On this turquoise blue Arizona afternoon, Shawon Dunston tapped his bat on the plate in the batting cage and once again planted his feet in the box. Behind the cage, bending forward as if over a lectern, Chicago Cub manager Jim Frey barked out game situations before every pitch.
"Man on third, one out," said Frey. "Get a ball you can hit straight away."
Thwack! A line drive sliced up the middle. "Perfect!" said Frey. "Attaboy!"
Dunston reset. "Man on second, no out."
Thwack! A low bouncer scurried between third and short. "Base hit," said Frey. "Don't try to hit it hard. Base-hit strokes. No overkill. Hands back. Drive through the ball."
Dunston nodded. "Man on first, one out," said Frey, pointing to the right side. "Can you hit it in that hole over there?"
Thwack! The ball jumped to the mound, an easy out to the pitcher. "Try again," said Frey. "Wait a little longer."
It was March 20, the first day of spring and the day before his 22nd birthday, and Shawon Donnell Dunston appeared to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. On closer inspection, it turned out merely to be his head, but that can be no small thing when you are a phenom, the phenom of spring training 1985. Dunston runs like a thoroughbred, swings live wood, has a cannon for an arm, and just about everyone figures he will be the Cubs' star shortstop into the 21st century.
"He's just your average budding 22-year-old superstar," says his minor league roommate, third baseman Tony Woods.
But now, three weeks into spring training, the bloom was off the bud. Dunston had just gone 0 for 5 against the Milwaukee Brewers, killing rallies in the seventh and eighth innings. Stopping dead behind first base, he bent forward 90 degrees at the waist and stared straight at the ground, for some 20 seconds, like a man studying his image in a reflecting pool, which in a way he was. He was thinking: "It's over. Now relax. Be patient. Concentrate."
At game's end he was hitting .125, with two singles and a double in 24 at bats, and still struggling to find a groove at the plate. So Frey had asked him to put in some overtime.
"Man on third, one out. Wait for a ball you can hit."
Dunston slashed a pop-up into the net above. "Try it again," said Frey. "Control the swing. You don't have to kill it. Hit through the ball."
With a crisp, even stroke, Dunston drove a hard line drive down the right-field line. "That's it," said Frey. "You can't swing better than that. Perfect."
Came the last pitch, and the young hitter nailed it flush. Frey threw up his arms. "Cubs win!" he yelled.
Facing Dunston in the cage a few minutes later, lecturing on the obscure science of hitting, Frey finally told him, "Somebody will tell you one thing and somebody will tell you another. Just remember: The reason that you're here is because you're already one hell of a player."
There were still 16 days to go in spring training—20 days before the Cubs open their season in the Friendly Confines—and Dunston was one of two players at the center of a classic drama whose ultimate resolution will answer the question that fans have been asking all winter: Who will start the season at shortstop? After the Cubs' winningest season in 39 years, it is the only major unresolved issue besetting the team. The rest of the everyday lineup is the same as last year's, and even the pitching rotation returns unchanged.
That the question is still being posed, of course, serves only to raise the hackles of 15-year veteran Larry Bowa, the Cubs' regular shortstop last year. Bowa's lifetime .980 fielding percentage is the highest for any major league shortstop who ever played more than 1,000 games. His dossier reads far more sweet than sour: two Gold Gloves, 2,161 games played, a respectable .261 lifetime batting average, a World Series championship ring (Phillies, 1980), participation in five All-Star Games.
"Bowa's one of the best two-out shortstops I've ever been around," says the Cubs' president, Dallas Green, who has known Bowa since the shortstop's earliest days with Philadelphia. "He catches every baseball when there's two outs."
Bowa turned 39 on Dec. 6, but he lives clean and works to keep his body hard, and no one doubts that he can still play—in the field, that is. One reason he now finds himself fighting Dunston for his job is his unaccountably dismal exertions at the plate last year. He hit .223, batting .287 righthanded, .193 as a lefty. At times he appeared so thin of stick that Frey, looking for a hotter hand, benched him for Dave Owen or Tom Veryzer, moves that set the player and manager, openly at odds after Bowa popped off to the press. He had just 17 RBIs, only two after Aug. 1, and scored but 33 runs, a career low. At the end of the season, Frey set out to discover whether Dunston was ready to take Bowa's job.
This was precisely the task for which the young man had been groomed since the Cubs made him the first choice overall in the June '82 free-agent draft, an anointing that drew national attention to Dunston and enriched him with a bonus in excess of $125,000, which he immediately gave to his parents. "It's my family's money," he says. Jack Dunston, who worked alternately as a barber, cabbie and limousine driver, and his wife, Brenda, raised their three children in Brooklyn, just across the border from Queens.
The family was wound as tight as a baseball, and still is. "It's a remarkable situation," says Jack. "Life as it is supposed to be with a family. We're very close. A lot of harmony." The oldest son, Bryant, 25, is a sergeant in the Army. The youngest, Kindra, 21, is a receptionist with a Wall Street law firm. Shawon, the middle child, had only one idea in mind from the age of nine.
