Premature end of promising career broke heart of “Dr. Longball”

The only regret Ken Dixon has about his baseball life is the way it ended: with a mysterious shoulder ailment that short-circuited what was shaping up to be a promising major league career.

Dixon went 26-28 from 1984-87 with the Orioles before being traded to Seattle in the December 1987 deal that brought pitcher Mike Morgan to Baltimore. The right-hander was primarily used as a starter, though he also pitched in relief, recording five saves in his final season as an Oriole.

What brought his career to a screeching halt was a bum right shoulder, though it took three years to figure out exactly what was wrong. Dixon knew something was amiss, but a battery of diagnostic tests and multiple consultations with specialists couldn’t determine a cause for the soreness that eventually shelved him. It took a hand-cranked X-ray machine in the Venezuelan Winter League to determine that the culprit was a calcium deposit in his throwing shoulder, something so unusual that even noted sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews had never encountered the malady before operating on Dixon.

By the time he had recovered from the groundbreaking surgery - which Dr. Andrews used as a case study - Dixon’s career was over. Now 50, Dixon admits he had difficulty transitioning past his playing days.

“Baseball broke my heart and I was a man without a country, a baseball player without a team - however you want to sum it up,” Dixon said recently after signing autographs as part of the Orioles alumni autograph series at Camden Yards. “I’ve never loved a woman like I loved baseball and my heart’s never been broken like that before. I was a young man when I had the injury to my arm. By the age of 30, I was fighting for my life, as far as baseball is concerned.”

Dixon made comeback attempts with the Orioles and Indians organizations before ending his career in the independent leagues in 1996. Unprepared for the sudden end of his career, Dixon experienced personal problems. The native of Monroe, Va., doesn’t sidestep his post-baseball battles as much as he uses them to connect with youngsters and explain to them the importance of embracing life and all it has to offer.

“I’m not ashamed of my past,” he said. “Now I’m a better teacher because of it. Now I know how easily things can go off-path. You can become lost in your little world, and it’s a big, bold, beautiful world out there and that’s what I try to pass on.”

Dixon and friend Bob Duff co-founded the Diamond Dream Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps spread the magic of baseball to youths in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area. The foundation runs clinics for kids, provides equipment to those who have none, plays charity games and holds an annual fundraising golf tournament. Dixon has recruited many ex-Orioles to join the cause, including Paul Blair, Scott McGregor, Al Bumbry, Bill Swaggerty, John Stefero, Mike Young and Don Buford.

“The Diamond Dream Foundation helps me give back what baseball has given me,” said Dixon.

More recently, Dixon has become an active part of the Orioles alumni, meeting with fans, chatting and sighing autographs before Monday and Thursday home games at Camden Yards in the MASN tent on Eutaw Street. Alumni autograph participants are not announced in advance, but sign for an hour beginning 90 minutes before those games.

Dixon enjoys the exchanges with fans, many of whom weren’t even born when he played at Memorial Stadium.

“That’s the beauty of baseball. It’s a sport that a lot of people love,” Dixon said. “The biggest thing is those people that remember games or events or things in your life that brings it back for you, too, at that moment. When you reflect on your life after 25 years, some of those good memories, it’s like turning on a light. You realize that some of that little bit of success you had playing baseball has been the one thing that keeps you moving forward in life. It keeps you strong, it keeps you positive. I think we all feed off of that.”

Dixon, who now lives in Catonsville, said he doesn’t have a favorite memory of his time in orange and black, but a couple of things stand out.

On July 2, 1986, Dixon was the losing pitcher in a 1-0 defeat against the Milwaukee Brewers at Memorial Stadium. Brewers left-hander Juan Nieves threw a five-hit, complete-game shutout; Dixon allowed only an unearned run and four hits in the loss. Milwaukee’s Rick Manning reached on an error by first baseman Eddie Murray leading off the fourth, moved to third on Jim Gantner’s single and scored on a sacrifice fly by Rick Cerone.

“That’s classic baseball, old-time baseball,” Dixon said. “Those type of games, you never forget them, because every game you ever see that’s close like that, it just takes you right back to it.”

Dixon probably would prefer to forget the nickname that was bestowed on him: “Dr. Longball,” for his penchant for surrendering home runs. He gave up 33 homers in 1986 and 31 more in 1987, though he’s quick to point out, “most of them were solos.” Mel Proctor, who used to call O’s games for Home Team Sports, had another nickname for Dixon: “Boom Boom,” for the sound made by the bats of opposing hitters when he was pitching.

Still, Dixon will chuckle when a fan in the alumni autograph line mentions the “Dr. Longball” moniker. As long as he gets to share the evening with other ex-Orioles and fervent fans, Dixon is happy. The bond between teammates, even almost a quarter of a century after he threw his last major league pitch, remains as strong as ever.

“It’s a brotherhood,” he said. “It has to be. When you go out on that field and fight like that, sometimes somebody’s going to pick you up, and sometimes you’re going to pick somebody up. We depend on each other to do that. Every time that happens, you become a little tighter.”

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