Dickson Hopes to Put Trip Through Minors Behind Him : Baseball: Cub prospect knows he needs to work harder to stick in Wrigley Field.


It was like something out of a storybook, like a takeoff on " Gulliver’s Travels,” but it’s ancient history as far as Lance Dickson is concerned.

The left-hander from Grossmont High School zipped through the minor leagues in such a hurry last year that he often had to remind himself what town he was in. He journeyed from the Arizona campus in Tucson to the Chicago Cubs in less than two months, with stops in Geneva, N.Y.; Peoria, Ill., and Charlotte, N.C. He made 14 starts against 14 different teams.

It would make an even better story to say that Dickson pitched as well in the National League as he did in the minors, but he didn’t. His 0-3 record with the Cubs convinced him that he still has a bit to prove.


In fact, Dickson, 21, is about to head for Mesa, Ariz., and the first spring training camp of his budding baseball career.

“I have my work cut out for me,” he said. “This is the most important off-season of my life. The Cubs gave me a training schedule to go by, and that’s fine, but this means so much to me that I’ve been doing a little extra.

“From all I’ve heard, I’m going to be given every opportunity to make the ballclub. All I ask is a chance, and it’s up to me to make the most of it. Last year, I had great stats in the minors, but not in the big leagues.

“Now my arm is stronger, I’ve built myself up eight pounds to 190, and I’m ready.”

Dickson was the Cubs’ first-round choice and the 23rd pick overall in the amateur draft last June. He hadn’t been spectacular in his junior year in college--7-8 with a 3.46 earned run average--but he was a terror once he took on the pros.

Consider these numbers:

* In three starts at Geneva, in lower Class A, he had a 3-0 record and a 0.53 ERA. He pitched 17 innings and allowed five hits, struck out 29 and walked four.

* In five starts at Peoria, in middle Class A, he had a 3-1 record and a 1.51 ERA. He pitched 35 2/3 innings, allowed 22 hits, struck out 54 and walked 11.

* In three starts at Charlotte, in Class AA, he had a 2-1 record and a 0.38 ERA. He pitched 23 2/3 innings and allowed 13 hits, struck out 28 and walked three.

Added up, his 11 outings produced a 7-3 record and a 0.94 ERA, with 40 hits, 111 strikeouts and 18 walks in 76 1/3 innings.

Dickson hit his season high when he struck out 17 men in seven innings while with Peoria. The conditions under which he did it made it all the more remarkable.

“I had gone home the day before for my brother’s wedding,” he said. “I had to fly back to Peoria at 6 in the morning, and I got there an hour and a half before game time.”

Under normal progression, Dickson’s promotion from Charlotte would have been to Iowa in Class AAA. However, before the Cubs could make that move, they lost Shawn Boskie with an elbow injury, so they sent for Dickson and he was in the starting rotation.

“I had heard some talk of a September call-up, but this was only the first week of August,” Dickson said. “I got a phone call from our pitching coach, Rick Kranitz, and he said, ‘Hi, you’re going to the big leagues. Pack your bags and be ready to go in about an hour.’

“I spent my first big league game charting pitches, because I was pitching the next day, and the game went 18 innings. It was an interesting way to break in.”

In Dickson’s debut, he had the misfortune to run into the St. Louis Cardinals’ Ken Hill on the best day Hill had all season. Hill was to finish with a 5.49 ERA, but he was unhittable in this game. Dickson pitched six innings and lost, 3-1.

“I happened to be up against a guy who had a no-hitter for five innings and a shutout until the ninth,” Dickson said. “I couldn’t match that.”

After two more defeats, the last a total disaster, Dickson was optioned to Iowa. He never got there, because an infection on his right shin landed him in a hospital. When he recovered a few days later, he went home to La Mesa.

“I had a good outing, a mediocre outing and a terrible outing,” Dickson said.

The day after the terrible outing, Dickson was called in for a meeting with General Manager Jim Frey, Manager Don Zimmer and Pitching Coach Dick Pole. When they told him he was going to Triple A, he wasn’t exactly surprised. He had a 7.24 ERA to go with his three losses.

Nevertheless, Dickson didn’t let the disappointment jar his confidence.

“I made good pitches, and when I made good pitches, I got outs,” he said. “When I got the ball up, I got hit. It wasn’t that different from the minor leagues, although obviously my mistakes got hit a lot harder.

“I didn’t pitch as well as I would have liked, but the way things turned out didn’t faze me at all.”

Though Dickson’s big strikeout totals might suggest he has an overpowering fastball, such is not the case. He dazzles hitters with his curve, slider and change-up.

Asked if his added arm strength might have tacked a few miles per hour onto his fastball, Dickson said, “I would hope it did, but velocity isn’t that important. To me, location and movement are the keys.”

When Dickson reached the major leagues, the breaking pitches seemed to desert him.

Zimmer said, “I heard a lot about his great curveball, but I didn’t see it here.”

Scott Nelson, the Cubs’ assistant director of scouting, said the same thing. However, he defended the unusually quick call-up of Dickson.

“The situation dictated that we give him a crack,” Nelson said. ‘We were in such desperate need and he had been pitching so great. The old rule of thumb in baseball is if a pitcher has a hot hand, it’s almost like he can pitch anywhere. So we figured, ‘Lets get him up here while he’s on a roll.’ ”

Dickson’s lack of success with his curveball in the majors led some observers to speculate that he profited in the minors from the fact that the baseballs used there have higher seams. These people theorize that the higher the seams, the more the ball will break.

“I don’t take offense to that,” Dickson said. ‘I had never heard of anything like that before, and I kind of got a laugh out of it. I didn’t think much about it when I heard it, but I don’t think it could make much difference.

“I want to go to spring training and hopefully throw breaking balls that put an end to that theory.”

A more popular clue to Dickson’s problems with the Cubs is that he had a tired arm after pitching a personal-high 209 innings during the year.

“My arm did feel a little dead,” he said. “I had never pitched continuously so long. But I’ve got to get used to that, because that’s the way it’s going to be from now on.”

Understandably, Dickson’s whirlwind trip up the minor league ladder mitigated against establishing any lasting friendships.

“It was so different from when I was at Arizona,” he said. “Everybody knew me there. Now I was a new guy wherever I went, and I didn’t get to know anybody very well. But it was fun, and I think I adjusted pretty well.

“I literally lived out of a suitcase. No, actually, I didn’t. I lived out of a duffel bag. I didn’t buy a suitcase until the season was over.”

When Dickson joined the Cubs, veteran pitcher Rick Sutcliffe took the rookie under his wing.

“Sutcliffe was very friendly,” Dickson said. “He was extra helpful to me. I even stayed at his house for three nights. He told me things that made life easier for me.

“Everybody was nice to me, and another player who was very helpful was (catcher) Damon Berryhill. He was at Peoria on rehab, and it was great having a major league catcher to work with.”

Both Sutcliffe and Berryhill are trying to come back from shoulder surgeries that all but wiped out their 1990 seasons. Ironically, Sutcliffe figures to be the man Dickson will have to beat to win a starting job.

“The fifth spot is open,” Dickson said. “Reviews are mixed on Sutcliffe’s chances, but I expect him to make it. In my case, I just have to work hard and see what happens.”

Personal ambitions aside, Dickson feels that the Cubs’ free-agent signings of outfielder George Bell, starter Danny Jackson and reliever Dave Smith (a Poway High School alumnus and Olivenhain resident) have made them strong contenders in the National League East.

“I’m really excited,” Dickson said. “I think with these new guys, we’ve got a chance to do a lot of things. I hope I’m a part of it.”