La Casita, the best of the three Mexican restaurants in Porter, Texas, has a decor only a blind person could dig. The concrete floors are the color of storm clouds. The walls are a heinous aqua. The menus are coated with a sticky plastic that appears to have entrapped particles of food from the eatery's grand opening 3 1/2 years back. Don't even ask about the bathrooms.
One day this past winter Cincinnati Reds outfielder Adam Dunn, 22 years old and proud to be a lifelong Porter Rican--as some townsfolk jokingly call themselves--stopped at La Casita for his favorite meal: chicken fajita nachos and an iced tea. The next day he again stopped at La Casita for chicken fajita nachos and an iced tea. And the next day. And the next.... For 15 straight days Dunn made the quarter-mile drive from his parents' house to La Casita, sat down and ordered chicken fajita nachos and an iced tea. He wasn't being superstitious. He just likes the food.
The basics of life make Dunn, the Reds' slugging leftfielder and emerging star, a happy man. Prada and Porsche and pommes soufflees? As Dunn likes to say, in his best Johnny Cash drawl, "Heeeeelllll no." Though he got an $800,000 signing bonus from the Reds after they selected him in the second round of the 1998 amateur draft, will make a healthy $260,000 this season and, if last year's production--19 homers and 43 RBIs in only 66 games--is an indicator, should collect superstar dollars for years to come, Dunn describes himself as "a small-town redneck hick." He even whips out a canister of snuff from his back pocket to prove it.
Dunn owns four suits, all of which he has purchased within the past year, but has worn only two. During the off-season his daily schedule went something like this: hunt, fish, hunt again, maybe fish a little more, eat chicken fajita nachos at La Casita, fish again, three hours of PlayStation, hunt, go four-wheeling, eat dinner at home, hunt and then sleep (all the while dreaming of hunting and fishing). While most of his Porter peers can't wait to be able to afford to leave home, Dunn is content to continue occupying a small bedroom in the house of his parents, Skip, a welding-equipment salesman, and Pat, a stay-at-home mother. Seeing the 6'6", 260-pound mass of muscle lumber through the modest ranch-style home is like watching a water buffalo squeeze through a pipe. "He could move," says Dunn's friend Brian Peters, "but he'd rather have his parents pay the bills and do his laundry."
Dunn is as pleasingly simple as his hometown, a nondescript 7,000-person burg 40 miles north of Houston, where cows graze and a haircut costs $7. The Dunns have resided in Porter for 40 years, since Skip's father, James, and uncles T.J. and Freeman decided Houston was too bustling. Branching off Porter's main thoroughfare is Dunn Lane, a blacktop strip that leads to nine houses, all of which are occupied by relatives of Adam's. On Thanksgiving and Christmas 80 to 110 family members gather in the family rec hall near the Dunn Lane cul-de-sac.
"It's always been family first for me," says Adam. "No matter how well my career goes, nobody here will ask anything of me. I'm just another Dunn to them."
Says Johnny Almaraz, the Reds' assistant director of scouting, "What Adam is as a professional hitter is what he is as a human being. He's simple. Other young guys constantly think, I've got to do this and I've got to do that, and before you know it, they're all twisted up. Adam is a pure natural hitter. He just hits."
It has been that simple since Skip first instructed four-year-old Adam, the middle of three sons, to swing at a batting tee. Although Adam is naturally righthanded, Skip immediately noticed that when Adam hit from the left side, the ball soared twice as far. Adam has been a lefthanded hitter and righthanded thrower ever since. "Otherwise, there was nothing I did to make him a good ballplayer," says Skip. "Adam deserves all the credit."
Last year the Reds expected Dunn--who in 2000 had batted .281 with 16 homers and 79 RBIs in 122 games at Class A Dayton--to continue to make progress with the Double A Chattanooga Lookouts, perhaps earning a late-season promotion to the Triple A Louisville River Bats. The plan went out the window after Dunn exploded (.343, 12 homers and 31 RBIs in 39 games for Chattanooga, then .329, 20 dingers and 53 RBIs in 55 games for Louisville) and after Cincinnati imploded en route to a 96-loss season. Dunn was, Reds manager Bob Boone says, the perfect call-up. "We have a history in this game of calling guys 'the next Mickey Mantle'; then they come up and fail," says Boone. "Adam is different. He doesn't let things get to him."
