SARASOTA, Fla. — Chris Dickerson's revelation occurred while playing in the minor leagues, when the outfielder noticed how often his Triple-A teammates used plastic water bottles and — without a thought — tossed them in the trash.
"Each guy is going through eight, nine bottles a day," said Dickerson, who was playing with the Cincinnati Reds' Triple-A affiliate in Louisville at the time in 2008. "What I noticed was coming in from [batting practice] that everyone was just tossing bottles in the trash and you'd go in and look in the trash and there's hundreds of plastic bottles in there."
So Dickerson, now with the Orioles, started a recycling program in the Louisville clubhouse and supplied the entire team with reusable aluminum water bottles. Five years later, Dickerson is the CEO and co-founder of Players for the Planet, a coalition of nearly 90 professional athletes who partner to promote environmental awareness.
In 2009, when Dickerson was playing for the Reds, he formed an e-waste recycling drive in Cincinnati, in which he and teammates collected 200,000 pounds of used electronics over one weekend. His organization has been holding the event every year since, and this season he's planning to expand the e-waste drives to five major league markets, including Kansas City and San Francisco.
"This year is going to be huge," Dickerson said with a smile.
The 31-year-old Dickerson, who grew up in Southern California in an environmentally conscious family, would like to make the same impact in Baltimore. He's already spoken to some of his new teammates about his passion — he said left-handers Zach Britton and Brian Matusz talked to him about the possibility of a Chesapeake Bay cleanup — but first he needs to find out where he's going to begin this season.
Dickerson, signed to a minor league deal Jan. 29, is in a crowded mix for a major league reserve outfield spot. If he doesn't make the team's Opening Day roster, he would likely begin the season at Triple-A Norfolk.
For most of the past five seasons, Dickerson has shuttled between the majors and Triple-A. But he is an athletic player who has speed, can hit for power from the left side and can play all three outfield positions. Last season, he recorded a .316/.417/.515 batting line with 17 stolen bases in 69 games with the Yankees' Triple-A team before earning a September call-up. He played well for the Yankees down the stretch, batting .286/.412/.714 in 14 at-bats and hitting a home run off Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman in his first Yankees start Sept. 2.
"He is a very talented guy," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He throws as well as anybody. He runs well. He's got of pop. ... I can see why, at 31, he's still a commodity. He brings a lot of things that people are in need of."
Dickerson is making the most of his opportunity, especially recently. He's 9-for-28 (.321) this spring and 4-for-11 with three runs, a double and a homer in his last five games, albeit mostly in a substitute role.
"It's spring training. You're only going to have a certain amount of at-bats period," Dickerson said. "But in spring, just like any other competitor, you're competing for a spot on this team, so you're going to approach every game and every at-bat as so."
The competition for the reserve outfield spot is tough. Steve Pearce and Conor Jackson, who can play the corner outfield spots and first base, have both had solid camps. Lew Ford, Trayvon Robinson and Russ Canzler are also in the mix for the spot, and the health of starters Nick Markakis (neck) and Nolan Reimold (shoulder) will also play a role.
"They've gotten a lot of at-bats by design," Showalter said. "When these guys come in the game, they're not going to lose the opportunity to try to impress. We're going over some of the non-roster invitations and some of the non-roster guys in the past. You can look at where we were and the level of those guys we have now. The great thing is we have a chance to hold on to all of them."
Meanwhile, Dickerson continues to work to spread the word of environmental awareness through Players for the Planet, which he founded with former major league pitcher Jack Cassel, the older brother of NFL quarterback Matt Cassel.
"Basically for me, I spent all my life growing up in Southern California and spending a lot of time at the beach and just seeing how the damage is done more when we don't throw away our garbage and we're not cognizant of what we're doing to the environment around us," Dickerson said. "We used to have kids who couldn't show up to practice because or bad air, especially in [Los Angeles] with the amount of cars on the road."
Hundreds of fans participated in his Cincinnati e-waste recycling event — donating used computer monitors, hard drives, televisions, laptops and other electronics to be broken down by a company named Global Environmental Services, which removes all the harmful parts, disposes of them properly and takes the precious metals (nickel, gold and silver) to be made into other products.
Dickerson's colleagues have bought in, which is important to the visibility. Reds players Jay Bruce, Ryan Hanigan and Mike Leake will be at the Cincinnati even next month. He's working on finalizing a similar event in Kansas City in June with Mike Moustakas. He said he's received commitments from 18 new players this spring training, including Britton and Matusz.
"It's unfortunate but we live in a celebrity-based environment," said Dickerson, who started out with only eight athletes in his coalition, including Jackson. "My e-waste event is not nearly what it would be if Derek [Jeter] did one. They'd turn out by the thousands. But being a professional athlete does help, but we way we did it we were able to set an example that players are involved with this and do have a concern about it.
"We see what goes on from a fan's perspective with how much trash is generated and how many resources are used in baseball," he continued."We play every single day with an average of 25,000 to 30,000 fans and it's a lot be disposed of and we need to be responsible not just getting to the games, carpooling, stuff like that. There are so many things we can do as fans to reduce the impact on the environment."
Dickerson's organization is still grassroots — there are just five people on staff — but it is making big strides. It is partnering with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an international non-profit that has created environmental initiatives with more than 100 professional teams at their stadiums and arenas by helping the facilities reduce waste, improve environmental performance, benefit public health and uncover cost savings.
In a matter of years, Dickerson said he'd love to be behind a Major League Baseball "Green Week," much like what the NBA has done to raise environmental awareness the past four years. During the week, which is now held every April, the NBA highlights recycling programs and hands-on service projects throughout the league.
"These are the kind of stories that we want to tell and get out to the public," Dickerson said. "Being on another team, it doesn't necessarily hurt because you're able to talk to other guys and see what they're concerned about. ... I'd love to have something for every major league city."