Controversy at the bat
Easy-going outfielder shrugs off the criticism
BY JOHN ERARDI
Wanna light up the switchboard?
Mention the name of Adam Dunn.
Even today, in a football-crazed city a day from hosting the biggest-name team on the NFL's Monday night marquee, mention the name of the big ol' country boy from New Caney, Texas, and the callers will come out of the knotty pine to attack or defend the Reds left fielder.
It happened last Sunday morning on WLW-AM's "SportsTalk." Co-host Ken Broo hadn't come to the studio that morning intending to discuss Dunn. But a caller did, and after that, it was off to the "Big Donkey" races, Big Donkey being Dunn's nickname.
"You mention Adam Dunn, and you'll get calls all over the map - 'keep him,' 'get rid of him,' 'let him walk,' " Broo says. "I've only done the show since May, but it's startling what a lightning rod he is."
So, today - Fan Appreciation Day at Great American Ball Park - we try to answer why that's the case.
For his part, Dunn understands the passion Reds fans have for their pastime. What happens on the field is fair game.
But he cannot understand why, for example, fans care what he does on his off day. He doesn't care what other people, not even the super-celebrities, do on theirs.
"I look at USA Today, but only for the crossword puzzle," he says.
He made headlines a few weeks ago when he called out WLW's Bill Cunningham for saying Dunn was drunk while playing a game. Cunningham later apologized to Dunn in person.
When it comes to his performance on the field, Dunn accepts as "part of the game" that he is going to be critiqued on Reds radio and TV broadcasts and on sports talk shows. He doesn't listen but says that people pass along the radio and TV criticism to him, even though he tells them he doesn't want to hear it.
"It's like 12-year-old girls in middle school trying to stir up trouble," Dunn says. "It doesn't work with me because I really don't care."
Had the Reds been competitive this season, Dunn might have been less of a target. But after suffering through six straight losing seasons, Reds fans went into 2007 with high hopes. When the team almost immediately began to struggle, fans went in search of a reason.
And, as so often happens, everybody focused on the big guy: What's he not giving us that we need?
IS IT THE MONEY?
It will cost the Reds $13 million to pick up Dunn's option for next year. The team hasn't announced what it's going to do, but Dunn recently met with Reds owner Bob Castellini for a private lunch, and both sides said it went well.
The $13 million option is a lot of money for someone who is not seen as a complete player - Dunn probably will never win a Gold Glove for his defense - but very much in line for a player with Dunn's offensive production. In his last four seasons, Dunn has hit at least 40 home runs. During that time he has 401 RBI.
But Reds radio announcers Marty and Thom Brennaman, and Jeff Brantley, who do so much to inform - and form - the popular opinion in Reds Nation, did not mention money when they were asked about why the name "Dunn" so incites.
Instead, they point to his size and a laid-back personality that sometimes is interpreted as indifference.
The 6-foot-6, 275-pound Dunn is as big as an offensive lineman, but not nearly as anonymous. When he looks ungraceful on a ball hit to the outfield, or doesn't show good instincts on the bases, or whiffs with men on second and third, his faux pas are magnified. And Dunn strikes out a lot - 722 times over the past four years.
"I don't think there's a player on this team that creates more conversation than he does," Marty Brennaman says. "I think it's because at one point you see one of the great power hitters, a guy who has tremendous knowledge of the strike zone, yet to contradict that, he strikes out well over a hundred times every year. He's really an enigma in many respects."
Agrees Brantley: "There's so much to talk about when people hear the name 'Adam Dunn.' He represents the good and the bad when it comes to a baseball player. ... The perception (of those differences) is what makes people respond. But for who he is, and for what God-given talent he's got, he does a pretty damn good job."
Brantley said he's changed his opinion of Dunn after watching him over the course of a full season.
