Look Who's Back

Out two years due to disk surgery, Shawon Dunston is now stretching himself to the limit
May 01, 1994

Ozzie Guillen of the Chicago White Sox invaded the enemy clubhouse before the Windy City Classic exhibition game at Wrigley Field on April 7, loaded for Cub. "Shawon. Sha-won! Where is Sha-won Dunston?" bellowed Guillen. "That man's been stealing the Tribune's money for three years now! I better not find him in the trainer's room, or I'll...."

The search did end in the trainer's room, and the hooting and laughter from the crosstown friends echoed through the clubhouse. In addition to playing shortstop, Guillen and Dunston have had one other position in common: supine in a hospital bed. Guillen needed surgery to repair torn knee ligaments, which sidelined him for virtually the entire 1992 season, and now Dunston is back after missing all but 25 games the past two years because of a herniated disk that required an operation. On this day Guillen was giving Dunston the needle, but having gone under a surgeon's knife, Dunston was impervious. His back was still stiff, his movements sometimes tentative, but at least it didn't hurt when he laughed.

It didn't hurt when he played, either, judging by the way he threw himself around the field the first three weeks of the season. Dunston doubled in two runs on Opening Day and had a pinch-hit double the next afternoon. But in his next appearance, three days later on the rock-hard artificial turf in Montreal that can make joints groan and spines tingle, Dunston showed he really is—well—back.

In the top of the seventh Dunston lofted a fly ball that smacked the overhanging speaker in leftfield—a ground rule home run at Olympic Stadium. Then, with an Expo runner on second in the bottom of the inning, Dunston flung himself to his left, extended his body almost horizontally and caught Larry Walker's liner to prevent a run from scoring. Dunston crashlanded on his side and rolled onto his back. For a grim instant it seemed as if Americans following the health-care debate would get to see the vaunted Canadian national medical system in action. But Dunston soon clambered to his feet. He capped his AMA-approved performance with a two-run single in the ninth inning. After the Cubs' 4-0 win, Chicago general manager Larry Himes told Dunston, "You really cut their heads off with that single." Dunston beamed.

Dunston, who was the Cubs' regular shortstop from 1986 until his back went out, was hoping to hear encouragement from Himes last summer, when his rehabilitation seemed to be taking its sweet time. He listened for something like "Oh, don't worry, the job is yours whenever you're well"—the reassuring message that Guillen got from the White Sox during his rehab. But the only thing Dunston heard Himes and then manager Jim Lefebvre say—quite correctly, incidentally—was that with Rey Sanchez, Jose Vizcaino and a healthy Dunston, Chicago would have three frontline shortstops. "I never wanted a handout," Dunston says, "but I was looking for something a little more humane from Larry."

Worse, Dunston thought Himes suspected him of jaking—collecting $3 million a year and sitting on his wallet instead of working diligently to get back in the lineup. "No," an agitated Himes said recently when asked if he had suspected Dunston of malingering. "I don't know where Shawon gets that stuff. Shawon had set a time frame with the Cubs for his return. That wasn't my time frame. That was our time frame. He helped set it, and it wasn't being met. I wanted to get Shawon back and not feeling sorry for himself. Guys feel sorry for themselves, and they want everybody to feel sorry for them."

But the air around Wrigley grew thick with suspicion and innuendo. First baseman Mark Grace, one of only three current Cubs remaining from the team that started the 1991 season, says he was constantly defending Dunston last year. "Reporters would be asking me if Shawon was dogging it," Grace says. "I'd tell them, 'No way.' There's no dog in him."

"My pride was hurt, but I knew my pain was tough for others to understand," Dunston says. "I used to look at Scott Sanderson when he was here. I thought Scott didn't want to play. I'd see him walking around the clubhouse, acting fine, then the day he was supposed to pitch, his back would hurt. [Sanderson, now with the White Sox, had a disk operation in 1988.] I was 23, 24 then, completely healthy, and I didn't understand that with a back you have good days or bad days, nothing in between. I apologized to Scott last year for how I had felt."

Eight of every 10 Americans suffer back pain at some point in their lives—some of them are named Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Darryl Strawberry and Dave Winfield. Estimates put the cost of treating back pain in the U.S. at more than $24 billion annually.

