When Life Throws You A Curveball
3/28/17 - by Chuck Wasserstrom
Late last March, I reached out to former Cubs first-round pick Lance Dickson to write a “Catching Up With” type of story for this site.
I always liked Lance, even though our common time with the Cubs was way too short. He was intelligent with a good sense of humor – and he was a left-handed starter, which was something the Cubs had been desperately missing.
Lance was drafted in 1990 out of the University of Arizona and made three major league starts later that year – the only three he would ever make. Injuries bit him, one after another, and I’d see him in spring training every year while he tried to rehab his way back. Finally, in 1995 at the young age of 25, he had to say goodbye to his playing career.
His vocation after the game of baseball has been wildly successful – and it was under that guise that I reached out to him a year ago to tell his story. And it was during our conversation that he threw a curve at me.
It’s a story worth sharing again.
The original story ran March 25, 2016. I’ll give you an update at the end.
When you know you’re going to be interviewing someone for a story, it is incumbent that you do your homework and that you’re thoroughly prepared. There’s nothing worse than getting blindsided by something you should have known about.
And when you’re interviewing someone you haven’t talked to in 20-plus years, it is imperative that you do extra research. In this instance, I did … or at least I thought I did.
Thanks to the internet, I periodically have checked up on Lance Dickson – who had a meteoric 1990 on the mound and basically disappeared off the face of the baseball world soon after that. I knew he really hadn’t disappeared; in fact, he was quite successful in the business world.
I recognized that when I reached out to him, it was to tell his story in a positive way. Plain and simple, he didn’t need me telling him he was snake bit after he reached the majors. He certainly has heard his name as part of the “first-round bust” and “he must be flipping burgers” discussions. After being selected by the Cubs as the 23rd overall pick in the 1990 draft, he made minor league stops in Geneva (NY), Peoria (IL) and Charlotte (NC) before reaching the majors just two months after the draft. But it wasn’t his grand plan to make three big league starts, get hit by a comebacker, and never see a major league mound again. It wasn’t his grand plan to have a strong 1991 Triple-A first half ended by a broken right foot. It wasn’t his grand plan to injure his left shoulder the following year, something he couldn’t overcome. He kept trying to come back, but his baseball career was over in 1995 – at the age of 25.
When we did talk yesterday afternoon, I was planning on mostly staying away from baseball. His post-playing career success was much more interesting to me.
But what I learned as the conversation went on startled me. And it’s something I wasn’t prepared for – as the only way I would have been ready for it would have been if I Googled certain specific keywords. Life has thrown him some curves off the field, too.
This isn’t a story about baseball. This is a story about resiliency.
Well, actually, this is a lot about baseball.
Dickson, as a 20-year-old junior for the University of Arizona in 1990, threw seven complete games in 16 starts while fanning 141 batters in 119.2 innings. The southpaw was rewarded by the Cubs with a first-round selection in the June draft.
And that was just the beginning.
“That whole year was quite a whirlwind,” Dickson recalled. “Being picked in the first round, then showing up in Mesa to get ready to go to the Finger Lakes of Geneva … and then Peoria … and then Charlotte … and then Chicago. I was in four different cities in 10 weeks. I lived out of a suitcase that whole summer. I’d thrown a whole season in college, and then 11 starts in the minor leagues, and then I got called to the big leagues.”
He was on a Double-A road trip in early August when he received a call from his pitching coach – Rick Kranitz – who told Dickson to “Pack your bags. You’re going to the big leagues,” he said. “It was pretty surreal.
“I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know anybody. It was my first year in the organization. I didn’t know the personnel, the pitching staff. I was pitching really well. I was very much locked in and felt like I was going to win every game that I was pitching. But I did not see it coming.”
He headed to Chicago, making the first of his three major league starts August 9 against St. Louis.
“I focused on not getting caught up in terms of where I was and the fact that I was 20,” he said. “It was 60 feet, six inches. There’s the catcher. There’s the hitter. There’s the umpire. It’s the same scene that I’ve seen 1,000 times. I think I did stay focused in what my job was. So it didn’t seem like it was a fog or a dream at all. It was a surprise, no question about that. It was exciting. It was awesome.”
