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A Walk-Off Most Foul

Sometime around 1979 or 1980, a couple of Mets were working a local baseball clinic and one particular skinny teenager from Brooklyn bugged them the whole time they were there.

"I'm gonna make the big leagues some day," the young man insisted.

Little did those Mets know then how valuable the kid from Thomas Jefferson High, Shawon Dunston, was going to be to their team someday. In 1982, Dunston was the prize of the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, selected with the No. 1 pick by the Chicago Cubs. He was in the majors as a shortstop and Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg's double-play partner by 1985 (he reminded those Mets from the clinic what he told them a few years before) and gained a reputation as a bit of a free swinger, whose golden arm was capable of throwing out a batter from anywhere on the infield (Joe Morgan said it was the best he ever saw), and who had potential to be a great hitter if he could cut down on the strikeouts.

Prior to the Mets trading Roger McDowell in the Juan Samuel deal, there was a back-page rumor in the New York Post that Dunston would come to the Mets for McDowell and Kevin Elster. This trade never materialized and instead Dunston stayed in Chicago for the prime years of his career, which were haunted by a back injury that forced him to miss much of 1992 and 1993.

Dunston was a likeable guy, very popular among his teammates so when he returned to regular play, several teams gave him chances to succeed, amongst them the Giants, Pirates, Indians, and Cardinals. In 1997, he got his first taste of playing the outfield, which made him a valuable utility man. In the first four months of the 1999 season, Dunston played six of the eight field positions (not catcher or second base) for the Cardinals and liked being there, so much so that he was initially opposed to returning to New York when the Mets announced they had traded Craig Paquette to the Cardinals for him at the July 31 deadline. Reluctantly, Dunston returned home. It was a move he and Mets fans would not regret.

Dunston hit .344 in 93 regular-season at bats, but his play in the outfield made people nervous and was costly for the Mets in a couple of games down the stretch, but when the Flushing 9 survived to make the postseason, that was forgiven. Back in the postseason for the first time in10 years, Dunston didn't make much of an impact in the series win over Arizona, or the first four games against the Braves, getting only one hit in a dozen at-bats.

In the epic that was Game 5 of the NLCS against the Braves (if you've read this far, I presume you're familiar with this game), Dunston entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the 10th inning, then stayed in the game in centerfield. He was at the center of the Braves go-ahead rally in the 15th, misplaying Keith Lockhart's go-ahead single into a triple, but Octavio Dotel prevented further damage by fanning Brian Jordan (an oft-forgotten big out) to end the inning and keep the Mets down by only a 3-2 score.

Dunston led off the bottom of the 15th and stood at home plate against Kevin McGlinchy as a representative of the Mets hopes for keeping their season alive. Getting on base would give them a chance. An out would cause those remaining in the rain-soaked crowd (myself and my dad included) to lose hope. Other than Mookie Wilson, you could argue that no player has had their Mets career defined more by one at bat than this one, and I'd prefer to focus on this one, or at least part of this one, rather than the conclusion of this contest. I failed to get the ending of the game on tape partly because this was a rather lengthy turn at the plate (and partly because I set my VCR timer a little too early, not anticipating a nearly six-hour game.)

Dunston fouled the first pitch off for strike one, bluffed a bunt and took ball one away, bluffed again and took a strike on the outside corner.

"What's he thinking about?" asked NBC play-by-play man Bob Costas, questioning why Dunston would let that pitch go as the raindrops bounced off his helmet.

McGlinchey wasn't close with the next pitch, missing outside, and the following pitch was in the same spot, running the count full. Dunston never walked during his brief Mets tenure, and while this would have been a good place to start for his sake, what happened instead was pretty remarkable.

Dunston took a pretty big hack at McGlinchey's sixth pitch and the momentum from the swing carried him into the lefty batter's box, but the result was only a foul behind the plate. He got the same cut at the next pitch and hit it in almost the exact same manner.

Dunston stepped away from the plate, about 10 feet and adjusted his batting gloves, trying to get them just right, took a practice swing and stepped back in after a long look down at his sneakers, apparently trying to build his concentration. He waggled the bat back four times before steadying it in hitting position, and rested his chin just off his front shoulder. McGlinchey's next pitch was a little lower than the last one, but again Dunston fouled it off, back and to the right.

Dunston went through the same routine again, adding an adjustment of the helmet to buy himself an second. McGlinchey's fourth 3-2 offering was belt-high and just off the outside corner and again, Dunston whacked it backwards. Again Dunston stepped out to fix his gloves, then stepped in one more time. On the 10th pitch, McGlinchey came over the plate a little bit more and Dunston got a better hack, at a pitch that was just below the belt. Another foul ball. Work the route again, Dunston did, then bent over slightly and whacked the next pitch foul behind the plate, the sixth foul ball in a row.

"Do you believe this?" Mets radio voice Bob Murphy asked play-by-play partner Gary Cohen.

Dunston varied his routine slightly during the course of the at-bat and this time was fully ready after tapping the bat on the plate and waggling it only twice.

Pitch number 12 might have been the best one in the sequence. It was on, or millimeters off the outside corner, just a hair above Dunston's knees. Dunston leaned over again, knees bent and got the upper part of the bat on the ball. It shot past McGlinchey, on the first base side of the mound, into centerfield for a well, well, well-earned base hit.

"A great at-bat," Morgan said on NBC.

You know what happened next (short version: stolen base, walk, sacrifice, intentional walk, walk to tie, grand-slam single, 5-0 first-inning deficit two days later, remarkable rally, two blown leads late, card-playing in the clubhouse, Ball 4, cries of anguish from Bobby Valentine) so I'm not going to fill in the particulars other than to mention that after Game 6 had concluded, Dunston was among the first to address his teamates, saying how proud he was of their accomplishments and how glad he was to have been a Met, even temporarily.

Dunston played three more years with the Cardinals and Giants before retiring after the 2002 season. He was highly respected for his tenacity, which showed more in that nearly six-minute sequence than any other, and his baseball wisdom, which he gained no doubt in places like that clinic nearly two decades before.

True Metston know...Shawon Dunston's final big-league hit was a two-run home run in the fifth inning of Game 6 of the 2002 World Series against former Mets pitcher Kevin Appier. Had the Giants held on to win (rather than blow a 5-0 lead and lose, 6-5), Dunston would have been credited with the game-winning RBI in the clinching game of the World Series, and probably remembered more for that than his clutch Mets moment.

Comments

Metstradamus said…
And if I remember correctly, it was Dunston who before that very game gave one of the most impassioned speeches that the home clubhouse at Shea was ever witness to. The team credited Dunston with giving them an emotional lift that game.

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