Chris Dickerson played major league baseball for five teams in a seven-year career.
As impressive as that is — heck, only 18,856 people have played in “The Bigs” since the National League was founded in 1876 — GreenSportsBlog is more interested in Dickerson’s role as a leading Eco-Athlete and his efforts to recruit others to join the climate change fight through Players for the Planet.
GreenSportsBlog: Chris, I was so glad find out about you — as an Eco-Athlete and founder of Players for the Planet! When did you become interested in the environment and climate change?
Chris Dickerson: I was the athlete of the family — I played everything; baseball, football, basketball. I noticed some kids my age couldn’t play sports because of asthma. Everyone I grew up with up in Southern California was aware of elements of significant environmental misfortune in the area, from air pollution due to the area’s heavy reliance on cars to water quality to plastic waste on the beaches.
And my dad is an avid recycler. I remember he built color-coded bins made of PVC pipe and showed us which bins to toss which materials into. This was before the state required recycling so my dad was an early adapter! So I noticed the environmental irresponsibility of Southern California from a young age but it wasn’t until after college that I really got into it.
GSB: What prompted the change?
Chris: In 2007, I was just starting out in pro ball after my college career at USC and Nevada Reno. Seeing Al Gore’s documentary film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” really was a wake up call and prompted my passion for environmental stewardship. So I started to research climate change. I devoured the 2008 Time Magazine “Green Issue,” read New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman’s pieces on climate change…
GSB: …Really?! Friedman’s writings on climate, from scientific and geopolitical points of view, that inspired me to work on climate change!!
Chris: Amazing! His book on climate change, “Hot, Flat & Crowded” was an important influence for me. All of this became building blocks for Players for the Planet.
GSB: How did Players for the Planet come to be?
Chris: Back around 2007-2008, I saw two ads that really had an impact on me.
One was for Brita — it showed that a plastic water bottle takes 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill.
The other was for a refillable water bottle from Sigg, a Swiss company. In 2008, I had been called up to the Cincinnati Reds. We, like every other sports team, used an incredible number of plastic water bottles. So I had Sigg send 50 bottles to the clubhouse…
GSB: How did your teammates react?
Chris: I’d say the initial reaction was that it all was a bit silly — they certainly didn’t dive right in. But, after awhile, the guys saw that using the Sigg bottles was more convenient than getting a new plastic bottle several times a day.
Convenience became my main selling point, rather than the environment. And so they eventually switched and we were able to cut down on our plastic water bottle waste by 50 percent. An article was written on the Sigg bottles, the Reds and me that caught a lot of people’s attention. ESPN and MLB.com got in on it and then the fans in Cincinnati caught on — there were banners of me and the recycling symbol.
Once I saw that kind of response, I felt I needed to step up to the plate and use the platform I had to something positive, something big on the environment and climate.
GSB: What did you do next?
Chris: I reached to other baseball players I knew, along with athletes from other sports. Jack Cassel, who was pitching for the Houston Astros at the time, was from Southern California. He really “got it”…
GSB: …Is Jack related to Matt Cassel, the former Patriots backup quarterback who now serves the same role for the Tennessee Titans?
Chris: They’re brothers. I knew Matt from USC and he joined us as well, as did a third Cassel brother — Justin. I also engaged two of the biggest stars in baseball stars of this era: Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers and Chase Utley of the Philadelphia Phillies. So that was the beginning of Players for the Planet.
GSB: What did you have those guys do? And what were some of Players for the Planet’s early activities?
Chris: Those athletes and more shared my vision, lent their names and offered quotes and other types of support. Our first event was at the 2009 Super Bowl in Tampa…
GSB: Super Bowl XLIII? The one in which the Steelers beat the Cardinals on the Roethlisberger-to-Santonio Holmes last minute TD pass?
Chris: That’s the one! So we gave out gift bags made of recycled plastic bottles at the Super Bowl party hosted by Michael Strahan.
GSB: Very high profile…
Chris: That was our goal.
Back in Cincinnati in 2009, we formed an alliance with the Reds to kick off an E-Waste recycling event. Fans from around the city were invited to drop off their electronic devices that were collecting dust in their garages and attics. The E-Waste would then be handled and recycled in safe fashion. Some of my teammates and would come out to the participating Kroger supermarkets in the area. These became very popular. We would load up DVRs, TVs, stereos, computers, tablets, and cell phones.
GSB: How much stuff did you collect and e-recycle?
