A coach’s work is never done, so don’t be thinking that Bobby Dickerson has his feet up somewhere this winter celebrating the Padres’ first foray into the postseason since 2006 like all the hard work is finished.
And definitely don’t think that he’s off toasting the team’s success with a big, juicy steak.
“I haven’t had a steak since Thursday, May 28,” Dickerson said. “The day before the heart attack.”
Both the work and the scare are an enormous part of the 2020 story for Dickerson and the Padres. San Diego lured him away from the Phillies’ coaching staff after the 2019 season as Jayce Tingler’s bench coach for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that they thought their star-studded infield had underperformed and they knew of his reputation as one of the best coaches working today.
Then during the coronavirus shutdown, Dickerson was at the park conducting informal workouts when he was stricken.
“He’s such a strong-willed person with a huge motor, seeing someone literally hitting fungoes to an infielder and 15 minutes later he has to go to the hospital and have surgery, it’s obviously a scary moment,” Padres general manager A.J. Preller said. “Especially when you see someone with Bobby’s personality, pretty much at all times nothing is ever wrong, no fear, I’m fine, and then to see him have to go through that . . .
“Certainly, some things in his lifestyle had to change, some of his nutrition and sleep patterns, but one thing that didn’t change was four days later he’s on the phone telling me he has to get back on the field with his players.”
That Dickerson, 55, is the 2020 Major League Coach of the Year is a glowing testament to so many of the things the Padres found to be true this summer, both before and after his health scare: Big motor, no-nonsense, motivating personality, no fear, creative, dedicated and unselfish enough that he will move mountains just to help a player improve even a few degrees.
Regarding the Padres’ infield this year, the improvement went many, many degrees.
Between loads of spectacular plays in 2019, shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. committed 14 throwing errors and, according to the MLB Statcast, had the fifth-lowest total of outs above average (at any position) at minus-13.
Working with Dickerson this summer, Tatis improved to a plus-7, which tied Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., White Sox center fielder Luis Robert and Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado for the best OAA score in baseball. Tatis was vocal in crediting Dickerson as his main instrument for improvement. Granted, it was a 60-game measurement as opposed to 162, but the numbers practically leap off the page.
Typically, Dickerson downplayed his role.
“This guy, it was just a matter of time for him to have all these things happen for him,” said Dickerson, while also deflecting credit to Kevin Hooper, the Padres’ minor league infield coordinator, and Keith Werman, major league development coordinator.
“I’m fortunate to be along for the ride with him. He worked his tail off and for a young guy, he has a lot of personal goals. I was a little disappointed he wasn’t mentioned in the Gold Glove voting this year. I’m still trying to figure that out. I just don’t understand it.”
The noticeable, improving trend lines went far beyond Tatis. At third base, Manny Machado returned to MVP-caliber following a disappointing debut year in San Diego. At first base, four-time Gold Glove winner Eric Hosmer was back to his former self after his defense noticeably slumped during the last six weeks of the 2019 season, leading to a career-high 14 errors. And at second base, rookie Jake Cronenworth flourished.
“Ultimately, you’re looking for production and his infield was obviously why we were a playoff team,” Preller said, “and he was able to do it with a couple of guys who have been there, done that before and got back to that elite level, and with two younger players who took strides.
“That’s indicative of a coach who can connect with different types of players, with different experience levels.”
Dickerson was a young infielder himself once, battling through seven seasons in the Yankees’ and Orioles’ systems. But he topped out at Triple-A and, after spending his final season in uniform as a player-coach in 1993, hung up his glove for good.
“I was a hard-trier,” Dickerson said. “I wasn’t necessarily the best talent. I worked harder than most people. I didn’t want to lose my job, didn’t want to do things negatively as a player. It’s pretty much the same thing as a coach. Most of the thing that drives me is I never got to the big leagues, and I was close in Triple-A. Well, not necessarily close—I just wasn’t good enough.
“I’ve always said as a coach, I want people to achieve what I couldn’t. It motivates me. It sucked to be so close and not get there.”
He’s been a minor league coach. He’s managed in the minors (10 seasons) and he’s managed in the Mexican Pacific and Dominican leagues and in the Arizona Fall League. He was the Orioles’ third base coach (2013-2018)—where he worked closely with Machado—before moving to the Phillies in 2019.
One day, Dickerson hopes to manage in the majors. Mostly, he just wants to help players get better. And he will think of anything to do that, including drills he has invented such as having players wear a plastic face-covering and “fielding” tennis balls with their faces.
The idea of that, along with footwork, is what he used with Hosmer. Part of what makes Hosmer so special is his elite hand-eye coordination, yet the errors kept stacking up in 2019. Dickerson preached face placement with Hosmer, reminding him to keep his face behind and aligned with the ball. That happens, Dickerson said, your body will align, too.
“It’s almost like shooting a pistol,” Dickerson said. “You want to see your target. A lot of times, Hoz was disconnecting, his head would stay up and his glove would flick down at the ball. He was conscious of it.”
With Machado, one of the messages was to stay back on ground balls and resist Machado’s penchant for going after the in-between hops. With Tatis, it was to work on becoming less flashy and more bland while making an art of the routine plays.
As a unit, the Padres’ infield took his tips and ranked as the best in the game with a plus-11 OAA in 2020 after finishing as the worst in the game at minus-26 the year before. The change was eye-popping.
“True nature, I’m just a teacher at heart,” said Dickerson, who, thankfully, is feeling “great” these days. “I just like to help people. That’s just the truth. I think that’s where the energy comes from. Sometimes it’s frustrating to see someone much better than I was as a player and they don’t have the same gumption or want-to. I try to help them build that.”
And for those that do have the same gumption, the rewards can be boundless. Because, at heart, and with a big heart, that’s just what Dickerson does best: Helps players of all talent levels get better.
And for a coach, what could be better than that?