you don’t go down into the batting cage to get your anger out. I think people kind of blew it up out of proportion. He wasn’t trying to fire up anybody. I think it was him being frustrated and he took it out on the overhang of the dugout and just because it was metal it made an obnoxious noise and that was about it.
It was fun to watch and I was upset after the umpires tossed him after the second or third time he did it.
Knowing Gardy, he likes to get under people’s skins. It was one of those things like it was so loud and obnoxious sounding that the umpire probably looked over and saw him doing it and, well, they’re sensitive to that stuff, anything with throwing a helmet or making gestures or beating up a bat rack or the telephone, umpires look down on that because they don’t want to reflect that on the game to the general public. But that type of anger, they try to mediate it. I’m sure Brett let the umpire already know his frustration, no one knows what he said, but when you draw that much attention to yourself… the umpire probably told him to stop and he probably did it again because players hate when umpires don’t pay attention to the next hitter, we usually call that rabbit ears, when the umpires are seemingly looking for anyone to toss. Knowing Brett being Brett, I’m sure that’s how it went down.
As far as the playoffs, what do you think of the Yankees right now?
In regard to the post season, I think the winner is going to come out of the American League. I have felt that the whole time. With those two teams, the Astros and the Yankees, they are the two best teams in baseball. This will be a battle. Whoever emerges from this round, I think, will take it all.
Let me ask one last question. What was your favorite memory of playing for the Yankees?
My favorite memory was being on the playoff teams. 2011 and 2012 and clinching. Being in Yankee Stadium in October…it’s legendary. That was amazing.
I’ll always remember 2012, I was down in Triple-A with Nunez and Cervelli and I didn’t get the call back until September, but in my first game back homering in my first at bat and robbing Adam Jones of a homer. I remember that like it was yesterday.
To have that type of result, it sticks with you.
Just being a Yankee in and of itself was incredible. I remember the first time just putting on the pinstripes, just sitting in my locker and looking at it. It was a very surreal moment.
And to play with that group was pretty amazing. I feel I undervalue it sometimes.
How fortunate I’ve been.
I can’t imagine how great that must be.
I’ll say one other thing.
I go back and see my high school coach and he has my #27 uniform in his office, just hanging there and to know that that number represents me and Giancarlo Stanton, two players he coached. It’s amazing and says what a great coach he was.
That is great. Wow. I am sorry that we’re out of time. This has been an absolute joy. Thank you so much.
To recap, Chris Dickerson suggests that anyone struggling with knee pain should go see an orthopedic specialist. That is his message. His work is to call attention to knee pain caused by osteoarthritis and how others might be able to benefit from new treatments just as he did.