And in a snap, the dream turned into a nightmare. In his third big league start, he was struck in the knee by a one-hop comebacker – which ended his season. The injury bug had taken its first bite. Moving forward, it was one injury after another.
“My baseball career … there’s no bitterness. No anger. I don’t like how it ended for me. But I couldn’t control it,” he said. “I couldn’t stay healthy. It’s that karma deal. I’d make fun of people in the training room in college. ‘Get out of the training room. Get on the field. Let’s go.’ Then all of a sudden I’m on the early bus and in the training rooms for literally my entire career with the Cubs. That was not planned. I had a different plan for how my career would go. It didn’t go that way. So you can be bitter and feel sorry for yourself, or you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get after the next chapter of life. I chose the latter.”
With his baseball career prematurely cut short in 1995, Dickson returned to Tucson to finish his undergraduate degree in business at the University of Arizona. He was just like the rest of us; he didn’t know what he was going to do with his life, and he was a few years older than his classmates.
He wound up in the one place he never figured he’d be. Tucson.
“It was the last place I wanted to be,” Dickson said. “I was coming back here to finish school. I was speaking to my agent, who was in San Diego – where I’m from – and I was making plans to go back home and maybe go to law school. I think you have to if you’re going to be an agent in terms of mediation and all that stuff. So I was contemplating what my next move into the real world was going to be. I was considering working with my agent. I did not anticipate staying in Tucson at all.”
Instead, Tucson became a big component of his elevator pitch.
“Life’s good. I’m the chief operating officer here in Tucson at a mortgage bank,” he said. “I’ve been here for over 20 years, right after my career ended. I came back to Tucson to finish my schooling and stayed here as a result of catching on with a mortgage bank and learning this business. I’m doing pretty well in it as both a loan officer and then moving up the ranks in the company. Now, I’m a partner and the COO. The company is Nova Home Loans.
“I needed a real job after my baseball career. I interviewed with this company. It felt good. I felt like I could do that – provide financing for folks who needed a home loan. Most everyone needs what I’m selling in terms of loans and interest rates and the service I provide. It seemed to be an easier sell to me than typical widgets that people sell, like cell phones or whatever the product is. This was selling money. I felt like I could do pretty well in it. So I started part-time as I went back to school, and it turned into full-time. I started doing really well in this business. I’ve been ranked among the Top 200 loan officers in America for 16 straight years, so it’s been a really good business for me. I started moving up the leadership ranks 10 years ago. I’ve been the chief operating officer here for eight. So it worked out. There certainly isn’t any reason now for me to leave Tucson. My business is here. My kids are here.”
He talked about how his baseball career, albeit brief, helped prepare him for the business world.
“Anyone who played high-level sports and is in high-level business will tell you what you already have heard 1,000 times – there are absolute parallels between the two,” Dickson said. “How to win. How to lose. How to lead. How to follow. How to be a team player. All of those principles are just as much business as they are sports. I treated this like a sport. This was just my new sport. I looked around and saw who was doing what and how they were getting it done. And I felt like I could compete – and it’s worked out.”
Dickson acknowledged that, at times, he was sad about how his baseball career turned out. And mad, too. It didn’t go anything like his entire career before professional baseball. He just couldn’t stay on the field.
“I had never been hurt before in my life,” he said. “I never missed a start at U of A. I’d never been hurt. To break my foot … to go through the three shoulder surgeries … it was really, really frustrating. Coming back here and refocusing on what I needed to do in order to get a real job certainly put my focus on my life and business and whatever I needed to do now that baseball was over.”
Business was going to be his career path. Coaching at any level above Little League was not an option.
“I didn’t want to be in coaching,” Dickson said. “I didn’t want to be around baseball, because my baseball career just didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I wanted to be around business and just turn the page, if you will, and focus on other things.
“I got immersed in this business. Got married. Started a family.”
He went on-and-on about his daughter, Samantha, a 16-year-old sophomore already looking at big-name colleges like Stanford, Vanderbilt and Duke. He spoke glowingly about his two sons – Jack (14) and Luke (8).
“My daughter is in the National Honor Society and she plays high school volleyball,” Dickson said. “My boys are great little students and great little young men and human beings. I coached my oldest son through Little League. He’s playing club baseball now and will play high school baseball. I’m now coaching my youngest son and I’ll coach him through the balance of his Little League career.”
