Adam Dunn walked into Nationals Park today for the first time since September 2010, two and a half years removed from the last time he wore a Nationals uniform. Even that uniform itself has changed since then. The Nationals have transformed into a contender, Adam LaRoche plays first base now and Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg are tangible forces in the present, not distant figures on which to pin hopes.
One thing stayed the same. The thing Dunn always liked best about playing in Washington was the people, inside and outside of the franchise. As he strolled into the stadium this afternoon, he recognized the security guard and shared a conversation with him.
“That kind of stuff is special,” Dunn said. “When you sit there and you pull up in a cab and he remembers you from a couple years ago. You sit there and talk to him, it was like you’d never left.”
In his two years with the Nationals, Dunn clobbered 76 home runs – still second in team history behind Ryan Zimmerman – and gave the city a baseball attraction. Maybe the Nationals didn’t win, but at least you could come watch a slugger remind you of Frank Howard and swing for the downs.
“No matter what, good, bad, the fans were fans,” Dunn said. “They really enjoyed having a big league baseball team in Washington. They came to the park every day. Whether it was 30,000, whether it was 10,000, they came to root and cheer for the Nationals.”
Dunn has watched the Nationals’ emergence with happiness – “they’ve got some of my buddies on that team,” Dunn said – but not surprise.
“I think everyone saw it coming,” Dunn said. “You probably didn’t see it coming as quickly as it did. It was definitely a matter of time. They’ve got the people in the right places. They’ve got people making good decisions that should be making the decisions. They’ve got a good thing going here.”
After Dunn struggled with health in 2011 and produced one of the worst offensive seasons in recent memory, he bounced back in 2012 with an all-star season. The new, year-long interleague play means already, in the first half of April, he may not appear in his return. With no designated hitter, Paul Konerko will play first base and Dunn will start on the bench as Gio Gonzalez pitches for the Nationals.
“I didn’t know how that was going to be,” Dunn said. “I do now, and it’s not good. It’s tough. We’ve got six games under our belt, and I’ve got to sit today. It’s tough when you’re feeling good at the plate early and you want to keep it. You can’t play 10.”
Dunn’s presence on the bench, then, may be the ultimate test for the Nationals’ bullpen construction. They have only left-hander, long man Zach Duke, and therefore will have to call on a right-hander to face Dunn. Tyler Clippard is probably the best bet if the match-up arises – Clippard held left-handed hitters to a .179 average last year and, so far this season, has not allowed a hit in three innings.
“Hopefully when he comes up, it’s late in the ballgame and we’ve got a lead,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “With nobody on.”
When the Astros moved from the National League to the American League, necessitating constant interleague play, the issue of whether both leagues should adopt the same rule regarding the designated hitter became a debate. Dunn’s take? Well, it’s complicated.
“I do have an opinion, but I’d like to keep it to myself, because I like my job,” Dunn said. “But it’s tough, man. I see both sides of the argument. It has been around forever. But, you know, now the interleague is kind of a year-round deal, uh … next question.”
Dunn’s gregarious nature made him beloved among fans and teammates alike. He remains especially close with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Even Mike Rizzo, who chose not to sign him before bringing in LaRoche instead, was fond of him.
“He’s one of my favorite players,” Rizzo said. “He was great in the clubhouse. He was an offensive threat. It’s great to see him have a bounce-back season and play like he can play.”