What happens in clubhouse, stays there
May 4 2007
LAS VEGAS — When the star Dodger routinely showed up for day games still drunk from the previous night, the clubhouse guy knew his role.
"It was my job to protect the team," Dave Dickenson said. "That's what I did."
Dickenson said he would pour a cup of beer and place it in the dugout bathroom. The star player would sneak there between innings for a drink, and continue drinking throughout the game.
"The guy couldn't play with a hangover, so we had to keep him going," Dickenson said. "Hey, he played great, and nobody complained."
Such is the motto of baseball's minimum-wage, major-impact clubhouse attendants.
Keep them going, and nobody will complain.
Make the players look good, and management will look the other way.
Wash their cars. Walk their dogs. Bring them women.
And, in at least one case in New York, give them drugs.
Amid news that former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski pleaded guilty to distributing steroids, Major League Baseball is considering examining the unusual relationship between players and the handful of guys in every clubhouse who ostensibly only order their bats and wash their jocks.
"It's not about doing the laundry, it's about keeping the player happy," said Dickenson, a former longtime beloved Dodgers clubhouse attendant and manager. "And you'll do anything to keep the player happy."
Known throughout baseball as "Bonsey," the wiry 38-year-old was fired last year after 14 seasons in Dodgers clubhouses for, sources say, drinking and partying too much with the players.
He thought the alleged reasoning was interesting, because he considered it his job to be close to players.
"Teams want their clubhouses to work smoothly," he said. "But they don't always want to understand how that happens."
On Thursday near his Las Vegas home, where he is working in a country club golf shop and studying to becoming a teaching pro, Dickenson talked about those sometimes ugly inner workings that, until now, baseball executives have chose to ignore.
He said he never saw a steroid at Dodger Stadium. However, he did say that before baseball's amphetamine ban, he would commonly vacuum "greenies" off the floor after games.
"We would see them, we didn't know much about them, that medical stuff is way over our heads," he said.
But, yes, he could see how the New York clubhouse attendant could get into trouble. Working for tips that often pay the rent, an attendant's livelihood is tied to a player's whim.
"The hardest thing for a clubhouse guy to do is say no to a player," Dickenson said. "It took me a long time to learn how to say no."
In keeping with baseball's unwritten code, Dickenson refused to name names. But he did discuss some of the strange requests that are often a short leap to illegal.
Dickenson said that when a player was attracted to women in the stands during the games, he would be ordered to bring those women the player's phone numbers.
"I wasn't anybody's pimp," he said. "After I gave the phone number, they were on their own."
When players were caught between girlfriends, Dickenson was their alibi.
"A player could always say he was with me," he said.
He said he rarely saw a home game because he was in the clubhouse doing work that was not always baseball related.
He might be watching a player's dog, or playing with a player's child, or carrying around a load of a player's wife's underwear.
"There were guys who would bring in all their family's clothes for us to wash, and what were we going to do?" he said.
Then there were the players' cars, which became tools of torture for the handful of young men who work the clubhouse.
"I walked into the clubhouse once and none of my guys were there, they were all out washing cars," Dickenson said. "The job has turned from clubbie to valet."
In the beginning for Dickenson, it was family. He became the clubhouse manager for the San Diego Padres' triple-A Las Vegas team while still a junior in high school.
Going through adolescence with an absentee father, he learned about life from the older players who surrounded him.
He took his first drink in a clubhouse. He took his first dip of snuff in a clubhouse. He met his first girlfriend at a ballpark.
"I was taught that players were your family," he said. "I gave up a chance to have my own family to be part of that family."
For the longest time, it worked. The Dodgers' players loved his loyalty. The Dodgers' executives appreciated his discretion.
Dickenson was the kind of clubhouse guy who would carry extra cash on trips for one reason.
"On the plane, if somebody lost big in a poker game and couldn't pay, I wanted to make sure there wasn't a fight," he said.
When players did want to fight, it was Dickenson who always jumped between them, even once physically dragging Milton Bradley away from Times writer Jason Reid.
"Like I said, it was my job to protect the team," he said.
When a Dodger was late for a game, Dickenson would hang street clothes in his locker so the media wouldn't get suspicious.
When a Dodger needed a friend, Dickenson would stay with him all night in the clubhouse if necessary.
If a Dodger wanted to bet on a sports event, Dickenson could use his Las Vegas connections to make it legally happen.
The Dodgers reportedly became irked with Dickenson when he became so close to the players, he allegedly starting acting like a big shot, including drinking in the clubhouse or even in the stands during games, and drinking on the team plane.
Dickenson denies none of it.
"Yeah, I had a drink with some players, and I had a drink with some of their girlfriends, I was just being their friend," Dickenson said. "Management wants me to take care of the player, but they don't want to know how I do it? That's unrealistic."
Eric Karros, who remains close friends with Dickenson, agrees that clubhouse workers walk the slimmest of tightropes.
"The clubhouse guy is in a tough situation," the former first baseman said. "If he doesn't do what a player wants him to do, he could cut his throat economically."
Dickenson said in a good year, a clubhouse manager can make $100,000. But stingy players can cut that figure in half.
"A clubhouse attendant has one of the most underrated responsibilities in the game," Karros said. "People think it's about ordering bats and uniform sizes, and it's so far from that."
That's why many feel that the true reason Dickenson was fired has nothing to do with his drinking on the job. Some feel that he was fired only after he jokingly insulted the McCourt children during a company softball game in the fall of 2005.
He was wearing batting gloves during the game, and a Dodgers official wondered why he didn't give similar gloves to the McCourt children.
"I gave him two reasons," Dickenson said. "I said, 'The kids didn't ask for them, and I don't like them.' "
Dickenson said he was just engaging in the usual clubhouse banter, but he heard that word of his slight reached the front offices, and a couple of months later he was fired.
"I'm not bitter, I'm just really disappointed," Dickenson said. "I gave them my life, I did everything I was supposed to do, and just like that, they took it away from me."
When asked about the firing, Camille Johnston, Dodgers spokeswoman, said, "I cannot comment on personnel matters."
When told of Dickenson's tales, Johnston said things in the Dodgers clubhouse are now different.
"Our clubhouse atmosphere has changed under the leadership of Ned [Colletti] and Grady [Little]," she said.
The Dodgers' clubhouse has indeed become one of the most professional rooms in the game, good guys and smart guys everywhere.
But it's still baseball. And players are still players.
And as you read this, somewhere in baseball there is undoubtedly a rich snot asking a clubhouse kid to fetch him a towel or a drink or a clean car or even a woman.
And somewhere, fearing for his popularity and his income, that clubhouse kid is saying yes.
And somewhere, whether it be in a New York courthouse or a Chavez Ravine cubbyhole, the relationship takes its toll on a young man's life and a game's integrity.
Watching the clubhouse attendants pour champagne on each other after the Dodgers clinched a playoff spot last season, Dickenson wept.
"Who wouldn't want to be part of a family like that?" Dickenson said. "That's why I did the job. That's why I would do it again."