It’s been more than a decade since Josh Dickey’s younger brother used to slip into the Centennial dugout following one of his baseball games, but the memory still brings a smile to the face of the former Golden Hawks standout catcher.
“He would come into our dugout after games and grab one of our helmets, and grab a bat and swing it, and he always wanted to play catch,” said Dickey, a 2009 Centennial graduate, who went on to a star at Taft College and NAIA-power Oklahoma City University. “He used to get on the (cart) with a coach to drag the field. I told my mom, the kid was practically born on a baseball field.”
Now a senior at Liberty, his little brother, Kaleb Dickey, isn’t so little anymore.
Standing 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Kaleb has also developed into quite a baseball player in his own right. Before fracturing his sternum in a collision midway through his sophomore season, Kaleb had nine home runs, 38 RBIs and was hitting .443 — all before spring break.
“He’s not your typical (big) kid that just pulls the ball," Liberty baseball coach Tony Mills said. “He drives the ball with authority to all fields. He has a great game plan at the plate. He has high pitch recognition. Very rarely will he take himself out of the play by swinging at a bad pitch. He has worked on some things to fine-tune his swing even more. The video that I’ve seen on him during the summer months has been impressive. And it was already good, but it’s even more impressive now.”
Despite the injury, which forced him to miss almost seven months, and only playing in nine games this past season because of the COVID-19 shutdown, Kaleb continued to garner interest from high-level NCAA Division-I coaches.
On Tuesday, the interest was finalized when Kaleb committed to play at national-power USC. He is the fourth Patriots baseball player to commit to play at a Pac-12 school, joining junior Cutter Coffey (Arizona), sophomore Brady Reynolds (Stanford) and senior Jacob Tobias (Arizona State).
“It feels awesome,” said Kaleb, who received an offer from the Trojans two weeks ago, several months after similar propositions from Washington State, New Mexico State, CSUB and Florida Atlantic. “(USC has) definitely been at the top of my list for sure. They’re No. 1 in national championships won, so that played a role. I had other offers, but it just felt like USC was the place. The environment, it’s close to home, the best fit for the team ... all that stuff.”
Kaleb’s road to becoming a Division-I baseball recruit started about as far back as anyone can remember. Josh recalls his brother being only days old when he was loaded into the family car to head to one of his out-of-town travel baseball tournaments.
That was only the beginning for Kaleb. If it takes a village to raise a child, Kaleb's was in the shape of a baseball diamond.
In addition to watching Josh’s games, Kaleb benefited from his grandfather, Lloyd Dickey's tutelage. Lloyd was a teacher and baseball coach at South High for more than two decades. The elder Dickey, who died in 2013, also had a batting cage in his backyard, giving the Dickey brothers — that includes incoming Liberty freshman Andrew — ample opportunity to fine-tune their craft.
It’s a tradition that was continued by Kaleb’s father Darrin, a PE teacher and athletic director at Norris Middle School, whose backyard features a batting cage, complete with astroturf and two pitching mounds.
But Darrin’s contributions to Kaleb’s development go far beyond the facilities on his half-acre property.
While taking Josh to a lesson with Brant Brown, who was working as the hitting coach for the Bakersfield Blaze at the time, Darrin was invited to fill-in and throw batting practice to the team. It turned out to be the start of a nine-year career as an assistant that included stints with the California League affiliates of the Rangers, Angels and Mariners.
And through it all, Kaleb went along for the ride, finding himself in locker rooms that featured future Major Leaguers, including Chris Davis, Elvis Andrus, Mitch Moreland, Randal Grichuk and C.J. Cron. Kaleb and Andrew even served as bat boys for the Inland Empire 66ers one season when perennial All-Star and American League MVP Mike Trout played there.
“There’s a lot of people that had a hand in it,” said Darrin of Kaleb’s development. “So my kids grew up in that atmosphere. And they were in the locker room and were able to see how the players acted and how they behaved. The etiquette and the respect. We were lucky and very fortunate to be around it. Kaleb was around it from a young age and he loved being in the locker rooms with me. Loved it.”
Kaleb feels being in that environment continues to help him, specifically in how he approaches the game from a mental standpoint. That’s something he has also demonstrated in the classroom, where he boasts a 3.9 GPA, with Darrin saying his wife Mandi most helped their son stay focused academically.
