Many greats have patrolled the outfield at Kauffman Stadium over the years. Amos Otis. Willie Wilson. Lorenzo Cain. But rarely have the Royals had three great outfielders. In fact, very rarely does any team find three All-Star caliber outfielders. But for one brief period of time, the Royals had just that, an outfield that was the envy of baseball.
Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, and Jermaine Dye spent just three full seasons together, but they were the most dynamic outfield in baseball when they patrolled the Kansas City outfield. Damon provided the elite speed, leading the league in stolen bases, and providing the kind of gap power perfectly suited for Kauffman Stadium. Jermaine Dye was the slugger, capable of smacking 30 home runs with a rifle for an arm in right field. And Carlos Beltran was the wunderkind who could do it all - run, throw, field, hit for average, and hit for power. For a moment, it seemed like they would lead the Royals out of the cellar and into the promised land. Sadly, the harsh realities of baseball closed the door almost as quickly as it had opened.
Outfields with three 4.5+ WAR players, since 1969
|1969||Pirates||Matty Alou||Roberto Clemente||Willie Stargell|
|1969||Orioles||Paul Blair||Don Buford||Frank Robinson|
|1970||Orioles||Paul Blair||Merv Rettenmund||Frank Robinson|
|1975||Athletics||Reggie Jackson||Bill North||Claudell Washington|
|1980||Astros||Cesar Cedeno||Jose Cruz||Terry Puhl|
|1980||Athletics||Tony Armas||Rickey Henderson||Dwayne Murphy|
|1991||Athletics||Jose Canseco||Dave Henderson||Rickey Henderson|
|1999||Royals||Carlos Beltran||Johnny Damon||Jermaine Dye|
|2006||Blue Jays||Reed Johnson||Alex Rios||Vernon Wells|
|2012||Braves||Michael Bourn||Jason Heyward||Martin Prado|
Johnny Damon was billed as the next great Royals superstar before he even reached the big leagues. The franchise was trying to transition out of the shadow of superstar George Brett, who retired two seasons before Damon debuted in 1995. The team tried to highlight that transition in an ad showing Damon wrestling away a remote control from Brett, a none-too-subtle indication of the kind of hopes the franchise was pinning on the young outfielder.
After Damon’s first full season in 1996, a season with mixed results, the Royals made an interesting gamble that winter, shipping former first round pick Michael Tucker to the Braves in a deal that netted them young slugger Jermaine Dye. It was a head-scratching deal to many observers, including the usually optimistic Joe Posnanski, who wrote that the trade was “just one of those moves that hurts a team, even if Dye turns out to be good, which is no guarantee by the way.”
Dye struggled mightily at the plate and was beset with injuries his first two seasons. Meanwhile, late season slumps would give Damon pedestrian numbers, giving Royals fans doubts he would ever live up to his billing. At the end of the 1998 season, there was no indication the Royals were onto something great.
Then Carlos Beltran came up. Originally a second-round pick out of Puerto Rico, Beltran had struggled in Wilmington (who doesn’t) before a huge season in AA Wichita got him ranked one of the top prospects in baseball. He made the 1999 Opening Day lineup as the centerfielder, flanked on his left by Johnny Damon with Jermaine Dye to his right. None were more than 25 years old.
The three proved to be a dynamic defensive trio, the only outfield in baseball with three players worth 0.5 dWAR or more that year. But they could hit too. Damon had his first .300 season, swiped a career-high 36 bases and scored 101 runs. Beltran became the first rookie in 23 years to score 100 runs and drive in 100 runs in his inaugural season, hitting .293 with 22 home runs and 27 steals. And Jermaine Dye finally put it all together to hit .294/.354/.526 with 27 home runs. The Royals lost 97 games, but it seemed like they were on the right track.
“The sky is the limit. This is definitely the greatest feeling I’ve had about the future. I wish part of that future happens next year. We know we have the talent.’’
But the future was brief. Damon and Dye went on to have monster seasons in 2000, a year in which the team set a franchise record in runs scored. Damon hit .327, leading the league in steals (46) and runs scored (136). Dye challenged the single-season home run record with 33 dingers, was voted into the All-Star Game, and won his first Gold Glove. But Beltran suffered a knee injury and his struggles that year were marred by a conflict with the organization on the treatment of the injury. Despite all that offense, the Royals lost 85 games.
Also overshadowing the season was the contract situation for all three players. Johnny Damon could be a free agent after the 2001 season, and while his agent Scott Boras had talks on a deal with the club, trade rumors swirled all season. Jermaine Dye seemed open to a three-year deal to keep him in Kansas City a bit longer. Carlos Beltran was not even eligible for arbitration yet, but Royals fans almost seemed to be nervously eyeing the calendar for the day when he would leave.
Damon would be traded that winter to the Athletics. Dye would be gone the next spring to Oakland as well. Beltran would be shipped away in 2004 to the Astros (although the Athletics were still involved!). The Royals had three mega-talents in the prime of their career. In return for all of those players, the Royals received catchers John Buck and A.J. Hinch, infielders Angel Berroa, Neifi Perez, and Mark Teahen, and pitchers Roberto Hernandez and Mike Wood. That gets people fired.
Beltran, Damon, and Dye all went on to have length Major League careers - Beltran may end up in Cooperstown someday. They combined for 6,389 games palyed, 7,273 hits, 995 home runs, 13 All-Star Games, and four championships, each with at least one ring.
Some fans may still have animosity towards the players for not sticking around. But let’s remember, they were all traded. Considering how bad the Royals had been, you can’t really fault the players for not sticking around to see more losses. And while the Royals may have made long-term offers, they probably weren’t as competitive as what the players could have made on the open market - remember, David Glass had just purchased the team and was in a fight to show how bad small market teams had it under the system. He wasn’t about to open the pocketbook at that point.
If anything, we should celebrate these players for giving us hope, excitement, and brief joy in an otherwise terrible time to be a Royals fan. This weekend they will be back and I hope Royals fans give them a standing ovation. Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, and Carlos Beltran may not have won many games in Kansas City, but for a brief moment, they were damn fun to watch.