By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2009
The story of how Adam Dunn, arguably the most prodigious home run hitter in baseball, came to be standing before a podium in the interview room at Nationals Park yesterday, bathed in floodlights and flanked by beaming members of the Washington Nationals' brain trust, is a complex one. It was not something Dunn could have envisioned when he filed for free agency on Nov. 1.
It involves the typical dues a player must pay before reaching the promised land of free agency, the unfortunate timing of having that free agency arrive in the midst of a deep recession that turned baseball's talent marketplace upside down and, ultimately, some persuasive arm-twisting by a half-dozen or so Nationals personnel who had no ambivalence whatsoever about a potential marriage.
But regardless of how Dunn's two-year, $20 million deal with the Nationals came to pass, or how uncomfortably near it is to tomorrow's opening of the team's spring training camp in Viera, Fla., the Nationals treated yesterday's unveiling as exactly what it was: the biggest free agent signing in the franchise's history, and a major step in their quest for legitimacy.
"To be able to walk into spring training having signed Adam Dunn," said General Manager Jim Bowden, "we feel we accomplished something."
The news conference-slash-television show featured an awkward pause at the start as MASN came out of a commercial break, a gushing speech from principal owner Mark Lerner (who called Dunn "the power hitter we've been missing in D.C. since my childhood hero, Frank Howard"), a miniature Nationals jersey for 2-year-old Brady Dunn and flowers for Dunn's wife, Rachel.
Dunn, 29, handled the majority of questions adroitly, praising the Nationals' new stadium, saying he doesn't care whether he plays left field or first base and warning anyone who would criticize his defense to watch out -- because he is the healthiest he has been in years.
"It's going to be fun," the 6-foot-6, 275-pound Texan said, "I can promise y'all. . . . I'm at full health now. We're going to see."
More impressive was the delicateness and honesty with which Dunn addressed the uneasy truth that stayed mostly below the surface yesterday -- that while he may have been the Nationals' top choice for much of the winter, at least after they lost out on Mark Teixeira, they were not necessarily his.
"I definitely had doubts" about signing with the Nationals, Dunn acknowledged. "When all this first came about, I was saying, 'Man, they lost 102 games last year,' and this and that. . . . Coming into this offseason, I was sold on playing for a contender, playing for a team that's already proven themselves."
But Dunn said he did "research" on the Nationals and realized the team was both exceedingly young and exceedingly beset by injuries in 2008. He spoke frequently to Nationals right fielder Austin Kearns, a good friend from their days together in Cincinnati, and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, another good friend. He listened to their sales pitches, and those of Bowden, who first drafted Dunn as general manager of the Reds in 1998, and Manager Manny Acta.
"I didn't realize the injuries," Dunn said. "I didn't realize how young these guys were."
Dunn happened to have reached free agency at a time when the marketplace shifted decidedly in favor of management. Despite having hit more home runs in the past five years than every player in baseball except Alex Rodriguez, Dunn, like several similarly accomplished players, was forced to accept a pay cut -- from a $13 million salary last year, which he split between Cincinnati and Arizona, to a $10 million average the next two years.
"I'm not going to sit here and whine and complain about it," he said.
It's not as if Dunn had no other offers. Both the Angels and Dodgers were thought to have interest in him, as were the Atlanta Braves. Dunn's agent, Greg Genske, did not confirm any other offers, saying only that "there were other offers for good money, in good markets."
Bowden characterized the negotiations as "excruciating" at times, and Nationals President Stan Kasten said the sides went "back and forth, for a long time." Still, the Nationals felt throughout much of the winter as if they held the upper hand, particularly as prices continued to fall and other teams began to fill their holes. Bowden said it was Monday night when he felt he had the player wrapped up.
For yesterday's news conference, most of the Nationals' personnel, including Bowden and Acta, had to fly to Washington from Florida, where they already had set up shop. Most of them were flying back either last night or today, to prepare for tomorrow's opening of a camp that all of a sudden has an entirely different feel.
"When you walk into the clubhouse and he's in your uniform," Bowden said, "the timeline doesn't matter."
Dunn, too, was making arrangements to get himself and his family to Space Coast Stadium in the coming days. It may not have been the destination he envisioned for himself 3 1/2 months ago, but by the end of yesterday's proceedings the idea seemed to have grown on him.
"I can sit here with a straight face," he said, "and say this is where I wanted to be."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.