“I was able to see the player's mindset, so my mind was able to grow faster from a younger age,” Kaleb said. “Being able to hear guys like that talk in the locker room and their mindset of the game, really just helped me grow faster at a younger age than most kids. From there on, my mindset was just different from a younger age. It really gave me an advantage, especially in baseball and being competitive.”
Kaleb’s approach to the game is one of the first things Mills remembers when he saw him step on the field as a freshman.
“I’ve been fortunate to coach a long time and you know when you have somebody that actually steps on the field, and you watch them and the way that they go about their business and their physical skills, but also their emotional and their mental skills,” said Mills, who is entering his 17th season as the Patriots baseball coach. “That he has. Right then, you knew you had a player. There’s just such a difference when you have such an elite type of player like Kaleb is.
“But he’s just a baseball kid. Not only does it go back to his brother playing at Centennial, his grandfather was a legendary coach. So baseball is in their blood. It’s just there and his family has done an exceptional job of bringing him along and teaching him basic fundamentals. He just kept Kaleb on the right path.”
It was a routine pop up along the first base line when Kaleb drifted over to make the catch. At the same time, the batter put his head down and ran full steam toward first base. The two met somewhere in the middle, and although Kaleb held on for the out, he remembers laying on the ground, unable to get up for several minutes.
“It felt like someone was sticking a knife right through the middle of my chest,” said Kaleb, who was helped off the field and taken to the emergency room. “I couldn’t get up, I couldn’t move. There was just a sharp pain right through my chest when I did anything.”
Originally diagnosed as a bruised sternum, Kaleb was told he’d probably feel better in a few days. But he didn’t. The pain lasted for several months, all the while, Kaleb continued to play. He finished out the season, but didn’t have another home run.
Kaleb returned to the doctor, where a fracture was discovered. What followed was nearly five months of inactivity as he rested, followed by a tedious physical therapy regimen to help break down the cartilage in his chest.
He was finally cleared to return to the field just two days before the season opener in late February, but his timing was off and he struggled to produce like he expected in his first nine games, hitting just .259 with one extra-base hit and no home runs. The season was cancelled shortly thereafter over concerns about the coronavirus.
As disappointing as it was, Kaleb feels the short season has turned out to be a blessing.
“It was tough at first having all the games canceled, but I feel like it really helped me,” Kaleb said. “I used that time to hit in the cage every day, I got to work out a lot more than I would have during the season. I had a chance to focus on my body more than I usually would have. I feel like it was disappointing, but it still helped me throughout everything. I was able to get more work in.”
The pain in his chest has finally subsided and Kaleb is excited to get back on the field to put his hard work to the test. He says he’s also a bit more relaxed now that his college plans are set and he can now just focus on playing baseball.
“It doesn’t change anything physical on the field,” said Kaleb, who also benefited from playing for the SoCal Giants and NorCal scout teams. “I’m still going to try to do the same stuff I’ve been doing. It’s a relief on your mind not having to worry about if I don’t do good in front of this coach or am I able to do this. It’s definitely a stress reliever. But I just want to go out and do the best that I can do.”
His biggest fan
When Kaleb returns to the field some time in the spring, he won’t be alone.
The tables have turned a bit where Kaleb’s older brother whom he idolized growing up, is now his biggest fan.
“Truthfully, I have to tell you that I don’t think I’ve missed a game, at least in town,” said Josh, whose three-year-old son Jayden has taken over Kaleb's role of carrying on the next generation of Dickey baseball players. He can be seen carrying a bat, often taller than he is, at most of Kaleb’s games and gets his daily swings in his dad’s backyard.
“There’s been a few out of town that I wasn’t able to make, but every time Kaleb’s at-bat I go to the third base side so I catch him head on and video every single at-bat. I take pictures for him and all sorts of stuff. It’s very exciting because I am fortunate enough to be older to be able to understand that this is my younger brother. It wasn’t just a year or two difference, I mean I was always 11 years older."
The age difference has given Josh a unique perspective when watching his brother’s development.
“Just being able to see I remember when he was eight years old and he hit his first home run, and now look at him," Josh said. "It’s just the things that he’s doing, it’s just kind of like one of those things you read about. You don’t get a chance to physically watch it happen. And if you do watch it happen, you usually don’t know that person. It just so happens that this time it’s my brother and I’m just very, very excited for him.”