"Do you know the guy doesn't like baseball that much? Do you know the guy doesn't have a passion to play the game that much? ... We've done our homework on guys like Adam Dunn, and there's a reason why we don't want Adam Dunn."
—J.P. RICCIARDI, BLUE JAYS G.M. ON HIS RADIO SHOW, JUNE 18, 2008
THOSE WHO have formed their opinions of Adam Dunn based primarily upon the public musings of his detractors—and the line of critics stretches all the way back to Porter, Texas, where as a kid he'd hit two home runs in a game only to have a bystander ask, "Well, boy, why didn't you hit three?"—were likely surprised two Sundays ago when Dunn carried Team USA in its World Baseball Classic opener, a 6--5 win over Canada in Toronto. He didn't look as if he was loafing in the second inning, when he launched his 6'6", 275-pound body into Canadian second baseman Pete Orr to break up a double play. Nor in the fifth, when he slid in rightfield to snag a sinking line drive just before it hit the turf. Nor in the sixth, when he slugged a two-run homer to extend the U.S. advantage to 6--3. And he certainly appeared to be rather fond of baseball during the top of the ninth, as U.S. closer J.J. Putz struggled to hold the lead. Dunn was watching from the dugout with his eyes wide and his fingers pressed to his carotid. It seemed that if the suspense lasted much longer, he might require the use of one of the portable defibrillators that Ontario's provincial government had thoughtfully installed in the Rogers Centre.
Team USA's run in the WBC, which continued on Sunday with a 9--3 win over the Netherlands, has been the 29-year-old Dunn's first chance to perform under conditions more intense than a drawn-out regular season. He has never played in a postseason game in his eight-year major league career, all of which he had spent with the Cincinnati Reds except for a seven-week stint with the Arizona Diamondbacks late last summer. His only All-Star Game appearance came seven years ago, in 2002 in Milwaukee—and his participation there, as minimal as it was (two at bats, a walk and a fly-out), was further trivialized when the game ended in a tie.
Perhaps his WBC performance—he had three home runs in three games through Sunday, and was hitting .538—will help dispel his reputation as a passionless and lazy player, one who cares little about winning or losing as long as, after the season, he'll still get to drop his line into a Texas lake. That reputation has ossified through the years, promulgated over the airwaves by observers who know him mainly through snapshots and innuendo. It helps explain why no major league team offered Dunn, who hit more home runs (278) in his first eight seasons than all but three players in history (Ralph Kiner, Albert Pujols, Eddie Mathews), a contract lengthier or richer than the two-year, $20 million deal he signed with the Washington Nationals in February. "He has a reputation for being very selfish," said a National League G.M., whose team did not go after Dunn. "But I don't know enough about him to weigh in on that." Even the generally thoughtful Ricciardi, a few days after making his remark about Dunn on talk radio, admitted to ESPN.com that his opinion was not formed from firsthand knowledge. "Unfortunately, you get caught in the heat of the moment," said an apologetic Ricciardi. "I don't even know Adam Dunn."
An American League G.M. observed about the reactions Dunn elicits, "Human beings in general like to look at things they can't completely understand and assign personal attributes to them, whether it's stars and planets, or baseball players. If you don't really know the person well, on the level of a friend or psychologist, then it's probably not fair to draw conclusions."
DESPITE ITS recent Moneyball-driven statistical revolution, baseball remains a fundamentally conservative game. It still prizes players who neatly fit into its shopworn archetypes, both on the field and off, and snubs the outliers—that is, players who are difficult to understand. Dunn, in many ways, is an outlier. He doesn't look like a baseball player: His size can sometimes make him seem lumbering, or even clumsy, out on the diamond, which can make it appear as if he is not giving maximum effort. And much of the time Dunn, a former backup quarterback at the University of Texas, doesn't even talk like a ballplayer, or at least in the Jeterian every-day-that-I-get-to-put-on-this-uniform-is-the-best-day-of-my-life way that many prefer their ballplayers to talk. "He's kind of a funny guy because he used to come in the clubhouse every day and be like, 'I can't believe my father made me play the game of baseball! I should be on a football field!'" recalls Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo, a former teammate.
