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Minor league vet Russell Dixon finds true calling after baseball

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If you're a fan of minor-league baseball, you probably know how tough it is for a player to beat the odds and make it all the way to the Majors.

From Day One, you're fighting an uphill battle. The statistics will tell you that you're more likely to be watching the games on TV than you are to actually be in them. That's just how it is; you work, you fight, you sacrifice, all for a dream that will probably elude you.

Still, you might just trade one dream for another, in the process.

When Russell Dixon left his dream of major-league fame behind, he found himself lost in a void of uncertainly and self-doubt. Before long, he would find the light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps, in this case, the light found him.

A standout player for Second Baptist School in Houston, Texas in 2004, Dixon also attended Second Baptist Church in Houston, where his father has now served as an associate pastor for nearly 35 years. "Because my dad was in the ministry, church was always a big part of my life," Dixon said. "My parents did a tremendous job of trying not to force it down our throats, though."

Young Russell and his three sisters spent much of their time at Second Baptist, going to church on Sundays because it was expected of them, but the Dixon children were left to decide for themselves how much more (or less) they wished to attend. Their parents understood the importance of individual choice, especially when it came to spiritual matters.

"We were always expected to attend on Sundays, but beyond that it was up to us kids to determine how involved we wanted to be," Dixon said. "I remember that my dad would bring me along with him to do things at the church. It was never a chore for him, and because he enjoyed it, I think that rubbed off on me as well."

Dixon enrolled at Auburn for 2005 and played in 53 games as a freshman. Dixon showed an ability to hit in the clutch, batting .327 with runners in scoring position and finishing the season with a .289 batting average. He flourished in 2006, starting 50 games as the Tigers' right fielder and batting .313 with a team-high 19 doubles, driving in 31 runs and scoring 24 in the process. A broken thumb cost him all of 2007, and Dixon was beginning to long for home.

As he was planning to transfer to the University of Houston, which would bring him back home to friends and family, a second option presented itself. Dixon was chosen in the 7th round of the 2007 MLB Draft by the Houston Astros, then promptly sent to Troy, New York, to play for the Tri-City Dust Devils in the short-season-A NY-Penn League.

"I had a decent first summer in short-season Class-A when I signed," said Dixon. "After being drafted fairly high [the Astros' 5th overall pick; Houston had no 1st or 2nd round pick in 2007], I thought and hoped I would move quickly through the minor leagues."

"There were several factors that I think slowed that process. I'll be honest: I don't think I played to the ability of which I was capable."

Dixon had a solid, if unspectacular debut season, batting .256 with 5 homers and 40 RBI over 60 games with Tri-City. It was enough to land him in full-season Class-A in 2008, where he played with the Lexington Legends in the South Atlantic League. Dixon struggled through much of the season, finishing with a .237 average and only 33 RBI in 118 games. He went down on strikes 120 times, as well. He would return to Lexington in 2009 for 50 games and batted only .167 in 162 at-bats. Dixon finished the season back in Tri-City, batting .302 in 38 games.

Dixon is frank about his struggles in Class-A. He could read the writing on the wall. "I had a decent first summer in short-season Class-A when I signed," he mentions. "I always did really well in spring training, but ended up scuffling a lot my first full season in full-season A-ball, particularly in the second half."

It was around that time that the Astros were shaking things up in the front office.

"So I had my struggles, accompanied with the fact that Tim Purpura was the GM that drafted me," said Dixon. "See, after my first summer, he and a lot of the guys that worked for him were let go."

"Anytime there is a changeover at the top of a business, it has its effects all the way down the ladder."

As it turned out, Dixon was right; Houston ended up releasing or trading a number of players over the next few years. He was among the first of them.

" I was released in Spring Training of 2010. I tried to sign with a couple of indy teams but things ended up falling through," Dixon remembered. "I played in the California Winter League in January of 2011. Signed with Roswell of the Pecos League, went to one practice out there and decided it was time to hang 'em up and move on."

"I just felt, realistically, the window for me to actually get to the big leagues had come and gone."

Dixon knew he could probably catch on with some team, somewhere, but he didn't see the point. If he couldn't make it to the Majors, he wasn't going to try to fool himself. Dixon has a few special memories from his brief time in the pros, however, one of which was the fulfillment of a fantasy shared by many a young ballplayer.

"I will always remember making the All-Star team in the NY-Penn League, and getting to be a part of that all-star experience," Dixon recalled fondly. "I had my first Topps baseball card after making that team, and that is something I will certainly never forget."

"I absolutely loved Spring Training, every year. It feels just like yesterday. Most importantly, though, I remember the friendships and the camaraderie I had with my teammates. That's something, also, that I will never forget."

