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Looking For Redemption
Pat Burrell, Adam Dunn and J.D. Drew hope to finally cash in on their enormous potential
By Alan Schwarz
SARASOTA, Fla.--The arc kept climbing higher and higher, shot into space as if gravity were but a laughable rumor. It blitzed through layer upon layer of atmosphere like it would never come down. One ball? Sort of. This was an amalgam of four, propelled ever upward by Adam Dunn's legs, Pat Burrell's forearms, J.D. Drew's wrists, and baseball's irrepressible imagination.
Even those who wanted to slow down and stay more grounded, conservative, had no choice but to admit two years ago that these sluggers were sailing straight to stardom. As the 2002 season opened, Drew was coming off a year when, despite missing some 50 games to injury, he batted .323-27-73 with a .414 on-base percentage for the Cardinals. By July, Dunn completed his second half-season with the Reds with 36 total homers and 116 walks, launching balls like a lefthanded Mark McGwire. And at the end of that 2002 season, Burrell had slammed 37 homers and driven in 116 runs for the Phillies, looking like an MVP candidate for years to come.
Next thing everyone knew, though, the shots that seemed they would never return to earth actually did, plummeting right into the sailboats' stern. All three players are entering this season bailing doubts--some even their own--as they struggle to stay afloat.
Dunn has hit a shocking .205 since the 2002 all-star break, each gargantuan homer flanked by 10 at-bats where he had no clue. ("It's been a total mess," he admits.) Burrell hit .209-21-64 last year and was benched by manager Larry Bowa during September's playoff chase. And Drew had so many injuries that, after five years of various bodily woes, he makes Humpty Dumpty look robust.
So many young players bristle at the word potential and say, "Potential means you haven't done it yet." These guys have. And until they see success again, they remain adrift from that receding island, guided only by the flickering stars they once were.
August 15 of last season was the perfect encapsulation of Adam Dunn's on-and-off season, the two halves as tightly stitched together as a baseball itself. In the sixth inning against the Astros, he dove for a Richard Hidalgo fly ball in left field and banged his thumb into the turf, tearing a ligament, but the former football quarterback ignored the pain and kept playing. Two innings later, like so many at-bats before it, Dunn worked the count deep with a runner on second before taking a called third strike, totally confused.
In the 10th inning, without an RBI in two weeks and with a thumb that was killing him, he didn't bother taking practice swings. He didn't care about plate discipline. He just swung like hell and slammed a 453-foot home run off Brad Lidge to win the game 9-7, the first walk-off home run of his career. "I just went up there and hoped," he explained afterward.
It was his last at-bat the season.
"I had a curse on me last year, I'm telling you," says Dunn, whose thumb soon went in a cast for the next eight weeks. "If I bet on a race with two horses, I'd pick the loser. If I parked next to someone, it was my car that got keyed. And he's got a nicer car than I got! I'm like, 'You got to be kidding me, man.' "
It wasn't supposed to be like this. After Dunn's transcendent 2001 debut, when the 6-foot-6, 240-pound behemoth hit 32 homers in the minors before 19 in two months with the Reds, other big leaguers couldn't believe their eyes. "This is the kid you might have breaking the home run record," Astros slugger Jeff Bagwell said. The 2002 season started just as promising: He hit .300-17-54 to become the youngest player on either all-star team, and in three straight April plate appearances homered off Felix Rodriguez, Robb Nen and Kevin Brown.
After the break, though, Dunn completely fell apart, batting just .190-9-17, including a horrifying .153-2-6 in his last 43 games (and one five-strikeout disaster against the Diamondbacks). Then he batted in the low .200s throughout last season, getting benched occasionally, and slamming home runs in frustration when he pinch-hit. (One May 21 shot against the Braves almost left Great American Ball Park; five days later, another bomb gave him an NL-leading 18 homers.) But his approach might have been back home in Texas. You think Dunn's walk rate--he takes free passes about 17 percent of the time, making him a darling of the on-base addicts--means he has had a good idea of the strike zone? Think again.
"I've had the worst two years I can possibly have. One minute you feel like you can't get out, and the next minute you can't get on base to save your life," says Dunn, 24. "A lot of things were said about being too patient, walking too much, swing more. I think I let that get to me. I let it change my approach--I was swinging at pitches that I normally don't swing at, just to see what happened. If it's 3-1, I'm thinking, 'Shoot, they want me to swing.' It's a fastball off the plate and I roll over and ground out to second."
How messed up was Dunn? Expected to drive in runs, he was more than twice as likely to walk with a runner in scoring position than with the bases empty. Reds manager Bob Boone, who never met a lineup configuration he didn't like, bounced Dunn all over the order, including leadoff for a stretch. By the end of the season, Dunn had batted at least 24 times in seven different spots.
Stability this season will come in the form of manager Dave Miley--who vows to never bat Dunn leadoff--and new hitting coach Chris Chambliss. Everyone in the organization, including Miley, has been put on notice that no one but Chambliss is allowed to discuss hitting with Dunn. All suggestions must go through Chambliss himself, who will funnel to the player in one language, one message.