"Big-time," he said. "I've had an opportunity to watch him through thick and thin. After taking away all of the perceptions I had of him, and giving him a fresh start and saying (to myself) after the All-Star break, 'What kind of ballplayer would I rate this guy?' my rating is, 'Impressive.' "
Marty Brennaman, who has not minced words when it has come to critiquing Dunn's game, also said his view of the player has changed. Brennaman said he's impressed that Dunn, who had arthroscopic knee surgery last week, played with knee pain the past two seasons and never let on publicly.
"I'm not so sure that the knee wasn't bothering him a helluva lot longer than he let on," Brennaman said. "And you know something? If this team were playing for something right now, he'd be in the lineup."
LINGERING KNEE PAIN
Two days after Brennaman's comments, Dunn was sitting on a couch in the middle of the Reds clubhouse signing baseball cards for charity. He admitted that the knee bothered him not only this season, but last season as well.
He would have had surgery last season, he said, but the Reds were in a pennant race, so he put off surgery and instead began rehabbing the knee in October, thinking the knee would heal. It never did.
In other words, Dunn took a bad knee into this season and still had another big year at the plate.
Dunn said he feels good after the surgery to clean out the knee and repair a torn meniscus.
"Yeah, that's the one thing (that it feels good)," Dunn says. "It hurts right now, but it feels good to know (that next year, I won't be) in the outfield thinking about stopping - 'Golly, I'm going to have to run into the wall here to stop me instead of having to stop on my knee' - and that meant I couldn't make the turn that might have allowed me to throw the guy out at second. But, anyway ... "
He had gone too far, said too much.
He was appreciative, however, when a reporter mentioned what Marty Brennaman had said about him being a gamer.
"That means a lot, too," says Dunn, nodding.
The two podiums - star player and presenters/commentators of that player - sometimes have put the announcers and Dunn at odds.
The broadcasters insist it is nothing personal. In fact, Thom Brennaman said he wishes Dunn was a little more outgoing.
"In the short time I've been here, I've found (Dunn) to be an outgoing, just a nice guy," Thom Brennaman says. "But I'm not sure if any of the fans have seen him really warm to being a Red. I don't know why that is, and that might be completely inaccurate.
"But it seems to me a guy like him could have really owned this town because he has such an engaging personality. ... I've thought this about a lot of different players in a lot of different towns: If the players never make it feel like they want to be one with the fans, the fans are not going to treat them like they are. I think the fans want to see that Adam wants to be a Red forever. They want to feel like he wants to be here."
LOSING WORE ON HIM
Dunn says he does want to be here, that he's "made that known" over the years. Maybe fans misinterpret his body language as being indifferent. But that's not the case, Dunn says.
Dunn did allow, however, that there was a time this season when he would have been happy to go elsewhere if it meant winning immediately. That feeling passed when the Reds started to show some life around the All-Star break.
"If we had played the second half (of this season) the way we played the first half, I would have said, 'Listen, I deal with too much (garbage) off the field to stink on the field,' " Dunn says. "But the way Pete (Reds interim manager Pete Mackanin) has kind of done his thing, the way the young guys have come in and brought a breath of fresh air, it's been great. We still haven't played great, but we've made progress. We're headed in the right direction."
A recent lunch organized by Reds owner Bob Castellini also reinvigorated the slugger's sense of belonging.
"That's the first time anybody approached me like that since I've been here," Dunn says. "It was as though somebody wanted to get my opinion instead of looking at me like I'm still the young guy, the rookie. It's treating me like I'm a veteran now. That was kind of refreshing. It wasn't like I went into it thinking, 'Nobody likes me.' It was just good to know they kind of value my opinion. Whether they take it or not, who cares?"
Thom Brennaman said he thinks fans are coming around to Dunn.
"If you had asked most Reds fans in July, 'Should the Reds pick up Dunn's option?' eight out of 10 would have said, 'No way,' " Thom Brennaman says. "If you ask them now, I bet eight out of 10 would say, 'Absolutely.' There's just something about the way the numbers keep adding up when you play every day."
FLAWS OUT FRONT
About those numbers. There are lots of home runs. But there are lots of strikeouts, too.