Chris: About 235,000 lbs. worth! It was one of the largest E-waste drives ever done in the area. This continued for seven seasons, even after I left the Reds in 2010 when I was traded to the Brewers. Jay Bruce and Ryan Hannigan took the baton and did great jobs.
GSB: Were you able to build Players for the Planet in Milwaukee?
Chris: It wasn’t easy to focus on it because I was only in Milwaukee for part of the 2010 season. Then I went to the Yankees in 2011 and the Baltimore Orioles in 2013.
So, I was moving around a lot, trying to advance my career on the field, which made it somewhat challenging to build Players for the Planet at that time. That being said, there were some successes.
In 2012, we worked with the MLB Players Association to have a Green Carpet at the All-Star Game in Kansas City to highlight the work we and the clubs were doing on recycling. The Royals used that game to feature biodegradable silverware. We also collected empty plastic bottles and cans at the 2013 All-Star Game at Citi Field in New York.
On another front, a bunch of the Southern California guys in Players for the Planet organized a beach cleanup in Marina del Rey. They got on paddle boards and picked up all sorts of crap, from tires to traffic cones.
GSB: We’ve covered the ocean waste issue quite a bit in GreenSportsBlog — it’s serious and it’s pathetic. How have you kept Players for the Planet going since you last played in the big leagues in 2014?
Chris: It’s been a challenge to keep it going, to build on it, and to find new “keepers of the flame,” that’s for sure. Guys I came in with and who joined me in this effort are retired or will retire soon. So, we’ve had to pivot in some ways.
We’ve teamed up with OneVillage, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable global development through individual community empowerment in underdeveloped countries. And I’m in the process of building a corporate responsibility sports agency with my business partner, Brian Ingram a former minor league baseball player out of Oregon State.
One of our main goals, not surprisingly, is to find athletes concerned with climate. OneVillage is working with us to help find corporations to support this initiative. On another front, we’re working with Nelson Cruz of the Seattle Mariners to get Watly solar powered water de-salinization and filtration systems to the Dominican Republic and other places in the developing world…
GSB: WOW! The Watly sounds incredible and like it can be a real game changer!
Chris: It really can be. Access to clean, drinkable water is a real crisis, of course. Watly’s also can provide WiFi and electric power.
GSB: I had no idea.
Chris: Amazing, right? Brian went to Italy to see the first demonstration of the Watly and said it was “incredible!” On the same trip, Brian also went to Belgium, where he investigated a potentially groundbreaking urban farming project in which the produce would be dropped by drone into places like Syria and East Africa.
We see an application for this approach in the urban food deserts of the U.S. as we don’t have the luxury of growing outwards — we have to look at growing vertically. Also in the U.S., we also are looking to build a fully sustainable little league baseball field.
GSB: What would that look like?
Chris: Among other things it will be powered 100 percent by solar, only refillable bottles will be used, and the turf will be organic.
GSB: That is an ambitious agenda, to be sure. Back to your playing days, when you would talk about climate change in the locker room, how did your teammates react? Were there deniers among them?
Chris: Oh yeah, definitely. It was a problem — I’d say climate change denial was at a significant level. I found that they really weren’t open to learning. Some guys accepted that there were environmental problems but didn’t connect them to climate change. Truthfully, most just didn’t care one way or the other…
GSB: …That tracks with the U.S. public’s attitude on climate — one of general indifference — although I was heartened by a December poll that showed environment/climate change now ranks as the 4th most important issue; let’s see if that sticks…
Chris: …I hope so. But back in the early 2010s, it was hard to turn the naysayers among my teammates into believers about climate change when they would see that teams talk about how green they are but don’t engage the fans in meaningful ways…
GSB: …With notable exceptions in places like Seattle — with the Mariners, Seahawks and Sounders engaging fans in environmental actions — as well as the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Chris: Of course; those are great exceptions — we need those kind of programs to quickly become the rule. Also my clubhouse managers would see that haulers taking the recycling from the clubhouse weren’t doing the job properly, primarily just taking the recycling and throwing it in with the regular trash.
GSB: That needs to be brought to light. Now even though you’ve been out of the bigs for a few years now, are you hearing from your friends who are still playing that attitudes are starting to change?
Chris: I would love to say yes but the best I can say is that attitudes are probably still the same.
Photo at top: Chris Dickerson rounding the bases after hitting a home run for the New York Yankees (Photo credit: Major League Baseball)