On a tarmac at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, fatigued but satisfied after two victories at Camden Yards, the Royals piled into their 757 charter jet. Inside the plane, the seat-back televisions showed MLB Network. The broadcast revealed a two-sentence quote gathering steam on social media, the bold proclamation of Jarrod Dyson.
Dyson’s words — the briefly infamous “No sir, I don’t” prediction for a return date in Baltimore — scrolled across the bottom of the screen. His teammates dissolved into laughter. Dyson opted to diminish his role on the field while amplifying his perceived purpose.
“Y’all stay focused,” Dyson told the group. “I’ll do the talking.”
On these Royals, a group bound for the World Series, Dyson wears a variety of hats. He is a fourth outfielder. He is a pinch runner and late-game defensive replacement. He also doubles as their chattering backbone and swaggering id, unleashing a patter of needles and encouragement that teammates say loosens up both the dugout and the clubhouse.
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Years ago, Dyson coined the line “That’s what speed do,” which distills his perception into one pithy phrase. He wields blazing legs and a mouth to match. Yet beneath the bluster resides a 30-year-old man weathered by the hardships of his youth and strengthened by the roadblocks of his journey.
Dyson earned his braggadocio along a path with few big-league comparisons. He spent his youth in public housing in rural Mississippi. He was drafted in a round that no longer exists. He couldn’t crack a starting lineup in his first three seasons in the minors. A toothache almost ended his career. A defiant spirit — and those prized legs — carried him to the majors, where his obstinacy once threatened to derail him.
“I’m like an inspiration to this team,” Dyson said one day earlier this summer. “Because of what I’ve been through and where I’ve come from. To still make it to the big leagues, it’s huge.”
An air-conditioned afternoon at Tropicana Field. The Royals were skidding into the All-Star break, but Dyson paid no mind. His targets included anyone within his sight line, from usual foil Billy Butler to good friend Eric Hosmer to fellow outfielder Lorenzo Cain.
“What would it be like without me?” Dyson asked.
“Quiet,” Cain said.
Junior Vizcaino cannot recall the exact location, but he figures it was a Waffle House. Across the table sat Brian Rhees, the Royals area scout in Mississippi. Vizcaino, his regional supervisor, had met Rhees during the 2006 season to see a pitcher for a tiny school called Southwest Mississippi Community College. Rhees also mentioned a speedy outfielder he “kind of liked,” Vizcaino recalled.
When they got to the ballpark, Rhees snagged a copy of the lineup. The name “Jarrod Dyson” was penciled in the No. 4 spot. Vizcaino expected the quick-footed object of Rhees’ affection to bat at either the top or the bottom of the order. His place in the batting order was intriguing. So were his Dyson’s legs.
Scouts for at least a dozen other teams attended the game, Vizcaino said. But he appeared to be the only one interested in the undersized cleanup hitter. He clocked Dyson at 4.1 seconds down the first-base line, elite speed that graded out as an “80,” the top of the scouting scale. When Dyson batted, Vizcaino pretended to engross himself in conversation with Rhees.
“I scouted him not drawing attention to him,” Vizcaino said. “I didn’t want anybody to know that I was looking at him.”
Rhees maintained a relationship with Dyson. During the draft that June, he called Vizcaino to remind him about their trip to Mississippi and his confidence he could sign Dyson. As multiple members of the front office recall the tale, they were prepared to draft another player in the 50th round. Then Vizcaino spoke to scouting director Deric Ladnier.
“Deric, how would you like to get an 80-tool with your 50th pick?” Vizcaino said.
“What are you talking about?” Ladnier replied.
Vizcaino insisted he had seen Dyson run and the scouting grade was true. He became the 1,475th player taken in the draft. In 2012, the draft was trimmed to 40 rounds. Nearly a decade later, Royals director of player development Scott Sharp still cannot believe a player with Dyson’s talent was available that late.
“You knew you could refine and develop his game around that one really special tool,” Sharp said. “Because it wasn’t just marginally better, or a little bit better than everyone else. It was just so superior to most guys playing the game.”
A placid morning at Target Field. Dyson leaned back in his chair.
“Hey, man, it took somebody to believe in me when I didn’t,” he said. “That’s how I made it.”
In the spring of 2009, after Dyson spent three seasons receiving only morsels of playing time in the minors, he met with Sharp.
Sharp had to inform him his career was in jeopardy.
Dyson’s draft status was the first strike against him. The second was a suspension looming over his head for violating the minor-league performance-enhancing drug policy. In a wicked twist, he only had his mouth to blame.
One night that previous winter, Dyson explained, he suffered a toothache that wrought agony and insomnia. He took some pain medication “I shouldn’t have took” and fell asleep. A subsequent drug test revealed traces of amphetamine. He was suspended for the first 50 games of the season.
“Everybody thought I was taking something to make me faster,” Dyson said. “I’m like, ‘I’m fast enough, dude.’ ”
The Royals believed him, but the outcome still stung. At the team’s complex in Surprise, Ariz., Sharp explained the consequences of Dyson’s mistake. “The next suspension would have been so significant that it probably would have been it,” Sharp said.
Even this reprieve begs a question. The organization had invested so little in Dyson. He was a 24-year-old backup outfielder with a .288 slugging percentage the season before in Class A. Why not just release him?
“We thought he had ability,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “If you don’t believe in his ability, then it makes that decision a lot easier. He was showing improvement. And he had that tool that we just didn’t have in our system.”
