Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Perhaps 'Dunner' should wear a football helmet

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He's still a good-ol' boy. He drives his Ford Excursion to local farm ponds, where he fishes for bass, listens to Toby Keith and talks football. When you ask Adam Dunn if he'd rather hit a 400-foot home run or catch a three-pound bass, he struggles with the question like it's a nasty cut fastball.

"That's tough. Hitting the homer. That's what I'm supposed to do,'' Dunn said.

He has read two books in 24 years. The first was the unforgettable Summer of the Monkeys, a tome Dunn consumed "when I was in fifth grade and a book-of-the-month-club nerd.'' The other was Friday Night Lights, an account of high school football in west Texas.

Dunn can tell you the name of the equipment guy at the University of Texas, because the guy ships him UT workout gear. He can't tell you who's leading the American League West. "Dunner is a football guy stuck in a baseball guy's uniform,'' said Sean Casey. "He wouldn't know who the top three hitters are in the American League.''

"No idea,'' Dunn said. "Who are they?''

Casey knew: Ichiro, Melvin Mora and Pudge Rodriguez.

"Fascinating,'' Dunn said.

You don't have to be a student of the game to be a student of your game. When he was a Red, many uniforms and re-invented lifetimes ago, Deion Sanders said he didn't even like baseball. Prime Time said baseball was "boring.'' Dunn doesn't watch any games in which he's not involved.

"Do you go home and watch sportswriters? I do this every single day. I don't want to go home and watch it more,'' Dunn said.

He is having, in most respects, a breakout year. Dunn was squarely on the Dave Kingman fence in March. He hit 27 homers in 2003, in 381 at-bats.

He also struck out 126 times, giving him 296 Ks in two full seasons.

In Sarasota, Dunn said he didn't know who Kingman was, only that he didn't want to be an all-or-nothing pull hitter the way Kong was. Dunn got with hitting instructor Chris Chambliss, who had the same ideas. The rest has been opposite-field pleasure.

The Reds are in their familiar, September get-this-over-with mode. Round up the usual questions: Will ownership boost payroll next year? Will Sean Casey be traded, so Junior Griffey can play first base? Will Paul Wilson be re-signed? What about Barry Larkin? Can Don Gullett relate to the kid pitchers the way he has with the adults? And if not, why is he still here?

Nothing much good is happening. Nothing but Casey still hitting .331, and Dunn, sitting on 42 home runs, with a way outside shot at 50, which isn't bad for a guy who is just 24 years old and has spent most of the year without the help of Griffey and Austin Kearns.

There are issues, sure. Dunn still strikes out too much. He's batting .248 with runners in scoring position. That's far better than the .170 he hit last year and the .199 he has hit for his career. But still not worthy of a cleanup hitter. Dunn's 42 long balls have produced just 92 RBI.

But come on. The man's going to hit at least 45 homers, and we're worried that too many are solos? It's been a bad year.

"Adam has a great eye. Sometimes it works against him,'' Chambliss said. "He knows this. He can take too close of pitches. At the same time, he has a lot of walks. There's a fine line between that good eye and driving in those runs.''

Chambliss has Dunn "working on the two-strike thing.'' Protecting the plate, fouling off close pitches, not swinging as hard. Becoming what Lou Piniella liked to call "a professional hitter.''

"He needs to keep his swing under control,'' Chambliss said.

Dunn buys that. Sort of. "I agree. But I don't want to get to where I'm swinging at everything,'' he said.

He's a 24-year-old kid who suddenly looks like the Reds cleanup hitter for the next decade. Cheap ownership permitting.

Somebody asked Dunn if he knew whom the last Red was to win the home run title. George Foster didn't wear a chinstrap, so Dunn was stumped.

"Oh, yeah. Fifty-some, right?''

Foster hit 52 in 1977 and 40 the next year, winning the homer race both years. "I'd have guessed him,'' said Dunn, who swore he wasn't kidding.



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