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Hitting close to an obsession for Rays' Corey Dickerson

A man has to take care of his equipment.

So Corey Dickerson starts pretty much every work day meticulously checking on the two-toned maple sticks with which he makes his living.

He pings them with his hand to listen to the pitch, believing higher means harder wood. He re-tapes, and sometimes re-re-tapes, the handles, switching between white athletic, flex and David Ortiz-style lizard skin that seems a bit too flashy. He weighs them on a small scale he keeps in his locker to make sure they are within his 31½- to 32-ounce preference. He studies the scuff marks left by foul balls to determine by size, shape and location why that pitch was mis-hit then uses rubbing alcohol to wipe away the evidence.

"That's probably a little OCD," Dickerson said. "But I just want to know when I grab a bat that I feel 100 percent comfortable."

Hitting, as you can tell, is a bit of an obsessive and a compulsive order for Dickerson, the 26-year-old imported this offseason from Colorado to bolster the Rays' impotent offense by putting those bats to heavy use.

"I love challenging myself," Dickerson said. "I love trying to be the best at it. You want people to recognize what you do. I've really just always been motivated to be the best that I can.

"I enjoy coming out here each and every day. I love the competition, the chess match when you're hitting. There's a lot of elements in hitting. It's so hard that it challenges me. It challenges my mind. And that's what I enjoy the most."

•••

Dickerson got an early start, true to his small-town southern upbringing in McComb, Miss., from where there have already been two pretty big hitmakers in Bo Diddley and Britney Spears.

"My dad told me when I was real young, he saw me hit some little berries with a switch," Dickerson said, "and he knew then I'd be a good hitter."

The tale gets more Mississippi from there.

Corey and older brother Craig grew up playing anywhere they could, battling like brothers do, making up hitting games out of a broomstick and pretty much anything they could toss, spin or flick — bottle caps, ping-pong balls, popcorn kernels, more of those little berries.

"We tried to make stuff as challenging as possible," Dickerson said. "We tried to come up with new things to do. People saw it as kind of crazy or whatever, but that was something we enjoyed doing."

Eventually, they ventured out into the woods behind the house and carted back enough mud and clay to build a pitching mound that allowed them to refine their skills.

It was always more than fun and games, though. Craig is two-plus years older, but Corey would insist on hanging out with and playing with and against Craig's friends, and they'd tussle at turning every event into a competition.

"It's still like that," Craig said last week from Mississippi. "We got into it this past offseason. We all went to a pumpkin patch for his son's birthday and they had one of those (tether ball) games, and we started playing and pretty soon we had a crowd around us watching. It gets a little intense with anything we play. It's always been like that."

Craig jokes now that he is the reason Corey is so good, but there is something to it. Once Corey finally proved he was the better hitter in the family, he was equipped to take on the rest of the world — with a powerful swing, an intense internal drive and a growing chip sitting on his bulging shoulder.

"I'm not a person to care what people on the outside think of me," Corey Dickerson said. "I feel like I'm a very motivated person, and that's what drives me. … I hold myself to a very high standard. I want to be good. I want to win at absolutely everything I do. It's not to prove anybody wrong, or prove I can do this or that. It's more to do what I have to do to reach my goal."

•••

The path to pro ball was pockmarked with pitfalls.

Dickerson didn't get much attention growing up in McComb (population 13,000) or playing at nearby Brookhaven Academy, the small, private Christian high school (student body 400) where he starred in three sports, winning a trio of state basketball championships. He was as impressive then with his pitching — clocking 92 mph as a 16-year-old, he said — as his hitting (.591 average, 45 homers), but he didn't get drafted, which seems related to the level of competition and lack of scouting, as well as the labrum he tore as a junior and eventually had repaired — after pitching that season sidearm.

He passed on pursuing interest from four-year schools to go a bit upstate to Meridian Community College, figuring being eligible for the draft sooner would be good. But a solid 2009 freshman season generated only tepid interest, the Rockies making him a 29th-round pick. A stronger follow-up (.451, 21 homers, 71 RBIs) moved him up to only the eighth round, where the Rockies took him again and — though he had an offer to go to Mississippi State — signed him for just $125,000.

"It's like every level he's been at, there's always been an excuse for why he's done so well," Craig said. "Nobody would just say, 'You know Corey, you're doing a good job.' I think that's why he has that chip."

Dickerson showed 'em, getting to the majors within three years, and had a tremendously successful second season in Colorado in 2014 with 24 homers, a .931 on-base plus plugging percentage and a .312 average that, with an additional 24 plate appearances to qualify, would have ranked fourth best in the National League. His 2015 season was limited to 65 games due to a series of injuries.

"He really has a chance to be a special hitter," said 14-year big-leaguer Dante Bichette, Dickerson's 2013 rookie-year hitting coach in Colorado. "I mean a special hitter. As good as there is out there. I really believe he can do some special things."

•••

Dickerson has made some good early impressions on the Rays, besides his memorably massive first spring homer, which landed on the roof of the building beyond right-centerfield at Port Charlotte and rolled to a stop 569 feet from the plate.

Manager Kevin Cash has raved about the mechanics of Dickerson's powerful left-handed swing, hitting coach Derek Shelton the bat speed, third baseman Evan Longoria the audible and obvious outcome. "He swings hard," Longoria said, "and when he connects he hits the ball hard."

But Dickerson is facing more challenges, and more doubts.

The biggest is to prove that his stats are not the creation of the thin air and spacious greens at Coors Field, an issue fueled by his significant splits: a .355 average, 24 homers, 78 RBIs, 1.085 OPS in 442 plate appearances at Coors, .249, 15, 46, .695 away.

Typically laid back, Dickerson can get a little defensive on the matter, snapping back that a questioner should do his "research" in pointing to his success in the minors and in college.

"I played 20 something years of my life in Mississippi, I played at sea level, I played everywhere," Dickerson said. "You've got to play the game consistently to be where I am."

The trade brought that issue to the forefront, and raised others. Can he adjust to the change in leagues, specifically facing the deeper and stronger AL East pitching staffs? Can he handle an occasional, if not primary, shift to DH duties? Can he hit left-handers enough to stay in the lineup every day? Can he stay healthy enough, particularly on the Trop turf given previous foot problems, to play his first full season in the majors?

Sitting in front of his locker, fussin' with his bats, alternating between how he has never gotten any respect for what he has done and how much confidence he has in himself to do more, Dickerson comes around to the simplest answer of all.

"I've always hit," he said. "All my life."

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

Hitting close to an obsession for Rays' Corey Dickerson 03/12/16 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2016 10:54pm]
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