Dunn, a 6-foot-6, 21-year-old outfielder just a few years removed from the high school football spotlight, hit a blast off Oakland prospect Juan Pena at the All-Star Futures Game in Seattle's new Safeco Field. It was, of course, a tiny glimpse of what was to follow.
"That was one of my most exciting moments in baseball," Dunn said. "That was a lot of fun. It was my first All-Star game in baseball, as far as playing with all the big-name guys you hear about."
A few weeks later, Dunn found himself among even bigger stars. He homered in each of his final two Minor League games before making his Major League debut with Cincinnati on July 20. Then he set a National League rookie record for homers in a month, hitting a dozen in August.
"I thought I was ready," Dunn said. "I thought I could handle the world, man."
Dunn, a brawny Houston native, began his career in 1998 after the Reds made him their second-round Draft pick out of New Caney High School. They gave the slugger an $800,000 bonus, but his success wasn't guaranteed from the start -- Dunn threw for nearly 5,000 yards and 44 touchdowns in high school and had already signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Texas.
"I was just happy that I got drafted first. And second, the Reds let me play football," Dunn recalled. "But I didn't really care who drafted me, I just wanted a team to let me do both."
Dunn left Houston for Billings, Mont., in the summer of 1998 and began life as a Minor Leaguer in the Rookie-level Pioneer League. He hit .288 with four homers and 13 RBIs in 34 games before returning to Texas in August to suit up for the Longhorns.
"It was really hard to do," Dunn said of balancing his baseball and football careers. "I didn't play in many games and I had to leave and play football, so my first year was kinda tough."
Billings, some 1,600 miles from Houston, has a population that can't even fill Texas Memorial Stadium, the 100,000-seat facility where Dunn began his college football career.
He watched from the sidelines that season as Ricky Williams, who spent four seasons in the Phillies' Minor League system, won the Heisman Trophy. A year later, with a limited role on the team likely, Dunn gave up football.
"It was probably the hardest decision I've ever had to make," he said. "I'd done both my whole life and I knew eventually I'd have to give up one. But I look back now and I have no regrets."
Dunn's baseball career took off in 1999 after he was promoted to Class A Rockford in the Midwest League.
"I never saw or heard him say that he regretted [leaving football]. Not at all in his work ethic," said Mike Rojas, a Detroit Tigers hitting instructor who was Dunn's manager in Rockford.
Dunn struggled at first but went on to hit .307 with 11 homers, 44 RBIs and 21 steals in 93 games.
"He hit a lot of them, he hit some bombs and laser beams," Rojas said. "They got out real quick. In Rockford, our fan base wasn't very big, so those fans missed a lot."
Dunn flashed some speed at Class A, but Rojas said he never envisioned him as a five-tool player.
"You could see the power, the raw power, once he got to know and understand the way of hitting, working the count," Rojas said. "With his size and his power, he just took off. I gave the green light and he took advantage of it at the right time. But did we think he'd be a 40-40 guy? No."
The Reds gave Dunn another year in Class A in 2000 with Dayton, where he batted .281 and set career highs with 16 homers, 79 RBIs, 100 walks and 24 steals in 122 games.
"He was a kid, but you knew he was going to be a player," said Freddie Benavides, who managed Dunn in 2000. "There was a lot of work to be done, he was a football player playing baseball. He had a lot of ability, period. The guy showed a lot."
Dunn was offered a promotion to the Majors in September 1999, but opted to work on his swing in the instructional league.
"It wasn't really fair to everyone else to go up then. They were battling for the playoffs and I knew I wasn't ready to play up there," Dunn said. "I think I gained more respect doing that and I think it was the right decision."
Benavides, now the Reds' Minor League field coordinator, said Dunn worked that winter to become more consistent.
"They did a lot of work with him and he went home and we credited Adam with all the hard work. He came back and seemed like a different hitter," Benavides said. "He just took off, he had a monster year."
Dunn's path to the Majors was in view by the spring of 2001. Cincinnati sent him to Double-A Chattanooga and then for a bit more seasoning at Triple-A Louisville alongside fellow prospect Austin Kearns before a late-season call-up.
"He and Kearns competed with each other. (Dunn) definitely had the power, he always had the skills and strength," Benavides said. "He hit balls to the opposite field in A-ball. Physically, he was just raw strength and power."
Phillip Wellman, Dunn's manager at Chattanooga, said he had a feeling big things were on the horizon.
"He was huge, he was a big fella," Wellman laughed. "But I could see that just the way he walked as much as he did, you don't see that often. With 40 homers for five straight years, I'd be crazy if I said I knew that was coming, but I knew he had that kind of power. The balls he hit were mammoth bombs. He hit light tower shots."
Dunn raked his way through the Southern League, batting a career-best .343 with a dozen homers and 31 RBIs in 39 games.
"In the years I've managed in Double-A, you can name the guys on one hand who've come to Double-A and taken off," Wellman said. "Even some of the brightest prospects seem to struggle at first and they come out OK, but Dunn was one that never did that. He came from low-A and he didn't miss a beat."
Dunn made his Triple-A debut on May 15, 2001 and homered against Durham.
His home run at the Futures Game came a few days before he launched a pair of homers at the Triple-A All-Star Game, earning honors as the International League Star of Stars and Batter of the Game.
"That was wild, that was two days after Futures. I got on a plane and flew back to Indianapolis. I was just swinging the bat really well that whole month," said Dunn. "I was on a national stage and to be able to produce, it was pretty amazing. It's just one of those things that couldn't have been scripted any better."
It actually got better for Dunn a week later, when he debuted with the Reds and collecte his first Major League hit off Florida's Matt Clement.
"That was awesome," Dunn said, "something you'll always remember."
He eventually had the chance to play with many of the prospects he came up with, including Kearns, his old roommate.
"Those days were so much fun, that's what I remember the most, the great people," Dunn said. "Some of my best friends now, I played with in the Minors."
The Nationals slugger also recalled some advice he got from Double-A hitting coach Mike Greenwell, who helped him adjust his technique.
"It's something that when I get in trouble, I'll revert back to what he told me in 2001," said Dunn. "It's the little things, more of a feeling than anything. He definitely helped me on that, all the way through the Minors."
|1998: Dunn played 34 games with the Mustangs before leaving in August to begin his college football career at the University of Texas.|
|1999: After leaving football behind, Dunn joined Class A Rockford and batted .307 with 21 steals in 93 games.|
|2000: The Reds kept Dunn at Class A, where he dominated for the Dragons. He drew 100 walks for the first time, collected 118 hits and plated 79 runs.|
|2001: Dunn jumped to Double-A to start the year and showed his power at the All-Star Futures Game, two days before homering twice at the Triple-A All-Star Game. The Reds had seen enough, promoting to the Majors for good.|