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Force Three
Jeff Pearlman
April 17, 2000
The hard-hitting young Kansas City outfield storms to the top
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April 17, 2000

Force Three

The hard-hitting young Kansas City outfield storms to the top

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Royal Runaround
Last season Kansas City's unheralded outfield of Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye combined to drive in more runs than any other outfield trio in the major leagues, including the star-laden threesomes below.

TEAM

OUTFIELD

RBIS

Royals

Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye

298

Orioles

Brady Anderson, Albert Belle, B.J. Surhoff

282

Rockies

Dante Bichette, Darryl Hamilton, Larry Walker

265

Braves

Andruw Jones, Brian Jordan, Gerald Williams

264

Indians

David Justice, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez

264

SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU

He came to Kansas City four years ago, a naive, raw rookie with a ton of enthusiasm and a dream. Dammit! Mike Levy told himself, I'm going to be the best vice president of marketing and communications around! So what if Levy knew absolutely nothing of his new team, the poor, punchless Royals? Levy may have been green, but he recognized a catchy name when he heard one. " Johnny Damon," he purrs. "Just say it—Johnny Damon. It sounds like a guy in a leather jacket, riding a Harley. A hero's name."

In the world of p.r., who could ask for anything more than a player with a cool moniker and a warm smile? Within days Levy arranged a TV promo for the team, starring the then 22-year-old Damon and retired K.C. star George Brett, in which the two sit in front of a TV, each holding a remote control. Brett switches the channel to his preference; Damon switches the channel to his. "Gimme that!" Brett finally yells, swiping the remote from Damon's left hand. As the spot ends, Brett turns to Damon and flashes his 1985 World Series ring. "You've got to win one of these first."

During the 1996 season, his first full one in the majors, Damon was asked time and again to compare himself with Brett, a Hall of Fame third baseman; the questioning reached a point at which Kansas City executives all but ordered reporters to stop. "Really, I thought it was a good idea at the time," Levy says of his marketing ploy. "There just wasn't a lot to say about Royals baseball."

Deep in the heart of baseball nowhere—in the land of $25 million payrolls and Buddy Biancalana vigils—resides a trio of young (average age: 25) outfielders who are fast, powerful, graceful, personable and obscure. "I hear some people talk about the best young outfield," says Kansas City lefthander Jose Rosado. " Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye are awesome. They aren't the best young outfield. They're the best outfield."

Last season, as the youthful Royals went 64-97, leftfielder Damon, centerfielder Beltran and rightfielder Dye combined to lead all major league outfield trios with 546 hits, 108 doubles, 24 triples, 298 RBIs and 41 assists, while ranking second in runs, with 304. Last week, as K.C. opened its season by winning an encouraging five of eight games, Dye picked up where he'd left off, hitting .419 with five doubles, three homers and seven runs batted in. Beltran had a homer, seven RBIs and a .265 average. Damon, the leadoff hitter, batted only .222, but on Monday his ninth-inning solo homer off Minnesota Twins righty reliever LaTroy Hawkins gave the Royals a 6-5 win.

Damon and Beltran are products of the Kansas City farm system, drafted in 1992 and '95, respectively; each has classic good looks, a quick smile and a flashy, almost cocky, on-field demeanor. When Damon was called up from the Double A Wichita Wranglers in August '95 and began exhibiting his headfirst slides, diving catches and penchant for hitting triples (he has 37 in five years), he became a fan favorite and, like it or not, a potential successor to Brett as Mr. Royal. He still doesn't like the comparison—"I'm no George Brett, and I probably never will be," Damon says—but pressure hasn't bothered him since '92, when, as a senior at Orlando's Dr. Phillips High, he was regularly introduced before games as "the nation's Number 1 player on the nation's Number 1 team...."

"Can you get any more pressure than that?" says Damon. "Probably not."

Despite back-to-back seasons in which he averaged 103 runs, 179 hits, 35 doubles, 10 triples, 16 home runs and 31 stolen bases—numbers that make him one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball—Damon is unheralded outside of Kansas City and Orlando. His teammates are appreciative ( Royals righthander Jeff Suppan pumped his fist in salute last Saturday after Damon robbbed Minnesota's Todd Walker with a sliding catch), and he's paid a team-high $4 million, but that's relatively paltry by big league standards. That's why several teams—including the New York Mets and the New York Yankees—have approached K.C. about acquiring Damon. "There are clubs with higher payrolls in bigger markets that would give anything to have Johnny, because he's the one piece that a club thinks can cement the playoffs or World Series," says Royals general manager Herk Robinson. So is he available? "No way," says Robinson. "He's just too important here."

The same can be said for Beltran, the 1999 American League Rookie of the Year. Three years ago, while with the Class A Wilmington Blue Rocks, Beltran batted .229, but that was partly because—out of the blue—he had decided to become a switch-hitter. "I knew I would be terrible," says Beltran, who was a natural righthanded hitter. "I also knew switch-hitting would not just help me reach the majors but also make me an every-day player." The following year Beltran batted .276 for Wilmington and then, after a promotion, .352 for Wichita. Last spring Royals manager Tony Muser kept Beltran on the Opening Day roster for his defense and got offense. Beltran hit .293 with 112 runs, 22 homers and 108 RBIs, becoming the first rookie to clear both 100 runs and 100 RBIs since the Boston Red Sox' Fred Lynn in '75. This year Beltran's outfield play is receiving added respect, as evidenced in Sunday's 13-7 Minnesota victory by the way Twins coach Ron Gardenhire held base runner Torii Hunter at third on a Cristian Guzman single rather than test Beltran's arm. "I've said this all along," says Damon. "Carlos is the most gifted baseball player I've ever seen."

Folks have never uttered such words about Dye, although when he arrived on the campus of Cosumnes River ( Calif.) Community College as a freshman in 1992, coach Rod Beilby thought Dye had a potentially dominant arm. After all, Dye, a pitcher out of Will C. Wood High in Vacaville, Calif., had been drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 47th round. (He didn't sign.) "I remember his first game for me. He threw the ball up, down, wide left, wide right," says Beilby. "I said, 'This guy's an outfielder.' "

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