For the Cubs it was $6 million: half of the four-year, $12 million deal Dunston signed after the '91 season. One morning that December, with the ink on the contract still wet, he took his youngest daughter, Jasmine, out to breakfast. He was putting her into her car seat when a searing pain in his lower back dropped him to the asphalt. "So there was this black man in the Denny's parking lot, lying next to a Mercedes," Dunston muses. "I can't imagine what people were thinking."

Dunston exercised to help his back and played through his discomfort at the start of the '92 season. He even took a 12-game hitting streak into a game on May 4, knowing something was seriously wrong. He played anyway and went hitless. Nine days later Dr. Michael Schafer removed Dunston's herniated disk, an operation that put him on the shelf for the season.

Although he had been told by Schafer that he would need 18 months to recover, Dunston pushed himself and tried to be ready to start the 1993 season. But one day during spring training, while he bent over the sink to brush his teeth, the agonizing back pain stabbed him again. If he couldn't reach a molar, a ground ball was out of the question. Fearing he would never play again, Dunston took the advice of Winfield, who told him, "Your body has to heal. You can't rush nature."

The Cubs agreed that Dunston should rehabilitate near his Fremont, Calif., home with a personal trainer. Dunston had always been a guy who woke up in the morning and hit the ground running. Now he hit the ground and stayed there—stretching. Dunston would rise before the coccyx crowed, linger a moment to watch his children sleep and then head off for a 5 a.m. workout. "I've learned patience from all this," says Dunston, 31. "I've done some growing up."

Dunston rejoined the Cubs late last July—to work out, to still the whispers, to show the relative strangers in his own clubhouse that he cared—but he didn't feel ready to play until September. When he finally made his '93 debut, as a pinch hitter, he grounded out and received a standing ovation from the Wrigley crowd. Two days later Dunston had a game-tying hit that he stretched into a double, bringing his teammates in the dugout to their feet. "I looked over and could see the surprise on their faces," Dunston says." 'This guy has back problems?' " The comeback was aborted a week later, however, when Dunston strained his right hamstring running hard on a pop-up. "Shawon," Himes says, "is the hustlingest player in the league." He also became one of the most expendable.

This spring, when Dunston homered in his first exhibition game and hit .367 during training camp, the Cubs truly did have three quality shortstops. Dunston heard last winter that the New York Mets might want to trade for him—Dunston, drafted No. 1 overall in 1982 out of Thomas Jefferson High in Brooklyn, would not have minded going home—but Himes says no team was interested in him. Instead, on March 30, pitching-poor Chicago traded Vizcaino to the Mets for Anthony Young.

"I knew it would be me or Vizcaino going, not Shawon," says Sanchez, who hit .282 last season and was a defensive whiz as Dunston's replacement. "We all knew if Shawon was healthy, he'd be the man."

While the Cubs staggered out of the gate this season—Chicago was last in the National League Central (5-11) through Sunday—Dunston started 12 games, hit .256 and had nine RBIs. In one game against the Mets, he took off from first on a sacrifice bunt attempt and slid feetfirst into second. When the throw sailed into centerlield, Dunston popped up and headed for third, diving headfirst into the bag.

"I may be only at 90 percent, but my 90 percent is more than what most people give at 100 percent," he says. "I'm still going to take the extra base, even if we're winning 10-0. They can tell me to take it easy, but that's just the way I play."

Cub manager Tom Trebelhorn has made concessions to Dunston's back—for example, sitting him in Wrigley Field twice in the opening home stand when the windchill dipped to 6°. To keep his back and hamstrings loose, Dunston stretches constantly during a game, even crouching before he enters the batter's box. Sometimes when the Cubs are changing pitchers, he plops onto the turf and pulls his left leg over his right knee. The guy has become a regular Yoga Berra.

And, yes, it isn't over till it's over. Win-field came back from disk surgery in 1989 to get his 3,000th hit and a World Series-winning double. And since his operation, Sanderson has won 70 games. Although he balked at the idea last year, Dunston realizes he might have to move to center-field to prolong his career. Himes thinks the position is a natural for Dunston, whose speed is undiminished and whose arm has always been worthy of cannonization. "But right now I want to give shortstop my best shot," Dunston says. "I want to prove I can be a good player, an All-Star player, after back surgery."

That may not be much of a stretch.

THREE PHOTOSCHUCK SOLOMONAfter pregame twists limber up his lumbar, Dunston stays on his toes to keep his hamstrings healthy. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONAt week's end Dunston had driven in nine runs, and he was holding up his end in the field.