HOUSTON — Raised in Texas, Adam Dunn spent high school summers doing what many baseball players in the state do.
He prepared for the next football season.
Baseball? That was something Dunn said he played for 20 or 25 games a year at New Caney High School, 30 miles north of Houston. Summer baseball? Come on. Summer was for grooming himself to play quarterback, and the work paid off. In February 1998, he signed with the University of Texas, hoping to become a big star in Royal-Memorial Stadium.
But after spending his freshman season on the sideline as a redshirt watching Major Applewhite become a hero for the Longhorns, Dunn left school, joining the Cincinnati Reds’ farm system.
That’s a decision he will not soon regret. Dunn, 6 feet 5 inches, 240 pounds and fleet afoot, slugged his way to the major leagues this season. Once he arrived, Dunn, 21, never stopped hitting. Before facing the Astros on Wednesday night, Dunn, who bats left-handed, is hitting .269 with 12 home runs and 33 RBIs in 37 games with the Reds. Over a full season, that projects to 52 homers and 144 RBIs, All-Star-caliber production.
“The most interesting thing about Adam is when you take into consideration what he’s doing now and how little he’s played, ” said Bill Doran, the former Astros’ second baseman who is a coach with the Reds. “This is going to be exciting. Who knows what’s going to happen?”
Reds Manager Bob Boone thinks he knows.
“Dunn is going to be in the next wave of hitters like Sosa, McGwire and Canseco, ” Boone said. “He has the potential to be in that magic class. When he hits it, it is going to leave the park.”
Some who have seen Dunn’s size and power compare him to McGwire, the hulking St. Louis Cardinal who owns the record for home runs in a season, 70. Others witness Dunn’s athleticism, look back further than McGwire. They suggest Dunn might become like Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, someone who can beat opponents with his bat, arm, glove and legs.
“McGwire, Winfield, that’s an honor, ” Dunn said. “I really haven’t had time to think about things like that. I would like to be like (Colorado’s) Larry Walker. I think he’s the best player in baseball . . . or one of the best all-around players.”
Dunn didn’t figure on even being in the company of McGwire and Walker this season.
“I expected to be in Double-A by now, ” he said. “But something just clicked in my swing.”
After leaving Austin in 1999, Dunn hit .307 with 11 home runs and 44 RBIs playing Single-A ball in the Reds’ system. Last season, also in Single-A, he hit .281 with 16 home runs and 79 RBIs in 122 games. Then, as he said, things really clicked this year. He hit .334 with 32 home runs, 84 RBIs and 11 stolen bases in 94 games in Double- and Triple-A.
The next thing he knew, Dunn was at Enron Field, not far from home, playing in front of friends and family against the Astros. No wonder he claims no regrets about leaving college.
“I think it worked out the way it was supposed to, ” Dunn said. “Someone is looking out for me. I try not to think about (leaving UT) too much.”
Dunn said Wednesday that he left school because the Reds vowed to accelerate his ascension toward the major leagues. But last month, he told the Dayton Daily News, “The real reason is that me and Major (Applewhite) were the only two scholarship quarterbacks and both had good springs, and they wanted us to alternate like they did with Applewhite and (Chris) Simms. I thought, ‘No, I really don’t want to do that.’ They offered to let me change positions and I decided, ‘Why don’t I just change occupations?’ ”
Dunn also faced the prospect of competing with Simms, who signed with Texas in 1999.
Dunn still follows Texas football. As he sat in front of his dressing stall Wednesday afternoon, someone from Houston asked him the most important question for a former Texas quarterback: Major or Chris?
Dunn hesitated, finally opting for Simms.
“I don’t know. . . ., ” Dunn said. “I think Major’s a winner. He wins. He always figures out a way to win. But you have to have someone who can take you to the next level, and that’s Chris. And that’s nothing against Major, because he’s unbelievable.”