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Boz's Sunday Column on Adam Dunn

Early look at Boz's Sunday column:

The last two months have shaken Adam Dunn. He hit 40 or more homers five years in a row. He went free agent. Nobody wanted him. He signed for a $3 million pay cut with the team that was the worst in baseball last season. And he had to push just to get a second year on that deal.

Cue the alarm bells. Dunn has that shaggy-haired, "Big Lebowski" slacker look. "A classic movie, one of my favorites," he said. And he calls everybody "dude," too. So, does baseball mistake Dunn's 275-pound, chuckling, hat-cocked demeanor for indifference? Does he get sold short because he looks like he doesn't care?

"That's probably fair," he said.

It's not precisely true that nobody wanted him. But nobody wanted him badly. Teams formed a line to pay $160 to $188 million to Mark Teixeira, the complete player who hits .300 with power and has a golden glove, but in most offensive categories is comparable to Dunn. A line of exactly one team, the 102-loss Nats, was willing to offer the strikeout- and error-prone Dunn $10 million a year.

When you're snubbed, you can sulk or you can prove people wrong. "Well, there is no sulking here," he said. "My brothers don't allow me to think like that. They just say, 'That is a lot of money you're getting. And the game's not supposed to be about the money anyway.'."

Baseball has Dunn backward. On the outside, he may have no image. "I wish I had one," he said. He's just jeans and semi-combed hair, a guy lying on the clubhouse floor because the stools are too small, joking with new teammates, looking like a beached sea mammal.

On the inside, he's a student of hitting, a man who plays hurt, averaging 158 games the last five years, and a Texan who's too proud to show he's hurt. His hitting statistics at age 29 resemble Reggie Jackson and Harmon Killebrew, surpass Mike Schmidt. But his words show how much the last few weeks have lit his fire.

"So far in my career, I have not even come remotely close to what I can do. I know I'm so much better than what I've done," Dunn said. "Between now and the end of my career, I have a lot of work to do."

If you stretch (a lot), you could project Dunn to a 600-homer, 1,800-walk career and wonder about the Hall of Fame. At the least, "disappointed" is hardly a word you'd apply to him. Yet he applies it to himself.

"I want people to expect a lot of me. I put those expectations on myself," he said. "Sometimes I've put so much pressure on myself that I've tried too hard. But I'm disappointed that what I've shown so far isn't more."

If Dunn wants to get better -- hit .275, not .247, drive in 115 runs, not 100 -- it would be nice. But that's his business. D.C. isn't Cincinnati, a baseball-crazy town without much else to focus on.

"Tell 'em what Cincinnati was like," teased Austin Kearns, a teammate for five years and good friend.

"Did they boo me there? Oh, nooooooo," Dunn said.

"You're going to like Washington better," Kearns said. "We were so hurt last year we got out brains beat out night after night. If you're trying, they'll stick with you."

We probably already know how Washington will react to Dunn. The town had a player much like him, long ago, and, with some razzing, loved the guy. Still does. Dunn is a left-handed Frank Howard. The 6-foot-6 Dunn is a bit broader, an inch shorter. Each looks like he should come with a grain elevator.

Long ago in RFK Stadium with my parents, I watched a heckler ride Howard, bellowing, "Hondo, my hero -- you big bum. If you hit a homer, I'll eat this newspaper." He'd hold up a page of newspaper, have another beer and howl as Howard struck out. Three times. The fourth time up, Frank connected. The fan, delighted, theatrically tore the paper in long strips and ate them. Our section loved it all, including the strikeouts that were, in a way, part of a Hondo home run.

The difference with Dunn, who'll strike out even more than Howard, is that he has a second dimension that makes him more exciting. He's such a student of film and tendencies, and so implacably patient, that doesn't swing at balls. Only strikes. And not all of those. So, there are only two ways to pitch him. Walk him. Or try to get him out on pitches inside the strike zone. Which can definitely be done. "Lots of pitchers love to see me coming," Dunn said. "Pedro Borbon, ERA about 7.00, I couldn't sniff him."

But his approach not only boosts his high on-base percentage, but also makes him dangerous against any pitcher, even the best, on any pitch. When the K's come in waves, he ignores them. The dude abides. And when he connects, the baseball world stops.

What's his longest? "You hit one in Wrigley Field last year that the fans on the roof of the house across the street stood up because they thought it was going to reach them," said Ryan Zimmerman, laughing.