Dyson spent the first two months of the year in Arizona. When his suspension lifted, the team assigned him to Class A Burlington because they lacked space elsewhere. He soon grew close with a teenage Hosmer.
“He’s a guy that’s been facing adversity his whole life,” Hosmer said. “He’s probably the most confident person I’ve been around. Hanging out with him, that confidence rubs off on you.”
Dyson hit .343 in the Midwest League. During their All Star break, he went with Hosmer to Omaha for the College World Series. After one night there, Dyson received a call from the front office. A player in Class AA had gotten hurt. This was his chance. He drove back through the night in Hosmer’s car, packed a bag in the wee hours of the morning and flew to meet his opportunity.
Dyson did not disappoint. He stole 37 bases in 63 games for Northwest Arkansas. He spent two months after the season playing in the instructional league and the Arizona Fall League. As Dyson boarded his flight home to Mississippi, Sharp called him. Just months after their preseason meeting, in which Dyson learned he was one mistake away from a release, Sharp relayed that the Royals were adding him to the 40-man roster.
Dyson tried to stay stoic.
“Are you happy?” Sharp asked. “You don’t sound happy.”
“I’m very excited,” Dyson admitted. “Man, I appreciate the opportunity.”
The next September, the team jumped him from Class AAA Omaha to the big-league club.
“When I came up, the first day in The Show, I was on a mission, to be honest with you, man,” Dyson said. “My mind-set was like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to show these guys you deserve to stay here. You’re getting older. You’ve had your chances. You’re on thin ice. You’ve got to prove yourself right now.’ ”
It took him four more years to spend a full season in the majors.
A sweltering day at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas. It was 4:41 p.m., and the Royals were scheduled to stretch a minute earlier. Cain, Dyson and a few others remained inside. Into the clubhouse barged Rusty Kuntz, their beloved first-base coach, squawking and barking as he wrangled the stragglers.
“Clean it up, player!” Dyson said. “Clean it up.”
“You clean it up,” Kuntz said. “This place is becoming a country club!”
Kuntz reminded the duo that strength and conditioning coach Ryan Stoneberg was waiting. They couldn’t contain their grins as they walked into the intolerable Texas heat.
“Let me know when Stoney plays nine innings,” Dyson said.
“Yeah,” Kuntz said. “Let me know when you play two days in a row.”
Another glorious October night at Kauffman Stadium. An armada of television cameras encircled Dyson for nearly half an hour after Kansas City’s third consecutive win over Baltimore. He scored the winning run, then was repeatedly asked to heighten his rhetoric from earlier in the week. Dyson declined to bite. When the herd thinned, he looked harried.
“I’m good,” he said. “I just want to find my son.”
Jarrod Martel Dyson, Jr., is eight. He lives in Mississippi with his mother. Dyson flew him up to Kansas City for the occasion. He peeked outside the clubhouse and searched the throng of fans, friends and family for his kin.
Dyson had little relationship with his biological father, who died a few years ago. He grew up in a public-housing complex in McComb, Miss., called The Bricks. Dyson painted the neighborhood as tolerable, but rife with drug dealing and violence. He heard gun shots “every blue moon,” he said.
An outlet emerged in former of a man named Jerry Hill, who was the father of Dyson’s three older brothers. Dyson still calls Hill “my dad.” On the weekends, Hill loaded a cooler full of Gatorade and took the kids to the park. They fielded grounders and swam as a reward for their hard work.
Dyson avoided baseball in middle school and only played three years in high school. He lacked the grades for a four-year college, so he settled at a junior college about 10 minutes away from home.
He worked out with the football team during summer practice. Before the season began, Dyson said, he quit after he missed a meeting. He claimed it was an accident. The coach attempted to punish him with extra conditioning. Dyson told him not to bother.
In a quiet moment at his locker this summer, Dyson lamented turning his back on football, a sport he adored. But his bigger regret was interrupting his development as a baseball player.
“All my days that I took off of baseball, I feel like I’m paying for it,” Dyson said. “Because I’m basically teaching myself new stuff over and over again. It probably would have just been natural to me if I had never quit.”
Dyson lacked polish as an outfielder. Before this season, too often he swung for the fences. Kuntz lamented that one of the least-productive moments of Dyson’s career was his 2010 homer into the fountains at Kauffman Stadium. Dyson refused to take the advice of his coaches about hitting the ball on the ground.
“It was every day, all day,” Kuntz said. “Every day, all day. Every day, all day. And it was like ‘Is this guy ever going to get it?’ Oh my God. You wouldn’t imagine how many meetings there was on that. ‘Do we turn the page? Is this guy ever going to get it?’”
The Royals noticed progress this season. Dyson embraced the concept of bunting. He came to relish his hybrid role, playing the final three innings of the game as a defensive replacement for Nori Aoki. The outfield combination of Dyson, Cain and Alex Gordon has proved impassable for fly balls.
After this season, Dyson will be eligible for arbitration for the first time. He could be in line for his first seven-figure payday. He still dreams of his future as a big-league starter. The prospect of 600 at-bats in a season causes him to salivate.
“I’m going to go out there and ball out,” Dyson said. “That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to lead the league in something. Probably multiple categories.”
The mouth and the legs, intertwined as always.
“Coming from where I came from, dude, I play with a chip on my shoulder,” Dyson said. “Because I feel like I’ve always got to prove myself. I feel like there’s more doubters of me than people saying I can get the job done. I want to prove to everybody that you ain’t giving me nothing. I’m going to earn this.”