"Baseball, baseball, baseball," Brenda says. "Everything he did was life or death. He was always aggressive. He talked early. He walked at 11 months. He's still striving, God bless him."
In 1968, during Bowa's third and penultimate year in the minors, Shawon Dunston was five and just beginning to learn the game from his father. "We played and played and played," Shawon says. He started in organized ball in seventh grade, and by the time he got to Thomas Jefferson High in Brooklyn, his coach, Steve Nathanson, could see he was just an average budding 14-year-old superstar. "But not smooth in the field, all elbows and kneecaps," says Nathan-son. Dunston was All-City four years, and in his last year he hit an astounding .790 and stole 37 bases in 37 tries.
Dunston has hung up some fancy numbers on offense in his three years as a minor-leaguer, including a .310 average with 62 RBIs and 58 stolen bases in Class A ball at Quad City in 1983. Inconsistency plagued him then, as it does now. "I saw him play two weeks where he looked like he could play in the big leagues," says his Quad City manager, Larry Cox, "and two weeks where he couldn't."
Last year Dunston was uneven, too. Dividing his time between Midland (AA) and Des Moines (AAA), Dunston made a thumping 58 errors, most of them by rushing throws after eagerly charging, and then hobbling, routine ground balls. At the plate he hit .329 at Midland, but fell off to .233 at Des Moines, where he struck out once in every 5.2 at bats, a grim ratio unless you're Reggie Jackson. Notwithstanding Dunston's erratic fielding and hitting, Frey took a close look at him last fall in Arizona Instructional League play and apparently liked what he saw.
Wondering whether the Cubs planned to pick up his option, Bowa called Green in late October. "Jim thinks the kid's ready," Green told him. "But I'll let you know one way or the other." Bowa figured he'd had it as a Cub.
On Oct. 31, Green called Bowa to tell him they were keeping him another year. Bowa was shocked. "Why?" he asked. "Jim wants the kid to play."
"I want to make sure," Green said. "I don't want any 'I think he's ready,' or 'He might be ready.' "
So Bowa went to work to keep his job. He converted the top floor of his new house in Seminole, Fla. into a batting cage, and all winter long he hit balls off a tee. He worked hard on his stroke from the left side. "I pulled off the ball on the left side," he says. "My head was moving a lot and I wasn't getting a good look at pitches. I was jumping at the ball."
Dunston took off for winter ball in Venezuela with Chicago coach Ruben Amaro, the former Phillie shortstop, but his season was cut short in December when he got hit by a pitch in the groin. As Dunston convalesced, Bowa stroked balls off the tee until spring training. On the first day, Frey called Bowa into his office and told him he did not know who his shortstop would be. "We have six weeks to decide," said Frey.
"I have one bad year, the team wins its division, and everyone wants to get me out," Bowa says. "I don't understand that. I had one off year. No excuses. But I did what I was supposed to do defensively and we won. I don't think, as a player with 15 years in the big leagues, that I should go down to April 4th on a string. I've never been treated like this."
Green and Frey must decide which way they want to go—with a gifted, un-proven youth, a raw talent with little past and all future, or with the skilled, polished veteran, all past with little future. When Bowa came up, the Phillies were rebuilding and he was flat given the job with a license to lose ball games. Such is not the case in Chicago.
"We're not in the character-building stage," says Green. "This is a good baseball team. You can't afford a high-error guy in a key position."
The Cubs particularly need a gifted hand at short, Green says, because their pitchers are not a strikeout staff, relying more on finesse than heat. That means lots of ground balls. "Consequently," says Green, "we have to catch the ball. If Shawon Dunston proves he's ready to do that and play major league shortstop on an everyday basis, we'll probably go with him at short. We don't know."
For Dunston, the spring of 1985 may be too soon. He still charges those easy grounders and muffs more than his share.
The day after he took batting practice with Frey, coach Don Zimmer hit bouncers to him at short. "Can you make ten plays in a row for me?" Zimmer asked him. Dunston set himself. He bobbled the second grounder—"Ohhh," Zimmer scolded—and misplayed the fourth.
"You have to start over again," Zimmer said.
Over he started. Zimmer hit him several easy one-bouncers, which Dunston swept up and threw to first, and of each Zimmer said, "Another cookie." After Dunston fielded eight balls errorlessly, the coach cautioned him, "Make a play on this one." Zimmer rapped it deep into the hole. Dunston raced to his right, snagged the ball backhand, leaped in the air, spinning, and rifled a peg to first base. Lovely it was.
Zimmer called out, "That was a big league play!"
Green says he is willing to keep Dunston in the big leagues this year only if he appears ready to take over the starting job. If Bowa wins it back, Green says, "Shawon will be playing in Des Moines."
Dunston says he is ready either way. "I'm 22 and I have a long way to go," he says. "Eventually I'll be up there. If I go to Triple A right now, I'll work hard, take the ground balls, swing the bat and show them that by sending me down, they're helping me out. I won't pout."