Arroyo, to Dunn's delight, once did a rewrite of the Craig Morgan country hit That's What I Love about Sunday with lyrics that reflect Dunn's shtick. Arroyo shared the recording around the clubhouse. "The lyrics were like, I'm Adam Dunn, I'm so glad the season's over, I just want to get home and be sipping on a beer by the pool and get away from this bulls---," says Arroyo, who quickly adds that he would never write such a song about a friend if its contents were essentially true. "He'd always joke around like that, because baseball can be a grind sometimes. If you came and listened in the clubhouse, you might think, God, this guy never wants to play the game. He could definitely come across as a Texas boy who's friggin' laid-back and maybe doesn't appreciate being a big league ballplayer. But it wasn't the case at all. It was just the persona he gave off, not what was honestly in his heart. Because if he wasn't in the lineup one day, he'd be like, Whoa, why am I not in there? The truth was, he could have a broken toe or broken wrist, and he'd still be out on the field, and he loves playing the game hard."
It's difficult to reconcile the idea that Dunn doesn't like baseball considering this fact: He played in 791 games over the past five years, an average of more than 158 per season. During that span, only three players—Ichiro Suzuki, Miguel Cabrera and Michael Young—appeared in more. Often Dunn played well after the Reds had been eliminated from the playoff race while he was battling injuries that would have sidelined many players for weeks at a time. The most serious of those ailments was a torn meniscus in his right knee that hampered him for at least two years and which he finally had repaired in September 2007. "I couldn't take it anymore," Dunn reluctantly admits, after a few minutes of encouraging. "I couldn't move. Couldn't do anything. It was horrible. Horrible."
When given the opportunity to respond to all those who have written him off, Dunn has a hard time bringing himself to bother. Sitting on a large white couch in the lobby of Team USA's hotel in Clearwater, Fla., he starts to answer several times, then finally cuts himself off with a shake of his camouflage-cap-covered head. "Whatever, dude," he says, again and again. "I don't know." Finally he says, "I hear that kind of negative stuff all the time. I just laugh. I'm not going to sit here and self-promote, defend myself and this and that. Say what you want. Because when it really comes down to it, it's not what announcers say, it's not what people from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED say, it's what the guys in the clubhouse say."
"He probably was one of the best guys I've ever managed in this game," says one guy in the clubhouse, Reds skipper Dusty Baker, who lost Dunn to Arizona because Cincinnati didn't think it could afford to re-sign him in the off-season. "People don't know what they're talking about. They go on hearsay, or what they think they see. We're very quick to be judgmental about somebody. But once these things get out, you can't put them back in."
THE ONE aspect of Dunn's reputation that might be wholly accurate is the perception that he is a graceless fielder. (Or, as a Cincinnati talk-show host once put it: He "looks like a monkey with a football in leftfield.") His .968 fielding percentage was the poorest among players who appeared in 75 or more games in leftfield, and he was little better in the 19 games he tried at first. It wasn't for lack of effort, according to Baker. "He worked hard," says the manager. "Is he ever going to win a Gold Glove? I doubt it. Sometimes you are what you are."
Mike Rizzo, the acting G.M. of the Nationals, says that he's thrilled with what Dunn is, in nearly every way. "He's not a perfect player," Rizzo says, referring specifically to Dunn's defensive ability, "but there are not many perfect players in the major leagues. Believe me, he's working very diligently on his footwork in the field." Dunn is also far from complete at the plate: A career .247 hitter, he averaged 169 strikeouts in his seven full seasons. But the Nats, who made Dunn one of their two primary free-agent targets (the other was first baseman Mark Teixeira, who signed with the Yankees) early in the off-season, focused on what he can do, rather than what he can't do.
What he can do is hit home runs, from the left side of the plate, with historic consistency (a 40-homer season in '09 would give Dunn six in a row; Babe Ruth is the only player to have done it in seven straight), and draw 100-plus bases on balls (he walked more than 100 times in six of his seven full seasons, and his OBP ranked in the NL's top 15 in four of the last five years), meaning that he excels at what statisticians long ago proved are the two most important contributors to a team's ability to score runs: hitting for power and getting on base. So Dunn had obvious appeal to a Washington team that scored the third-fewest runs (3.98 per game) in the majors last season.
Someday Dunn might no longer be denigrated for what he appears to be, but appreciated for what he is. His WBC performance might hasten that day's arrival.
Arroyo says, "He's a funny guy. He used to be like, 'I can't believe my father MADE ME PLAY BASEBALL. I should be on a football field!'"
"I hear that negative stuff all the time," Dunn says. "I JUST LAUGH. I'm not going to sit here and self-promote, defend myself."
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Photograph by Gary Bogdon
NATIONALS REVIEW Convinced that Dunn would boost its anemic offense, Washington made him a free-agent priority.
Photograph by Gary Bogdon
TOSS-UP Batting .538 in the WBC, Dunn (second from right) was having the last laugh.
DANIEL R. HARRIS/ICON SMI
DROP ZONE With defense an undeniable weakness, the ungainly Dunn had the worst fielding percentage at his position in '08.