After three seasons in organized ball and a brief foray into the unaffiliated leagues, Dixon found himself out of the game at age twenty-five. The dream had ended almost as quickly as it began, and the now-former pro baseball player was left to find a new path to follow.

"It was definitely much harder than I anticipated," he mentioned. "I had always known that at some point or another it would end, but I didn't expect it to happen as soon as it did."

"I thought I would play ten years in the Major Leagues and retire on my own terms."

As the old saying goes, "life doesn't always go the way we had hoped." Still, Dixon has no regrets.

"As hard as it was, I wouldn't trade a minute of it for what I learned through it. I handled some things the wrong way in my post-playing days, but I learned from that and ultimately became a better man because of it."

Adversity affects different people in different ways. So much depends on the situation, the timing of an event, which determines how we deal with it. Dixon felt a sort of emptiness, inside; the feeling one might have for a lost love. In a way, that's exactly what had happened.

"I started to feel like a failure for not having reached the big leagues or made a career of playing baseball," Dixon confessed. "No matter how much my dad taught me the right things, always saying, 'Russell, baseball is what you do, not what you are,' I still wrestled with placing my identity in baseball rather than in my personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

"I felt a void in my life and slowly started to turn to things other than Jesus to fill that void -- alcohol and Adderall, in particular."

Dixon remembers those days clearly: "At first, it didn't seem like it was that bad. But the more Adderall I took, the more I could drink. The more I drank, the more Adderall I took. It became a vicious cycle."

"I began an 8-10 month downward spiral of addiction and alcohol issues. I didn't recognize the devastating effects of this lifestyle until some very dear friends approached me and voiced concerns about the direction my life was heading," he recalled.

Dixon came to a realization in March of 2012 that he was taking a great risk combining alcohol and the prescription Adderall he was taking, so he quit drinking. However, the amphetamine abuse was still an ever-present monkey on his back, and it was quickly spiraling out of control.

"My whole life was centered on changing the way I felt because I was so unhappy after baseball ended," Dixon confessed. What he said next was startling: "I had a three month prescription of Adderall in March of 2012, and I proceeded to take around 75-78 30 mg tablets in a 48-hour span."

"Most doctors tell me it's a miracle that I didn't go into cardiac arrest. I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired."

This was Dixon's "rock-bottom", as it is called by many former addicts. Many have to come to this point in their lives, a point often lower than they thought was possible, before a change takes place. Many don't survive the experience long enough to make that change. Dixon was fortunate, or perhaps blessed, to have come through what should have been a life-threatening overdose.

"I finally surrendered and checked into rehab at Bay Area Recovery Center. That place helped change my life."

Dixon credits Banks Kerr and Joe Shipley, who run the center, for helping him to see that there was a way out of this death spiral he found himself mired within; that he could let go of the pain of his perceived failure and begin to live his life once more.

"(Kerr and Shipley) are both recovered addicts, themselves," said Dixon, "so they are not just simply reading from a book. They have walked through it themselves and they can relate."

"I will be forever indebted to that place."

However, Dixon's faith, more than any other factor, had "made him whole", so to speak. Throughout it all, he had still retained his faith and belief in Jesus, and he believes that this faith made his recovery possible.

"My time in treatment was hard, but it was among the best three months of my life. One day at a time, little by little, God began to put the pieces of my life back together."

Dixon adds, "Many of my friends in treatment relapsed not long after they got out. There were guys there who battled all sorts of addictions: meth, heroin, you name it."

"Some of them have truly gotten free, but many struggle to stay sober."

Dixon has an appreciation for what he has survived, and is mindful that others who attended the recovery center during his stay were not so fortunate.

"One of my friends recently died from his addiction issues," he said, recalling that the long-term odds of recovery are daunting, at best. "The only way I am able to stay sober is to take it one day at a time, and continue to rely on (faith in) Jesus to keep me sober."

These days, Dixon has hope in his future. He pours himself into serving as pastor of the sports ministry at his church, helping coach the school's baseball team with former Astro and family friend Lance Berkman, and speaking with others who are passing through the very same shadows that once darkened his path.

From his guidebook to recovery, Dixon quoted the following passage: "Life will take on new meaning. To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up around you, to have a host of friends...this is an experience you must not miss. We know you will not want to miss it."

It is sometimes hard to understand the sort of fear and uncertainty that others endure. It's much easier to judge them for their mistakes and shortcomings, cursing their darkness instead of lighting a candle. But we all have our own demons to fight. Russell Dixon won this battle, and finds himself now able to simply accept himself for who he has become, instead of hating what he could not be.

"All of us are broken people; we just have different sorts of issues," he concluded. "I feel more prepared to be able to handle what life throws my way because of what God has brought me through, already."

"I am incredibly excited to see what lies ahead, and I truly believe that the best is yet to be."