When he approaches the plate, Dunn isn't thinking about the game situation or his last at bat. (Although he watches tape of the opposing pitcher before each game, he says he is getting only a quick overview.) Asked to sum up his thoughts when he steps in against the pitcher, Dunn smiles and utters four words, pure as a Porter sunrise: "See ball. Hit ball."
Dunn says that while he was playing for the Class A Rockford Reds in 1999, his second year as a pro, dozens of "experts" within the Cincinnati organization tried getting him to make adjustments in his stance. "I had 35 people each saying 10 different things," he says. "Raise your hands. Drop your hands. Stand closer to the plate. Stand away. It's death to a young guy." Finally Jim Hickman, a minor league hitting instructor for the Reds, pulled Dunn aside and told him, "Adam, just go up there and rake."
That was Dunn's plan last July 19, after Dave Miley, the Louisville manager, called--a second time--to congratulate him on making the Show. When Miley called the first time, Dunn laughed and hung up on him. "I thought it was [teammate] Brandon Larson messing with me," Dunn says. The following night, in his first major league at bat, he faced Florida Marlins righthander Matt Clement in the second inning and took a called third strike. Two innings later Dunn stroked his first big league hit, a single to right off Clement.
Recalling last summer, Dunn says he learned more about hitting from those 66 games in the majors than from thousands of previous at bats beginning in Little League. His 12 home runs in August set a National League rookie record for a month. However, in September he batted just .227 with two homers. It was around that time that Dunn stopped lifting weights. "I was tired, and I gave up conditioning myself," he says. "Stupid move. As a hitter you have to work out all year to stay sharp."
Even more frustrating for Dunn were his 74 strikeouts in 244 at bats, shocking for a player with enough bat control and patience to evoke comparisons with a young Todd Helton. The whiff total was, says Dunn, the result of taking too many good pitches in search of the perfect one. "He'd get called out on strikes and say, 'Skip, that pitch was two inches outside,'" says Boone. "I'd say, 'I know, but if they call it a strike, it's probably close enough.'"
This spring Cincinnati's coaches made a point of working with Dunn on early pitch recognition. "I was way too patient, and it gave pitchers an edge," Dunn says. "This year I'm not taking so many gifts."
Boone, sitting behind his desk in the Reds' spring training facility, has never been inclined to hype young players. "Gets into their heads," he says. Yet, he adds, "very few guys have ever come up and dominated as Adam did. In five or six years I believe he'll be in a class with Sosa, Bonds and Helton."
In Porter, folks are just beginning to catch on that Dunn is starting for the Cincinnati Reds, not the Cincinnati Bengals. Texas is, after all, a football state, and Dunn is, after all, the best quarterback in the history of New Caney High, where he threw for 4,792 yards and 44 touchdowns. As a senior in 1998 he signed a letter of intent to attend Texas on a football scholarship. Could the NFL be far behind? "Adam was so athletic," says Longhorns coach Mack Brown. "To be that tall and to run that well, he would've been a great player here."
One problem: On the side Dunn was wowing major league scouts. "He threw 94 miles an hour, he ran four flat down the line, and he could hit a ball 400 feet," says Almaraz, who scouted and signed Dunn. "His power was unbelievable." Almaraz considers Dunn the most skilled player he has seen in seven years of scouting. The runner-up? Kid named Alex Rodriguez.
Dunn made it clear to the scouts that he was committed to playing two sports. Thus Cincinnati stole him in the second round, content to wait for Dunn to play out his career at Texas but hoping it could pry him from the gridiron sooner rather than later. Dunn spent his first year with the Longhorns as a frustrated redshirt quarterback, and by the time spring practice rolled around, he was fed up with the Texas program. "When I signed, I made it clear that I wanted to only play quarterback," he says. "I thought that was understood." With starting quarterback Major Applewhite only a sophomore, however, Longhorns coaches used spring drills to try Dunn at tight end. Dunn didn't like the idea. He called home and said that at the end of spring practice he would drop football for a full-time baseball career. "College football is brutal," Dunn says. "If you're not kissing the right person's a--, you're done. I figured I might as well play baseball, make money and have fun."
Says Brown, "We're really proud of Adam. Clearly he made the right decision." In Porter that will be eternally debated. People still talk about The Quarterback in mythic terms. Remember that game against Vidor? The one where he...?