Early this spring, Chambliss watched films of Dunn from 2001 and thereafter, and suggested he open his front shoulder slightly to get a more direct look at the pitch and to get his top and bottom halves working in unison. He also wants Dunn, who relied on pure talent for so long, to start studying opposing pitchers so he knows what's coming more often and can strike earlier in the count. Last year, Dunn says, "I felt like I was behind 0-1 and 0-2 every at-bat."
"We'll work out having a plan at the plate--what to expect from the pitcher and what to expect from yourself," Chambliss says. Dunn concedes that it's time to do more homework: "Everything seems like it hasn't clicked. Maybe it has something to do with not taking every at-bat as seriously as I probably should. I'm going to do that this year."
Opponents still view Dunn as Vesuvius waiting to erupt. "You can tell that Adam just needs a couple more times around the league to get used to pitching," Braves left fielder Chipper Jones says. "He's got ungodly power. This guy can hit 60 homers in a season."
Adds Reds teammate Sean Casey: "He had a lot of success right away. That was easy. That was easy to accept. When you fail, how do you handle it? Do you struggle for two months before turning it around, or do you struggle for four days? I think that's the thing."
Despite the bashing that batting average has taken recently, hitters with low ones usually don't get to play a whole lot. But Bowa stayed with Burrell throughout last season, giving him his four times up every day until meaningful games in September, when he couldn't afford to anymore. Before Burrell, the last player to get to the plate at least 580 times despite an average below .210 was one Mark McGwire in 1991, when his career bottomed out with a now infamous .201; it's no surprise McGwire got in touch with Burrell during the kid's worst moments last season and told him: "This is going to be the best year of your life. You're not going to believe all you're going to learn about yourself."
Burrell's timing was either fortuitous or horrific, depending on your cynicism score. He signed a six-year, $50 million contract before the year started, cashing in on his breakout 2002 and rampant expectations of future improvement. It never came. From the first at-bat of the season, Burrell appeared lost, flailing at pitches as if his bat were a broomstick. Even notoriously nasty Philadelphia fans held back their booing, knowing his mental state was undoubtedly fragile enough.
"You could see it in his body language," the Braves' Jones says. "The dropping of the head. You could see the strain in his eyes. It's unfortunate, because he's got a world of talent. Every time he walks to the plate, I think he's going to hit a home run. That's just the kind of intimidating presence that he has. When he gets that swagger back, he's going to be hell."
The swing before the swagger. Burrell's stroke disintegrated quickly as his front shoulder flew out, collapsing his back leg and leaving him in no position to reach balls evenly, particularly those on the outside half of the plate. People all over Philadelphia, from waiters to (yes) weekend golfers, claimed to have the perfect tweak. Nothing worked as the frustration mounted.
"You start second-guessing yourself," says Burrell, 26. "When you talk about the mechanics and what goes into hitting a baseball, it can get overwhelming. It's hard enough to go out and do it; you don't need to complicate it with all the terms and stuff."
Burrell fled Veterans Stadium as fast as he could after the season--one he admits could have ended with a Phillies postseason spot if he'd hit a lick--and went to Hawaii for a week to clear his head. From there he returned to his Phoenix-area home to try to get his swing straight. He worked out on his own, doing soft-toss and tee drills, and spent several days talking with Charlie Manuel, a special assistant to general manager Ed Wade who doubles as the club's folksy hitting guru. Manuel, after letting Burrell explain his swing first--to rebuild his confidence--lowered Burrell's hands, had him stand straighter and moved him closer to the plate.
Burrell arrived in Clearwater, Fla., for spring training two weeks early for private hitting sessions with Manuel, Bowa and hitting coach Greg Gross. "I'd just like to see him get relaxed at the plate," says Bowa, adding that he expects some bad habits to return once games start. "If he's collapsing his back side, that's not a comfortable at-bat. If he's collapsing again, then it's a carry-over and you have to be concerned about it."
After moving Burrell to seventh in the order by the end of last year, Bowa wants to return Burrell to the cleanup spot between lefties Jim Thome and Bob Abreu. "I need to be that guy," Burrell says. "There's no way around it." The Phillies, who supercharged their pitching staff by adding closer Billy Wagner, reliever Tim Worrell and starter Eric Milton, didn't do anything for the offense. Just getting Burrell back to normal is all the boost they ask for.
Normal for Burrell, as far as most scouts are concerned, is far more 2002 than 2003: "It's not like two years ago was a fluke," one AL advance scout says. "Last year was the fluke." Like Dunn, Burrell, a former No. 1 overall draft pick and top prospect for years, was another player who hadn't tasted failure before and suddenly had to swallow it whole.
"Paul Owens once told me to be patient with guys who struggle for a whole year," Phillies assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle says. "They go home and have a meeting with themselves--they sit down and think things through, away from the battle, and see the big picture. That's what I've seen from Pat in camp so far. I fully expect him to be the guy he's capable of being.
