Too often, the mark of a pioneering talent isn’t properly appreciated in its time. Galileo. Vincent van Gogh. Aretha Franklin. Adam Dunn.
Ask any die-hard fan of the Cincinnati Reds to list the franchise’s all-time greatest players, and it will take them a while to get to Dunn, the curly-haired country-boy outfielder who spent his first eight seasons in the majors with the Redlegs. Yet now, in and around the seats of Great American Ball Park, Dunn has undeniably become one of the most memorable Reds ever. There are many, varied reasons for this late-blooming appreciation. His towering home runs, offset by his incessant strikeouts. His lumbering woes and disinterest as a fielder. His slack-jawed blank stare and “Big Donkey” nickname. His old-school baseball body that looked to be maintained by a steady diet of Budweiser and doughnuts.
As unforgettable as he was in real time—evidenced by the rows of necks craning to watch where his moon-shot homers would ultimately land—anyone tuning in to Cincinnati sports talk radio from 2001 to 2008 was treated to a heavy dose of callers bemoaning Dunn’s whiffing at the plate and booting in the field, asserting that the occasional upper-deck blast wasn’t enough to offset his deficiencies. Not enough fans realized it at the time, but the truth is that Dunn was a rather stellar player in his own right. His 270 career home runs as a Red is still good for fourth in franchise history (though, at press time, Joey Votto was fast on his heels), and the sport’s forthcoming appreciation for stats that Dunn excelled in (walks, slugging percentage, on-base percentage) hadn’t yet arrived here. It also didn’t help Dunn’s case that his tenure coincided with one of the organization’s worst stretches since World War II, a Reds team that was largely hamstrung by the failing hamstrings of Ken Griffey Jr.
Fortunately, legends live forever. Though he retired in 2014, Dunn will receive proper appreciation this month when he’s inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame. To mark the occasion, we present an excerpt on Dunn from The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds (Triumph Books), released in April and written by authors (and longtime Reds fans) Chad Dotson and Chris Garber. —Justin Williams
as a high schooler in Texas, Adam Dunn was one of the most highly sought after athletes in the country—as a football player. According to some analysts, Dunn was the number three quarterback recruit in the entire country in 1998. After a protracted recruiting battle, Dunn ultimately committed to play QB for the University of Texas, choosing the Longhorns over other premier football schools like Notre Dame, Tennessee, and Texas A&M.
You probably already suspect that Dunn was a pretty good baseball prospect, as well. If it weren’t for football, however, Dunn may never have become a Cincinnati Red.
Every big league team passed on Dunn in the first round of the 1998 draft, allowing the Reds to snap him up in the second. (The Reds took Lexington, Kentucky, high schooler Austin Kearns in the first round in 1998.) The consensus was that Dunn was a surefire first-rounder, but he made it clear to every club that he was Texas-bound. “That’s what I let everyone know,” Dunn said, “that I was going to play football, but I’d like to play baseball, too. I guess that scared a lot of teams off.”
Dunn signed with the Reds, with the stipulation that he’d be allowed to continue playing football.
After a redshirt season, Dunn was the backup quarterback for the Longhorns and seemed to be on track for a career in football. Then Texas signed the nation’s top quarterback recruit and the coaches asked Dunn to move to tight end. The writing was on the wall, and Dunn made the decision to focus strictly on baseball.
Football’s loss was Cincinnati’s gain. By the time he left the club in 2008, Adam Dunn had cemented his place as one of the greatest sluggers in Reds franchise history.
Over his eight-year career with the Reds, Dunn hit .247/.380/.520, with an OPS+ of 130 (or 30 percent above average). That’s the seventh-best OPS+ in Reds history, among all hitters who played at least 800 games with the club. His 270 homers as a Red ranks fourth on the all-time franchise list, behind only Johnny Bench (389), Frank Robinson (324), and Tony Pérez (287). And each of those Reds legends played at least 400 more games in a Reds uniform than Dunn.
During his time in the Queen City, however, Dunn was also one of the most underappreciated players ever to wear the Cincinnati Red and White. Yes, Dunn had his limitations (defense mainly; his glove left something to be desired, as Dunn readily admitted). Among certain talk-radio listeners, Dunn was also criticized for “not being a clutch player,” whatever that means. Many were given their cue, it must be said, by Marty Brennaman. Brennaman, in the authors’ humble opinion, is perhaps the greatest baseball broadcaster ever (at least in the non–Vin Scully division), but his criticism of Dunn always seemed off the mark, minimizing Dunn’s strengths and all the ways Dunn helped the Reds win (occasionally, anyway) and focusing on the strikeouts and other odd “shortcomings” (like the time Dunn went a full season without hitting a sacrifice fly…though he did have 46 home runs and 102 RBI).
During the last week of June 2006, Dunn put that talk to rest (temporarily, at least). On June 29, he came to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, with the Reds and Royals tied 5–5. With runners on first and second and the count 0–2, Dunn delivered a hard line drive to right field, resulting in a double and the go-ahead run. The Reds won 6–5.