"Blindingly obvious" is the phrase used by statistical analyst Greg Gajus to describe Dunn's flaws, even though Gajus supports Dunn because Dunn gets on base at a high-percentage rate, and getting on base is what produces runs.
"Defense and strikeouts - you see them every game," says Gajus, a researcher on books about the Reds. "Think about it: He strikes out about once a game, only homers once every four games. ... Most fans don't understand that all those walks are much more valuable than the (so-called) 'productive outs.' When Dunn gets a walk, it is a disappointment (for fans, because) everyone thinks the only thing he does is hit home runs. It is particularly disappointing to them when he doesn't hit one with runners on base."
The big strikeout - the flip side of the monster home run - is particularly noticeable: In 152 games this season, Dunn struck out 165 times. Last season he struck out an NL-leading 194 times in 160 games.
Steve Phillips, a former New York Mets general manager who is now with ESPN, says the big strikeout during a rally "stops everything" for fans.
But it can't just be the strikeouts that have turned some fans against Dunn. The Phillies' Ryan Howard, who is the most popular player in Philadelphia, has 198 strikeouts, breaking Dunn's major-league record 195 set in 2004.
Last season Howard struck out 181 times, second behind Dunn.
Another ugly number is Dunn's batting average with runners in scoring position (RISP). This season, he hit 23 points lower with RISP (.241) than he did overall (.264). Over his career, the discrepancy is even bigger - 26 points (.222 to .248, respectively).
But analysts like Gajus counter that too much importance is placed on RISP. Scoring more runs than the other team is what wins games, and you score runs by getting on base. Dunn does that by drawing lots of walks.
This season, Dunn walked 101 times, good for ninth best in the majors through Saturday afternoon's games. In 2006, Dunn had 115 walks, second-best in the majors.
Then there's what ESPN's Phillips refers to as "the outward grit."
Because Dunn comes off as lacking it, he doesn't get the free pass issued to every other hustling Red who is perceived as being made in the image of this city's ultimate icon, Pete Rose.
Stats cruncher Justin Inaz, who writes a blog about the Reds, says: "Dunn is in many ways the complete opposite (of Rose). He's huge, doesn't look like he's hustling much, strikes out a ton, has tons of power, and often gets as many extra-base hits as he does singles.
"I think he's good at exactly those things that Cincinnati fans have somehow decided aren't important - even though they do help win ballgames."
LOVE FROM WITHIN
Dunn's teammates like him for what he can do, rather than focusing on what he cannot. Plus, they enjoy his laidback presence in the clubhouse.
A great argument can be made that more fire is needed in the Reds clubhouse, but that doesn't mean the Reds brass should ditch Dunn to make room for it, players say.
"I love Dunner, he's a good guy," says the Reds' best player, Brandon Phillips. "He's a great teammate."
Scott Hatteberg, one of the team's best hitters and arguably its best student, notes that Dunn's shortcomings on the field are not a result of Dunn not trying.
"He has told me that his average with runners in scoring position is a frustrating thing for him," Hatteberg says. "He wishes he were better at that. But with him, he's in scoring position when he walks to the plate."
"For me," concludes Hatteberg, "signing Dunn to the option (for next year) is a no-brainer."
"He just keeps getting better - his (batting) average is better, his strikeouts are down, his (overall) run production is second to none," Hatteberg says. "And he's what, 26? (Dunn is 27.) The knock on him is his defense, but it was a knock for Ted Williams, too."
Today, Dunn will be in his usual upbeat mood as his teammates close out the season.
"I think I've matured a lot this year," he says. "If the off-the-field stuff had happened to me a few years ago, I think I'd have reacted differently. But I'm still kickin', still feelin' good. I'd be preaching a different note if we hadn't picked it up the way we did (before his friend and teammate Ken Griffey Jr. got hurt). We had guys come here and do well who I'd never even heard of before.
"That was exciting for me. I'm excited about next year."