Part 2 of 3
The Chicago Cubs, on the heels of a division championship season in 1984, felt shortstop Shawon Dunston was ready for the big leagues in 1985.
Manager Jim Frey told Dave Anderson of the New York Times, “I think Dunston can be an outstanding player, because he’s a hitter at a defensive position.”
There had been some questions about the 22-year-old’s defense, but Frey was satisfied after seeing him execute “three big-league plays” in exhibition competitions.
“He dove in the hole for a ball and had the ball to first base in time, in the dirt, but in time. On a ball hit to the left of the second baseman, he made a double play that few shortstops can make; he’s got a shotgun of an arm, maybe the best arm of any shortstop around. And he dove for a ball behind second base and made the play.”
Dunston won the job out of spring training, beating out veteran Larry Bowa, and made his Wrigley Field debut on April 9, 1985 against Pittsburgh before 34,551 fans braving 35-degree temperatures.
In the sixth inning, Dunston sent a Rick Rhoden pitch into right field for his first career hit.
When I spoke with Dunston, who shared his memories by phone, he remembered his parents watching him on that opening day, a victorious one for the Cubs and opening-day starter Rick Sutcliffe.
At the time, “That was my greatest moment, because I made the big leagues. I reached my ultimate (goal), I wanted to be a big leaguer.”
But on May 14, with Dunston hitting .194 in 23 games with nine errors, the Cubs sent him down to Iowa after an 8-3 Cubs victory in Los Angeles.
The job was back in Bowa’s hands.
“Everyone thinks Larry Bowa didn’t help me. He helped me a lot. When I got sent down, he was the only person that talked to me. He waited for me at the hotel and spoke to me. He said, ‘Son, you’re going to be back up.'”
Dunston’s exile only lasted until Aug. 12, when the Cubs released the 39-year-old Bowa.
Dunston remembered how Cubs GM Dallas Green called him into his office when he was recalled and told him, “The job is yours for the next 10 years. Don’t blow it.”
Dunston bounced back, batting .330 with three homers, eight RBI and five stolen bases in September.
In 1986, Dunston was a doubles machine, with 37. Added to 17 home runs and three triples, that meant that 57 of his 145 hits were for extra bases.
In 1987, he missed significant time, when he broke a bone in his right hand sliding headfirst into second base on June 15, 1987 against the Phillies. Three screws were inserted into the bone to hold it together.
“The trainer, John Fiero, he said, ‘You are going to be back in two months.’ We worked and worked and worked. Oh, I had some choice words for him, because my hand was hurting and he was bending it, and he got me back. The Cubs had the best trainer in the world.”
By 1988, the shortstop had come into his own, earning a selection to the NL All-Star team, the first of two in his career. That year, he had 23 doubles and 30 stolen bases.
“The game started slowing down for me. I remember everybody always used to tell me, slow down, slow down,” he said. “They always told me it’s two ways to play baseball. Either you play it as a sprint or a marathon. I played it as a sprint. The great players play it as a marathon.”
As he established himself as a major league shortstop, Dunston gained a reputation for his cannon arm.
He developed his strength in his childhood by hurling rocks and snowballs. In pro ball, “They taught me how to long-toss. It makes your arm stronger.”
It could be an erratic arm now and then.
Mark Grace who was inducted this year with Dunston into the Cubs Hall of Fame, recently said, “When he would miss me, he’d miss in the 20th row. I said, ‘There was Tinker to Evers to Chance. And then there was (Ryne) Sandberg to Dunston to Addison Street.'”
The 1989 season was memorable for a division championship. The team was known as the Boys of Zimmer, in honor of skipper Don Zimmer.
“He’s my favorite manager. He’s my best manager. Yes, I played for the great Tony La Russa and Dusty Baker, but he’s my favorite manager. He let me be myself. And I appreciate that. He let us all be ourselves.
“I used to swing at this pitch over my head. I would just sit there and talk to him and go, ‘Why do I swing at it.’ He would say, ‘Son, I don’t know, because I used to swing at it too.'”
Dunston remembers the season as “beautiful, but the year didn’t start off that way. We would win nine straight, then we would lose nine straight. We were very streaky. We were very inconsistent, except for Andre (Dawson) and Ryno (Ryne Sandberg) and Sutcliffe.”
It was a good blend of veterans and newcomers like Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith.
Dunston contributed with 20 doubles, six triples, nine homers, 60 RBI and 19 stolen bases.
But the year would end on a bitter note, when the San Francisco Giants defeated the Cubs in the NLCS.
“Yeah, it hurt,” he said. “But they beat us fair and square.”
After his playing career ended, Dunston would win three World Series rings as a member of the Giants organization.
“But if I had it my way, I would give back my three rings as a coach and win one as a player.”