But the real fireworks happened the next night.
Reds fans were upbeat that Friday night. Nearly 35,000 people crowded into Great American Ball Park as the cross-state rival Cleveland Indians came to town for a weekend series. At first pitch, the temperature was a comfortable 81 degrees and the Reds, who hadn’t finished above .500 since a second-place finish in 2000, were riding high at 43–36, only one game behind the Cardinals in the NL Central division. It was a good night.
During his time in the queen city, Adam Dunn was one of the most under-appreciated players ever to wear the Red and White.
It didn’t take long to become an awful night. In the top of the first inning, Reds starter Elizardo Ramirez surrendered six consecutive hits, and the Reds were down 5–0 before the game’s second out.
Ramirez stayed in the game and actually settled down somewhat; he only allowed one more run in his five-inning stint. But after the Indians tacked on another run against the Reds bullpen, Cincinnati trailed 7–0 and the game appeared to be all over but the crying. Most fans stuck around, if only for the postgame fireworks show.
Through seven innings, the Reds were only 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position. Reds center fielder Austin Kearns finally got the home team on the board with a solo home run. Second baseman Brandon Phillips and catcher Javier Valentin followed with singles and the Reds, still trailing by six runs, were beginning to make a little noise.
Reds manager Jerry Narron sent light-hitting infielder Juan Castro—a .229 hitter over the course of his 17-year career as a utility guy—to the plate to bat in the pitcher’s spot. With the count at 1–1, Cleveland reliever Rafael Betancourt left a pitch out over the plate and Castro made him pay with a line-drive three-run homer. It was only the second pinch-hit homer of Castro’s career, and it cut Cleveland’s lead to 7–4.
The Indians stretched the lead back to 8–4 in the top of the ninth, and Cleveland manager Eric Wedge brought in his closer, Bob Wickman, to finish the game. With one out, Kearns worked the count to 3–1, then drilled a liner into right-center field for a single. The Reds, given up for dead earlier, were still alive.
Kearns stole second and moved to third on Phillips’s single. Wickman then uncorked a wild pitch that sent Phillips to second, and Valentin followed with a groundout to first base that scored Kearns. The score was 8–5, but Wickman had two outs and only one runner on base. Over the course of a 15-year All-Star career, Wickman had worked out of any number of similar jams.
But that’s when the wheels fell off, as Narron suspected they might. “It was set up by early at-bats in the inning,” Narron said. “Our guys worked the count on Wickman. When you get him up to about 30-some pitches, you’ll have a chance to get something to hit.”
Wickman walked pinch-hitter Ryan Freel on five pitches, then issued a four-pitch walk to Felipe Lopez. He had thrown 33 pitches in the inning when Adam Dunn walked slowly from the on-deck circle towards the plate. With bases loaded and the Reds trailing by three runs, Dunn was feeling confident.
“When Felipe walked, I knew it was one swing away,” Dunn said.
Dunn took the first pitch for a ball, the sixth straight ball Wickman had thrown. It would be his last. Wickman next delivered a fastball and Dunn pulled it hard down the right-field line. “I knew I hit it good enough,” he said later. “I didn’t know if I hit it high enough. Fortunately, it got out.”
It did get out, a line-drive homer that barely cleared the wall in right field for a grand slam. The Reds had rallied for a 9–8 victory that was almost unfathomable just a few minutes earlier. Even better, the Cardinals had lost already that evening, so the grand slam also lifted the Reds into a tie for first place in the National League’s Central division. (The Reds stayed in the pennant race for much of the 2006 season, before fading to a record of 80–82. The club wouldn’t post a winning record until the magical division championship season of 2010.)
Reds fans went berserk, and Dunn’s teammates were just as excited. As Dunn rounded third, he saw that his fellow Reds were waiting for him at home plate. They mobbed him, smacking his helmet and nearly pulling the 6-foot-6, 285-pound Dunn to the ground in celebration. Eventually, Dunn made his way back to the dugout and began collecting his equipment to take back to the clubhouse. Great American Ball Park remained a madhouse, however, and the crowd continued the standing ovation until Dunn emerged from the dugout, carrying three bats, for a curtain call.
This game marked only the third time in Reds history that the club had overcome a seven-run deficit in the eighth inning or later. The first time was against the Boston Braves on June 4, 1951; the other was against the Mets on May 6, 1995. (When these dates were recited to Dunn the next day, he deadpanned, “That’s stuff that, if you know, you’re a nerd.”)
It was Dunn’s sixth career grand slam and his fifth career walk-off home run. For one night, at least, he was the most popular guy in Cincinnati, but he treated the situation with his customary humility and humor.
“I hit [a homer] in Little League that was pretty cool,” Dunn said. “This one is probably second.”
This excerpt from The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds by Chad Dotson and Chris Garber is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, visit triumphbooks.com/Big50Reds. Dotson contributes to Cincinnati Magazine’s Reds blog, Nuxhall Way, at CincinnatiMagazine.com.