THERE WOULD BE no valedictory tour for Adam Dunn. No presentations by genuflecting opponents; no gifts that will work wonders for the feng shui of his attic; no can-you-believe-it? walk-off hit in his final home game. But Dunn's retirement from baseball was as perfect for Dunn as Derek Jeter's had been for Jeter. On Sept. 28—after a wait of 14 seasons and 2,001 regular-season games—the 34-year-old first baseman, outfielder and DH finally reached the playoffs. His club, the A's—to whom he'd been traded on Aug. 31—played 12 innings in their wild-card game two days later, against the Royals, but decided they didn't need Dunn's services in any of them. Oakland lost. In the clubhouse Dunn quietly confirmed, without anger or disappointment, that the game had represented more than just the end of his season. "That's probably it," he said, of his career.
As the Captain sailed away on a vessel loaded with pin-striped cowboy boots, a pin-striped guitar and a supermodel girlfriend (not pin-striped, presumably), the Big Donkey trotted home to Texas to his wife, Rachel, and their three kids, but with saddlebags empty. It made sense. Dunn spent his time in baseball viewed by many as the anti-Jeter.
Jeter was a Yankee, full stop. Dunn was a Red, but also a Diamondback, a National, a White Sox and, briefly, an Athletic. Jeter was number 2. Dunn was number 44 but also number 32 and number 10. He was not the type to beg a new teammate for his preferred digits.
If someone suggested that Jeter would rather be anywhere than at the ballpark, it was blasphemy. If someone suggested the same about Dunn, it was a day ending in Y. He was honest about the grind of his profession, and his immensity—he is 6'6" and 285 pounds—made him look lethargic. A Cincinnati radio host once accused him of playing drunk. (He wasn't.) Another team's GM blasted his lack of passion. While hip-hop paeans name-checked Jeter, the only tune anyone ever composed about Dunn came from his Reds teammate, and part-time musician, Bronson Arroyo. The pitcher reworked a song to reflect his friend's typical late September demeanor. Says Arroyo, "The lyrics were like, 'I'm Adam Dunn, I'm so glad the season's over, I just want to get home and be sipping on a beer by the pool and get away from this b.s.'"
While it seemed as if Jeter could do anything, Dunn, essentially, could do only three things: hit home runs, walk and strike out. Just under half of his 8,328 plate appearances ended with one of that trio, a higher ratio than any other player in history with 4,000 plate appearances. He hit enough blasts (462 of them, 35th alltime) and drew enough bases on balls (1,317, 40th alltime) to be paid a total of $113 million, but he'll be most remembered for the third outcome. He whiffed 2,379 times, more than anybody but Reggie Jackson and Jim Thome.
They say every athlete dies twice—the first time when he retires—but Dunn had already died multiple deaths before last week. Each time he swung and missed on strike three was agonizing for him, and he did everything he could to drag himself out there the next at bat, hoping for a better result. Between his first full season, 2002, and his last, he played in more games than anyone but Ichiro and Albert Pujols. (He also played through a torn meniscus for two years, which is not at all what not caring looks like.)
Dunn was as consistent as Jeter, in his way. He hit 40 or more homers in five straight seasons, a streak only Babe Ruth, Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa surpassed. While Jeter was always who you wanted him to be, Dunn was always who he was, even as many wished he would be something different. Both did the best they could with what they had.
In the summer of 2020, Jeter will ascend to Cooperstown. Dunn will most likely be somewhere in Texas, sipping a beer by the pool—.237 hitters don't receive plaques. Two weeks ago SI devoted 12 pages to Jeter as he reached the final measures of his swan song. Dunn gets these 723 words. He'd tell you that they were 723 words too many.
While Jeter was always who you wanted him to be, Adam Dunn was always who he was, even as many wished he would be something different.
Who are today's other under-appreciated players?
Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SI_BenReiter