There’s nowhere to hide in baseball. Your batting average is displayed in three-foot-high digits on the scoreboard before each at-bat. The scouts behind home plate hone in on your every weakness. Each flailing swing is just a few clicks of the Internet away for anyone to see.
When you’re Adam Dunn of the Chicago White Sox, and you’re hitting .165 with 142 strikeouts on August 9, and you’re in the first year of a four-year $56 million contract, you are past the point of being unable to hide. You are a full-blown spectacle, with folks openly questioning whether your season and your contract are the worst in history.
And the fact you are such a likeable guy — the “Big Donkey” — is probably only making it worse. You answer every question from every reporter who visits your locker, and you answer them honestly. You take every well-intended phone call from every well-meaning friend offering a few encouraging words and maybe a hitting tip.
“I got a phone call from Chipper [Jones] just a little while ago,” Dunn said Monday in the visitors’ clubhouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where the White Sox were preparing to open a series against the Baltimore Orioles. “Everybody’s trying to help, help, help. You appreciate that kind of stuff. But what are you supposed to do? If you’ve got the answer, bring it. Because I don’t.”
There are no answers for Dunn’s mysterious crash, only theories — none of them fully satisfactory: The switch from the National League, where he had spent his entire career until this season, to the American. The pressure of the big free-agent contract. The switch to full-time designated hitter duty. The appendectomy he underwent in April, cutting short a promising start. His age (31) and his size (6-foot-6, 285 pounds), and the inescapable realities of an athlete’s natural decline.
“I feel great physically,” Dunn said. “There’s no excuses. I go out there every day thinking this is the day. It’s not lack of confidence.”
Ozzie Guillen, the White Sox’s gregarious manager, has been typically blunt in sizing up Dunn’s struggles, suggesting Dunn needs to ramp up his offseason workout regimen. In the past, Dunn has acknowledged having never picked up a bat in some offseasons.
“I think he should learn his lesson,” Guillen told reporters on Sunday, when he benched Dunn for a game. “He has to stay in shape now. He’s not 22 years old anymore…. He has to put himself in shape, and come to spring training in shape and stay there. If you don’t come to spring training in shape, you get hurt.”
On Monday, Dunn agreed, saying he will definitely do more hitting this coming offseason. “Just do what I can to not let this happen again,” he said.
The strange thing about Dunn’s free-fall is the fact that, entering this season, there had been no more consistent slugger in baseball than him. He had hit between 38 and 46 homers, driven in 92 to 106 runs and struck out 164 to 199 times in every season from 2004 to 2010, including the last two seasons as a member of the Washington Nationals.
This year, though, he is on pace for 16 homers, 57 RBI and 202 strikeouts. His OPS of .598 is nearly 300 points below his career norm. His batting average of .165 would obliterate Rob Deer’s 1991 record (.179) for the lowest in baseball history by a hitter with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. He has only three hits all season against left-handed pitchers, in 78 attempts – a ghastly .038 batting average.
And what has made his collapse all the more poignant is the fact the White Sox are in contention for the playoffs, entering Tuesday’s play just five games back in the AL Central division. It’s only natural to wonder where they would be if Dunn were giving them even a tiny bit of production.
“This is probably not going to be my finest year in a baseball season, but I can still make it a productive season by finding a way to pick it up,” he said. “Personally, there’s no way around it: It’s going to be a [terrible] year. But your goal is to win, and we’re still in it. If I can get it going these last two months, that would be huge for us.”
The Big Donkey doesn’t do soul-searching, and he doesn’t do deep conversations. (“I’m not into that,” he said. “What am I going to tell people? What are they going to tell me?”) But he does care, and he does hate what has happened to him this year, and he does believe it’s going to get better. And he really hopes it gets better soon.