"Pat's the wild card. Everything we did we did under the assumption that we're going to see the Pat of old."
Driving to Busch Stadium from his home in Chesterfield, Mo., two summers ago, J.D. Drew had a hard time not thinking about his knee. The joint stiffened so fast, with the pain so severe, that he often steered his Chevy truck all 20 miles into Busch Stadium with his right leg sticking into the passenger seat. "Sometimes," Drew says, "I'd put it on the dash."
Drew played 135 games in 2002, most of them on that rickety knee, and batted .252-18-56. Surgery right after the season finally removed a diseased portion of his patella tendon; his medial ligament, also painful, was left intact so the knee would hold together in the first place. The scar from the operation is just a little line above the kneecap--it's no gruesome, Tommy John gash--but its effects have torn Drew's skills and persona apart.
Missing the first five weeks of last season following the surgery, Drew struggled to get his body together for competition. The knee was still too painful for him to stop running without shooting pain. (Chasing one fly ball down the line in Fenway Park, Drew chose instead to slam into the short wall and flip over it. "If I'd tried to stop, it would have killed me," he says. "I'd have been done for three or four days.") His right quadriceps atrophied above his weak knee, and wound up half the size of their lefthanded counterparts. A collision with beefy Royals first baseman Ken Harvey irritated his hip, and in August Drew injured a ribcage muscle in the batting cage. After receiving word of that last malady, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa told reporters, "I'm going to be so (ticked off) if J.D. can't play the game tomorrow."
La Russa was entitled to his frustration, as Drew--the ballyhooed draft holdout who cost the Cardinals an $8.5 million major league contract to sign in 1998--had missed an average of 45 games a year since 1999. Brigitte Bardot was less of a tease. His strained right quadriceps (1999), sprained left ankle (2000), broken pinky (2001), lower back sprain (2001), the right-knee saga and last year's after-effects led some to question his interest in playing at all. Bonus babies face a special scrutiny: In 1994, after top prospect Jeffrey Hammonds had missed significant time to various maladies, his Orioles teammates poignantly taped a sign above the trainer's room that read, "CLUB HAMMONDS."
Drew still has shown flashes of electrifying power, even at last season's painful worst. Before the collision with Harvey last June, he was batting .324, and tattooed a 514-foot home run at Busch Stadium that slammed off the top of the right field video board. (He hit one 496 feet the previous year.) He is a pure hitter beyond the power, too, to the point where his .893 on-base plus slugging percentage the last three years is better than those of fellow outfielders Carlos Beltran and Garret Anderson.
After resisting inquiries about him at last year's trading deadline, the Cardinals finally cut bait with Drew and sent him to Atlanta for young pitchers Jason Marquis and Adam Wainwright. Drew calls his fresh start in his home state of Georgia a "huge relief," adding, "I never was really able to give the fans in St. Louis what I wanted to give them. They saw me not on the field a whole lot. I'd hit a home run and then the next day have to sit because of my knee. It's hard for them to understand why I couldn't play from day to day."
Counting on Drew to help compensate for the loss of sluggers Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez, the Braves are focusing on simply keeping Drew in the lineup. Manager Bobby Cox pledged to treat him with utmost care in spring training, holding Drew out of selected drills and some games to protect that knee. "We're down here to get ready for the season," Cox says, "not impress me the first week." Drew will spend as much time with trainers as coaches, doing step-downs, short-arc leg extensions and other exercises to strengthen the leg. "If I can keep my quad strong, it's a healthy, long year," Drew says. "If it shuts down on me, I'm in trouble."
One major league scout says Drew's health "is the first question, and maybe the only question" about him. With residual soreness in the knee that might never go away, Drew, who still wears No. 7, in that respect has made good on at least one aspect of the Mickey Mantle comparisons that have followed him for years: He might have to play on one leg the rest of his career. A 2004 season of even 145 games is probably a stretch. "I'm not expecting too much," Cox says, "but I'm excited to have him."
Another scout adds: "Pat Burrell, at least he played. If you play, you get better--you might lose confidence, but you get better. You get hurt, you can't get better. Drew's still good, but he hasn't developed."
Which is worse, to not play or to play poorly? Regardless, all three players have to rebuild their belief that they can make good on the future that flashed past awfully quickly. Drew has rejiggered his expectations to the point where his goal for 2004 is to "have a long year." Not a good year, but a long one. Such are his--and others'--shifting standards for a star collapsing upon himself.
Dunn and Burrell, meanwhile, must get used to having failed for the first time in their careers, and build up their confidence anew. Dunn is quite forthright about the self-doubt that crawled between his ears the last two seasons--"I know I can semi-do it," he jokes -- while Burrell takes a more stoic, macho approach. "The biggest thing for me is to realize that last year is over and there's nothing you can do about yesterday," he says. "It was no one's fault but my own."
The all-star outfield of the future is now redemption's outfield of the present. Nothing would make the three happier than to return to the easygoing days of years ago, when they were in their early 20s, launching balls into the night. When life was wonderfully backward, so much easier to go up than to come down.