OAKLAND, Calif. -- This is how far Jermaine Dye had fallen last October: The Oakland Athletics' $32 million man got pinch-hit for by backup catcher Adam Melhuse with the season on the line.
Now, Dye is healthy again and providing the kind of production the A's were eager to see from the outfielder who became the highest-paid player in team history when he signed in January 2002.
He is batting .321, best among the A's regulars, with seven home runs and 18 RBIs - already three more homers and only two fewer runs driven in than he had all of last season.
"This is the best I've felt in a couple of years," Dye said. "I'm not having to worry about anything. I just go out and play and have fun."
It's been some time since he's done that.
The 30-year-old Dye wasn't the same player after breaking his left leg - he fouled a ball off himself - in the 2001 playoffs against the New York Yankees.
Dye spent much of that winter on crutches. After hitting .252 in 2002, he felt better going into spring training, but then faced two more injuries that threw off his 2003 season.
Dye had arthroscopic knee surgery last April that forced him to miss 30 games, then he was sidelined for 50 more with a separated right shoulder. He never regained his rhythm at the plate.
He hit .172 with four homers and 20 RBIs last season - all career lows.
This spring, Dye had a team-leading 20 RBIs, a sign to the A's and to Dye that this could be a special season for the 6-foot-5, 220-pound right fielder.
The two-time defending AL West champion A's are depending on a healthy Dye to pick up the offensive slack after they lost MVP shortstop Miguel Tejada to Baltimore as a free agent.
Dye has taken over as the cleanup hitter.
"Losing Miggy, Jermaine is the perfect fit to fill that production," third baseman Eric Chavez said.
"He walks more and has a better on-base percentage, and he has a history of driving in runs. He and I make a better 3-4 than Miggy and I, because we were hot and cold. Jermaine provides a little more stability."
Dye has worked hard to get back to this level. He drove in 59 runs in 61 games after being acquired just before the trading deadline in 2001 to help lead the A's to the playoffs.
That came after his career year in 2000 for Kansas City, when he batted .321 with 33 home runs and 118 RBIs. He started in the All-Star game that summer - the first selection for the Royals since Bo Jackson in 1989 - and won a Gold Glove.
"It's good to get off to a good start so you don't have to battle back during the second month or the third month of the season," Dye said. "You can let your mind relax."
His offseason certainly wasn't relaxing - it was a daily grind.
Dye worked out five hours a day, five days a week to get back to top form. When he wasn't in the gym, he spent his time watching tapes from his time with the Royals, including that awesome 2000 season, to study what was working then so he could get back to it.
Dye has since tweaked his batting stance and choked up some on his bat - "pretty minor stuff," he says.
"I'm more thrilled for Jermaine the person," second-year skipper Ken Macha said. "To go through everything last year and come out and be as positive as he's been and to work so hard over the winter, he's getting a lot of big hits so far. Good things happen to good people. Let's hope it continues."
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