And then, as he talked about his children, he dropped the bombshell that my research hadn’t uncovered for me.
“Unfortunately, five years ago, my wife died suddenly,” Dickson said. “I’m a single dad. She was perfectly fit. Perfectly healthy. Never even a cavity. She had a massive pulmonary embolism in the middle of the night.”
Cristian Dickson. Mother of three. She passed away March 6, 2011, at the age of 40. This month marked the five-year anniversary of her sudden passing.
“My kids are really, really special. They’re great kids,” Dickson said. “They were 10, 8 and 3 when this happened. Their whole world was completely turned upside down. But they’ve bounced back. They’ve gained a strong footing in terms of where they are. They’re doing wonderfully. They’re healing wonderfully from something that was pretty devastating.
“You see the stories. It happens every day. How did that happen to a marathon runner? She had run a 10K just the week before. Fit … healthy … the last person I would have expected something like that to happen to. No health issues ever. Literally, not a cavity. I used to make fun of her. ‘Can’t you just get a cavity? Just be normal.’ It’s crazy how the world is and what the big guy’s plan is. That was a serious curveball for my family. But … you know … it wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last in terms of what you see on a daily basis. Unfortunately, my family went through it.”
With what the Dickson family had to deal with five years ago, there isn’t a place for a “Why Me” when it comes to a baseball career that truly ended before it started. There are far more important things to worry about.
“It’s been a busy world, in particular the last five years – kind of wearing the mom and dad hat,” he said. “And I’m in charge of 800 employees. I’m very grateful and blessed for all I have. But it’s a very busy time – and my children, of course, are my first priority. The combination of life at home and life at work makes life really, really busy. But really great. And really rewarding.
“I’m doing well in my world. I like my world. I’m grateful and blessed. I’m happy – I truly am. It’s a good life. We’ve learned a lot of life lessons along the way in terms of what’s truly important and what’s really not. I think when you go through a sudden tragedy like that, it’s cliché – I know that – but you just recalibrate your perspective of what’s important and what’s not important.
“I’ll have a random somebody say something online like, ‘What happened to that guy?’ And then somebody commented back that I was probably flipping burgers somewhere. I get a good laugh out of that.”
It’s a year later when we caught up, and all is drama-free in the Dickson household. Thankfully, no bombshells were dropped on me during the conversation.
Lance is the Chief of Operations at Nova Home Loans, and the company continues to do very well.
“Work is great. We’re busy. We’re growing organically. We don’t like to acquire any assets or any companies, things like that. We kind of do it brick by brick,” he said. “We have 910 employees, and we ended up funding $3.5 billion in business last year.
“We’re pretty proud of those numbers. We’ve become a pretty large regional player out West.”
His daughter, Samantha, is now a high school junior and looking at colleges. While her dream school is Stanford – and she has a GPA and an SAT score that puts me to shame – dad and daughter know that might not be the academic destination.
“My daughter has not settled on a school yet,” Dickson said. “She’s looked at Duke and Vanderbilt. She’s got an academic scholarship to the University of Washington. She was accepted into the Honors College at the University of Oregon. And she’s looking at Cal-Berkeley. I don’t know where she’s going to go.
“Stanford … that’s her dream. But we’re all realistic. Stanford has a 4.8 percent admission rate. Less than one in 20 who apply get in – and, by the way, all 20 have the same grades and scores she does. That’s her dream – no question, that’s the bucket list school – but we’re trying to be realistic.”
And he still gets to spend plenty of time around a baseball field with his two sons. Jack, 15, is now a high school freshman, and Luke is about to turn 10.
“My freshman made the JV team but broke his leg. So that was a bummer. He just got out of a cast last week; he broke his leg two and a half months ago,” Dickson said. “He’s a little blue collar. He’s a boy that has to work hard. My little guy, who’s going to be 10, you see in him … things come easy to him. It’s way too early to tell, but he’s got a chance, I think.
“My 15-year-old worked so hard to make that JV team, then to break his leg that first week of practice … that was a setback. But he’s been through worse setbacks, as we know.
“In perspective, it’s a little bump in the road. But we’ll get through it. We always do.”
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To read my other stories, please tap the MENU button at the top and click on the ALL MY STORIES tab.