Before there was Jason Heyward, there was Jermaine Dye. On May 17, 1996, a then 22-year old Dye made his major league debut with the Braves. Like Heyward, Dye homered in his first at bat.
I vividly remember being at that game with a childhood friend of mine and his father. For a reason that now escapes me, we had to leave the game early. We were headed to the exit ramps of the old Atlanta Fulton-County stadium when Dye was called to pinch hit in the bottom of the 5th. (Obviously, with significantly less fanfare than Mr. Heyward.) I didn’t think much of it at the time: “Oh that’s the guy who was wearing #74 this spring … I guess one day he might be good.”
As we were leaving though, we heard the crowd erupt, and the voice on the loudspeaker informed us that the rook had become just the 72nd player to go deep in his first plate appearance. I ran back through the concourse just in time to peer through the tunnel and catch a glimpse of Dye rounding the bases. He went on to have a respectable rookie campaign, hitting .281 with 12 HR and finishing 6th in rookie of the year voting. That summer he was traded to the Royals for Michael Tucker and Keith Lockhart and he went on to have a fine career, also making stops in Oakland and the southside of Chicago.
Fifteen seasons and 324 home run later, that career could be over. Dye didn’t play at all in 2010 after failing to receive a contract offer he deemed suitable, and he likely won’t play in 2011 either. As he told Ken Rosenthal this week, he’d rather call it a career than accept a minor league offer.
And what a career it was. No, the lifetime numbers — two all-star games, one gold glove, one top-5 MVP finish — won’t get Dye into Cooperstown, but who cares? In the introduction to his superb series of Hall of Fame related posts, Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski illustrates how good you have to be just to not be inducted.
Every year, the ballot features a few players who, frankly, look kind of silly on a Hall of Fame ballot. The funny thing about most of these players is that they are probably better than we remember. For instance, last year Todd Zeile was on the Hall of Fame ballot. Todd Zeile? He did not receive a single vote, to no one’s surprise.
But you know what? Todd Zeile was a good player. He got 2,000 hits in the major leagues. He drove in 90-plus runs five times. He played five positions, and even pitched a couple of innings.
He was not a Hall of Famer, not close to a Hall of Famer, but that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? To play 10 years of major league baseball — a qualification just to get on the ballot — means that you must be one of the very best baseball players on earth.
To achieve so much … to reach the very height of your profession … it is an extraordinary thing to be a baseball player with 10 years of big league experience, an even more extraordinary thing to achieve enough to get on the Hall of Fame ballot. And then, you get there and it is STILL miles and miles and miles to go before you get to the Hall of Famers. It is still the gap between Todd Zeile and Cooperstown.
Bolstering this point, only two of the “HR in first AB” club (which now has 108 members, including names like Gene Stechschulte and Charlton Jimerson) ended up in the Hall of Fame. Two out of 108. So it’s not a surprise that Jermaine Dye’s career left him short of greatness. Short of greatness is where most baseball careers end up. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that for 15 seasons, Jermaine Dye was a damn good baseball player, and damn good baseball players don’t come around everyday. I’ll always remember Jermaine Dye, if only for the time I almost saw him hit his first dinger.
The moral of this story – if you take your son to a ballgame, and a rookie is coming to the plate to make his debut, don’t let him leave his seat for anything. There’s a small possibility that you could witness the start of something great, or at the least, something very good, and equally memorable.