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Pirates reserve outfielder Dickerson is also at home on soccer pitch

| Sunday, March 9, 2014, 9:42 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — It is protocol not to wear a cap or shirt with the logo of another baseball team in a big league clubhouse. But there is no rule to stop a player from representing his favorite British soccer club.

So no one raises a fuss in the morning when outfielder Chris Dickerson walks into the Pirates' clubhouse dressed in a bright red Manchester United jersey.

After bouncing around the big leagues since 2008, Dickerson is in camp as a non-roster invitee, trying to win a backup outfielder's job. He's made a good living off baseball, but sometimes wishes he could have turned pro in soccer.

“It was my best sport growing up and the only sport I ever quit,” Dickerson said.

As a kid, Dickerson spent summers with his grandparents in New York. When he wasn't on a field booting a soccer ball, he watched Man U play on the MSG Network.

“I was 9 years old, and that's the only international soccer I could watch,” he said. “I've stayed a fan.”

Dickerson later trained in the Olympic development program. But after he was cut from a regional tryout for a youth national team, Dickerson learned about the hard economics of the game in the United States.

“If you're not among the top-echelon players, I mean one of the absolute best, you're just going to play in the (Major League Soccer) and earn a whopping $35,000 a year,” Dickerson said.

The earning potential was a lot better in baseball, Dickerson realized.

Dickerson became a standout player at UNLV and was drafted by Cincinnati in 2003. As a part-time player with the Reds from 2008-10, Dickerson batted .274 with a .789 on-base plus slugging percentage, a tiny bit of pop and a handful of stolen bases. He's also played for the New York Yankees, Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles.

There's not enough play in his bat to earn Dickerson a starting spot with the Pirates. But his veteran savvy and plus defense — according to Fangraphs, Dickerson's Ultimate Zone Rating is 19.2 runs above average — would be valuable off the bench.

Saturday, Dickerson showed off his skills by making a diving catch in center field.

“He's a big leaguer, a tremendous athlete,” coach Rick Sofield said. “He's quick, he's got instincts and savvy. Chris was covering ground (Saturday) as well as any center fielder I've been around. He's the real deal on defense.”

In the offseason, Dickerson stays in shape by working out with his old high school soccer team. Some days, after spring training workouts are through, he'll slip into soccer cleats and kick a ball around with teammate Matt Hague.

“I was trying to keep up with him, but it wasn't easy,” Hague said.

Saturdays are game days in the Barclays Premier League, the highest level of soccer in Great Britain. That's when Dickerson tugs on his Man U jersey before heading out the door to McKechnie Field.

“Absolutely, I miss it,” Dickerson said. “Because I played, I have a great respect when I watch the game. I don't think most people truly understand how talented those (soccer) players are. The stuff they do at that level is incredible.”

In 2010, Dickerson treated himself to a 10-day vacation to England. He saw four games, including a Manchester United vs. Chelsea match at Stamford Bridge, a venerable stadium in Fulham that opened in 1877.

“That was unbelievable,” Dickerson said. “After that, I went back every year.”

Last year, Dickerson took along his close friend, New York Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson. They watched Real Madrid vs. Barcelona in Spain, Arsenal vs. Chelsea in England and the Ukraine vs. France in a World Cup Qualifier.

“Curtis was blown away by it — 80,000 fans chanting and celebrating,” Dickerson said. “I wish they were like that here. I keep thinking I should play winter ball at least once, because everyone tells me that's the closest to international soccer you're going to get in a baseball atmosphere.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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