"Nobody round here cares much for baseball," says Dunn, driving through town in his white Ford Excursion. Two minutes later he pulls into a red barn filled with sodas and cereal boxes and condoms. There is an old man standing behind a cash register, near a sign that reads BUY A JUMBO SHRIMP DINNER, GET A FREE LOTTO TICKET. The store is called Quickie Pickie. Shoppers never leave their cars. "Let me show you how lazy us Porter Ricans are," Dunn says. He leans out the window, asks the man for a $3.97 canister of snuff, hands over a $5 bill and kindly says, "Keep the change."
As he drives away, Dunn has Kid Rock blasting over the stereo and a smile on his face. The sun is shining. The fish are biting. La Casita is just a short roll down the road. And it's lunchtime.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BEN VAN HOOK
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Keep it simple A baseball player in a football player's body, Dunn has learned the secret to a good at bat: "See ball. Hit ball."
COLOR PHOTO: M. DAVID LEEDS/GETTY IMAGES (JOHNSON) Show time The big bat of Johnson (far left) and the strong arm of Beckett will be counted on from the get-go.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERTO BOREA/AP [See caption above]
B/W PHOTO: AP Stick Willie In 52 games in 1959, McCovey, just 21, gave a preview of his Hall of Fame career.
Here's a look at some rookies who could make a big league name for themselves in the next few weeks--or later in the season, as Adam Dunn did in 2001.
Josh Beckett, RHP, Marlins After being picked second in the 1999 draft, he boldly predicted he'd pitch in the 2001 All-Star Game. With a 97-mph fastball and a Dwight Gooden curve, he might have been just a year off.
Hank Blalock, 3B, Rangers Mike Lamb Era ends at the hot corner in Texas. Blalock hit .352 with 18 homers and 108 RBIs at Class A and Double A in 2001.
Sean Burroughs, 3B, Padres The son of 1974 American League MVP Jeff doesn't have his pop's pop, but San Diego is convinced he'll hit .300 for years.
Nick Johnson, DH-1B, Yankees Surrounded by a lineup of perennial All-Stars, the 6'3", 224-pound slugger seems certain to get an extended look; he could hit 25 homers and drive in 90 runs.
Carlos Pena, 1B, Athletics Scouts compare this smooth-fielding, line-drive-hitting infielder to a young Keith Hernandez. In fact, he might be better.
Mark Prior, RHP, Cubs After going 15-1 with 1.69 ERA at Southern Cal last spring, this hard-throwing 21-year-old will start the season in Double A.
Ramon Vazquez, SS, Padres He joins Burroughs on the all-rookie left side of the San Diego infield. He's acrobatic and strong-armed, but was his .300 average in Triple A a fluke? --J.P.
Last season Reds outfielder Adam Dunn became the latest in a long line of midsummer phenoms. Though he was not called up until July 20 and played in just 66 games, he finished the season ranked third among Cincinnati hitters in home runs (19) and was tied for fourth in runs (54). In their big league baptisms Dunn and the other batters listed below put up impressive numbers. Such early success, however, is no guarantee of future stardom. --David Sabino
[A]PLAYER WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? [B]YEAR [C]PLATE APPEARANCES [D]BATTING AVERAGE [E]HOME RUNS [F]RBIS [G]SLUG. PCT.
[A] [B] [C] [D] [E] [F] [G]
Adam Dunn OF, REDS 2001 286 .262 19 43 .578 Enters 2002 season as Reds' starting leftfielder and sixth-spot hitter
Chito Martinez OF, ORIOLES 1991 228 .269 13 33 .514 Belize native got only 213 more career at bats and hit five more homers
Willie McCovey 1B, GIANTS 1959 219 .354 13 38 .656 Survived a sophomore slump and went on to a 22-year Hall of Fame career
Dick Stuart 1B, PIRATES 1958 271 .268 16 48 .543 In 10 seasons had 228 homers; ironhanded fielding won him moniker Dr. Strangeglove
Leon Wagner OF, GIANTS 1958 240 .317 13 35 .534 Daddy Wags averaged 30 homers and 91 RBIs for Angels and Indians from 1961 to '65
Chuck Klein OF, PHILLIES 1928 275 .360 11 34 .577 The .320 career hitter was National League MVP in 1932 and Triple Crown winner in '33