Jermaine Dye hit a home run in his first major league at bat, in 1996, and played in the World Series that fall as a rookie with the Braves. Since then, however, Dye, now the Royals' rightfielder, has seen his career path take a few twists—not to mention strains and tears. "Everybody in this game evaluates tendencies," says Kansas City manager Tony Muser. "A guy has a tendency to hit lefties. A guy has a tendency to steal. Jermaine had a tendency to get hurt."
Dye's Job-like streak began after the 1996 season, during which he filled in for an injured David Justice and hit .281 with 12 home runs in 292 at bats for Atlanta. Dye was traded to the Royals the next spring. Twelve games into the season Dye's severely bruised left foot, which he first injured early in spring training, put him out of action. Disabled list for 16 days. He returned to hit .236 in 75 games that season but not before straining his right quadriceps in early July. Disabled list for 41 days. Last year he reported to spring training in what he termed the best shape of his life, only to strain his left quadriceps. Disabled list for 38 days. Dye spent five weeks at Triple A Omaha before returning to Kansas City. Then, on Aug. 31, he twisted his right knee while getting into his car after shopping at Wal-Mart and tore cartilage. Disabled list for the remainder of the season (27 days). "There were more tough times than good times," Dye says. "All I wanted was a chance to play healthy."
He may finally be getting it. In the first week of April the Royals traded Jeff Conine to the Orioles, giving Dye, 25, the full-time rightfield job. He has responded by hitting .309 with a team-high 11 home runs and 33 RBIs through Sunday. More impressive has been his defense. The last two years, nagged by injuries, Dye was unpredictable and, at times, sloppy in the outfield. This year, through Sunday, he had only two errors and led the American League with seven outfield assists. He has come through with a series of dramatic plays, including, on April 10, a diving grab of a deep fly by the White Sox' Frank Thomas into the gap in right center with one out and two on in the seventh inning and the Royals ahead 7-3. Says Muser, "He's improved 100 percent."
Dye grew up north of Oakland. His father, Bill, worked in San Francisco, driving a city bus back and forth between downtown and Candlestick Park. During games, father and son would get general admission seats and watch the Giants play. "That's how I really got into baseball," Jermaine says. "It was a chance to see the players up close." His favorite was power-hitting outfielder Chili Davis. Dye liked Davis's style—stoic, completely professional. After playing basketball, baseball and football at Will C. Wood High in Vacaville, Calif., and concentrating on baseball for one year at Cosumnes River College, a J.C. in Sacramento, Dye was selected by Atlanta in the 17th round of the 1993 draft. He was tall and lanky at 6'4" and 195 pounds but unusually strong. There was some debate over where he would play. In high school and college he had been mainly a pitcher. "That's where I thought I had a future," Dye says. "I had a fastball, a slider and a changeup. I bet I can still get guys out."
Things don't always go as expected. Sometimes you become an outfielder. Sometimes you're a rookie playing in the World Series. Sometimes you simply step into a car the wrong way.