Sunday, June 02, 2002

Draft: Reds struck gold in '98

By Mark Curnutte,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Ken Griffey Jr. sits between Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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        The 1998 June draft already is shaping up as one of the best in Reds history.

        The organization grabbed outfielders Austin Kearns and Adam Dunn in Rounds 1 and 2 that year, even though they both were projected as high first-round picks. Fast forward four years, and Kearns and Dunn are productive regulars in the Reds lineup.

        So how did the Reds' front office — which is preparing for this year's draft, Tuesday and Wednesday — pull off the '98 double play that has given the team their big-bat bookends of the future?

        The scouting staff, under the direction of Reds general manager Jim Bowden, zeroed in early on the right-handed-hitting Kearns, who attended Lafayette High School in Lexington.

        Bowden made the drive to Lexington one night to watch Kearns play. He took along assistant GM Doc Rodgers and special assistant Bob Boone, now the Reds' manager.

        “We worked him out after the game, and he hit about 200 balls over the school in left field,” Bowden said. “And we got in the car and drove home, and I said: "That's Mike Piazza. If (Kearns) is there, we're drafting him; we're taking him.' That was it.”

        Kearns had been a member of the USA National Junior Team in 1997, and he batted .615 in the world championship tournament to help the United States earn a bronze medal.

        “He had a great arm. He could run. He was a good fielder, but his bat, his bat was so special,” Bowden said. “You don't see high school bats like that, and if you get an opportunity to get a bat like that, you grab it. That whole drive home, that's all we could talk about is Mike Piazza.”

        Landing Kearns with the seventh overall pick was an accomplishment. He was signed by scout Robert Koontz. But what made the 1998 draft a bonanza was getting Dunn, a 6-foot-6, 240-pound left-handed hitter, in the second round.

        Bowden said Johnny Almaraz, now the Reds' assistant director of scouting, deserves much of the credit.

        Several teams were hesitant to take a chance on Dunn because he had a full scholarship to play football at the University of Texas. As a senior at New Caney High School near Houston, Dunn was one of the nation's top prep quarterbacks. He was 282-of-544 passing for 4,792 yards and 44 touchdowns.

        “We thought we had an advantage and could get (Dunn) in the second round because everybody felt he was going to play football and not baseball,” Bowden said. “Johnny Almaraz said, "Look, the player is going to be there in the second round, because no one is going to take him because they don't think they can sign him, but I'm going to be able to sign him.' And we felt very comfortable going in that we were going to be able to get both of them.”

        Almaraz had a good relationship with Dunn's parents, Skip and Pat. The Dunns were friends with the parents of Reds catcher Jason LaRue, and LaRue's parents spoke highly of Almaraz to the Dunns. LaRue was a fifth-round pick of the Reds in 1995, an All-American from Dallas Baptist University, and Almaraz signed him.

        “The LaRues told them I was a person they could trust,” Almaraz said.

        The Reds drafted and signed Dunn, and he batted .288 with four home runs and 13 RBI in 34 games at Rookie League Billings before reporting Aug. 1 for football at Texas.

        Dunn played his freshman season at Texas. Throughout the year, Almaraz and other Reds officials — Billy Doran and Russ Nixon — stayed in contact with Dunn and his family. Almaraz suggested to Bowden that the Reds invite Dunn to the major-league spring training camp for a week during his spring break. It was then Dunn decided to play baseball full time.

        “Adam is truthful and sincere,” Almaraz said. “He told me, "I want to find out if I can play football.' He has great parents. There was no deception.”

        After managing the Kansas City Royals for two-plus seasons, Boone re-joined the Reds organization in November 1997 as Bowden's special assistant. The 1998 draft was Boone's first as a member of the Reds front office.

        “(Dunn) had told everybody he was going to Texas to play football, and I think that scared a lot of people off,” Boone said. “If he had not said that, if he was just a baseball player, we would not have got Adam Dunn. The job Johnny Almaraz did for us in Texas, in how close he was to the family, made a big difference. We were not as afraid as we could have been.”

        In his first full professional season, at Single-A Rockford in 1999, Dunn started to deliver on his promise. He hit .307 and had 11 homers and 44 RBI in 93 games. He and Kearns shared an apartment. Kearns batted .258 with 13 home runs and 48 RBI in 124 games.

        They also would live together in Dayton and Chattanooga, and they're roommates again in Cincinnati.

        While they're both mature hitters at the plate — Dunn's 51 walks are on pace to set a franchise record, and Boone says Kearns gives him the team's most professional at-bats — Kearns and Dunn are pretty typical 22-year-old men at home.

        “We're both pretty messy,” Dunn said. “But luckily, his girlfriend has been up here for a while, so she's been doing all the cleaning.”

        Both Dunn and Kearns have been cleaning up on National League pitching.

        Dunn hit 19 homers in just 66 games last season for the Reds, and he is hitting .309 with 11 homers and 36 RBI. Kearns, in spite of a recent slump, is batting .312 with seven home runs and 24 RBI. Dunn and Kearns are Nos. 1 and 2 on the team in on-base percentage, .465 and .428.

        They're each other's biggest fans, and neither is surprised by the other's success.

        “He was doing it all year in the minors before he got called up,” Kearns said of Dunn's 2001, when he was named minor-league player of the year by several baseball publications. “He's got the kind of attitude where he can handle the people and all the pressure put on him.”

        Kearns missed much of the 2001 season with a ligament injury in his right thumb. He was coming off a 2000 season in which he almost won the Midwest League triple crown at Single-A Dayton with 27 home runs, 104 RBI and a .306 average.

        “Whenever he's healthy, he's unbelievable,” Dunn said of Kearns. “It's incredible. A lot of people just think he's playing real well right now, but this is how he always is. I don't see him slowing down at all. If he stays healthy, he's going to put up some numbers.”

        Bowden, now in his 10th season as Reds general manager, said he considers the 1998 draft one of the high-water marks of his tenure.

        “The only argument with those two players was which one was going to be better, and I don't think any of us know yet,” Bowden said. “They're both going to keep competing and they're both going to be stars for many, many years to come.

        “And, hopefully, they'll both start their careers here and end their careers here, like Barry Larkin and others do. They're that caliber players and that caliber people.”

        Kearns and Dunn said they don't dwell on the draft that made them Reds.

        “When you're drafted, it's just the first year,” Dunn said. “Everyone looks at you as, "You're the first-round pick, you're the second-round pick.' But after that, you see people who are free agents make it. You still have to go out there and play and produce. All of the pressure is off you after the first year.”


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