"Wrigley Field, I love it," Dunn said. "They're going to throw beer on you when you get back to the outfield anyway, so you might as well do something."

"How long was the one off [Jose] Lima?" Kearns asked.

"They said 535 feet. But the longest ball I ever hit was in high school," Dunn said.
"How far did it go?" Zimmerman asked. Kid, never set up a slugger with a straight line.

"Real, real far," Dunn said, slowly.

Does Nationals Park suit him? Dunn looks sheepish. "What's our ballpark like? I can't remember it," said Dunn, who played three games there last season.

"High scoreboard in right center field," Kearns said.

"Oh, good," Dunn said sarcastically.

The right field concourse, where no one has ever hit a ball, is about 490 feet away. "That's reachable," he said with a grin.

Not much is beyond his reach. And he'll have time to learn his new park. "The biggest thing to me in coming to D.C. was length of contract," Dunn said. "I wanted at least a couple of years. That's all I asked for. I'm tired of hearing about trades every July. I just wanted to find a home."

A home where he won't get booed if he gets his normal 100 runs, 100 RBI, 110 walks, 40 homers and 160 strikeouts would be a bonus. "My defense is very adequate. I can run when my knee isn't hurt. It feels the best in years now," Dunn said. "It's not like I don't want to get to 'em."

The Nats have many questions, including a mystery bullpen, that wrinkle Manager Manny Acta's forehead every day. But one part of his day is bliss -- batting practice.

This week, Acta watched as Dunn hits three straight blasts half way up the light tower in right field. Slowly, Acta's expression changed. "How stupid am I?" muttered the manager. "That's where I parked my car. Nobody ever hits it out there. I wonder if I have a windshield."

Acta's SUV escaped. Many pitchers won't be as lucky.

By Tracee Hamilton  |  February 28, 2009; 8:39 PM ET
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Next: Chico's Sunday Story


Why did Harlan delete this post:

Normally, Jim Bowden travels around Florida this time of year, watching his team. The Washington Nationals expected as much on Saturday, figuring they'd see Bowden slide into a choice seat at Roger Dean Stadium, in Jupiter, Fla., for the afternoon exhibition game against the Cardinals.

But Bowden never showed. In sane times, this would raise no questions whatsoever; the GM is perfectly entitled to skip a two-hour road trip.

These days, though, the no-show raises antennas.

After the game, in a new low for journalistic self-dignity, I drove to Space Coast Stadium. (In fact, I'm here right now.) Bowden's office is on the fourth floor, overlooking the first base side of the field. The door is open. But he's not there. And his car is not in the parking lot. What does that mean? Well, probably that his day is already over -- and not because Kasten ordered it to be.

I've heard from several sources that nothing went down today.

One guess: Bowden is probably watching the MLB Network at home right now.

Posted by: fs228 | February 28, 2009 9:19 PM | Report abuse

Awesome. I gulped this story. Boz you're a joy to read.

Posted by: NatsNut | February 28, 2009 9:49 PM | Report abuse

I guess nobody wants Manny Ramirez either.

Posted by: GoingGoingGone | February 28, 2009 10:00 PM | Report abuse

Great column Boz, but a little cotton candy don't you think? He wants to hit .275, but how is he adjusting his approach to make that happen? He says his defense is "very adequate" (which is like saying your a militant moderate), does he believe that or does he hope that it will be because his knee feels better. Any idea why his knee is better, just rest, something else he doing?

I know spring training is the time for irrational hope, but some hard questions on why he (or we) should believe his performance will be better this year?

Posted by: estuartj | February 28, 2009 10:01 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, natsfan1a. I kept waiting . . .
So, not Jupiter the planet?

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 28, 2009 1:11 PM

Posted by: lowcountry | February 28, 2009 10:03 PM | Report abuse

You're welcome, lowcountry. :-D

Thanks for a great column, Boz. Didn't know that Dunn was a Lebowski fan. My Chicago baseball buddy will love that. Dude.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | March 1, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

estuartj: "Great column Boz, but a little cotton candy don't you think?"

Yes, there's more than a bit of puff in this piece, and if Boswell has a weakness, it's that he can be too optimistic sometimes, especially when he's writing about baseball. I've come to tolerate it, especially because his writing is so good. And who can blame him for looking on the sunny side, when he's at spring training in Florida while we're freezing our butts off up north?

Posted by: DrewDC | March 2, 2009 12:58 AM | Report abuse

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