For all his home runs - 354 of them in 10 seasons now, dozens of the picturesque quality of the upper-deck shot that lifted the Nationals to victory on Tuesday night - Adam Dunn has never really felt loved in baseball. He played eight years with the Cincinnati Reds, sure, but as he went through arbitration, the team wouldn't commit to him long-term. They signed him to a two-year deal with an option for a third year, buying out his final years of arbitration but stopping short of offering him the security he wanted, and felt he'd earned.
Then came the uncertainty. Oh, how that wore on Dunn, first in a trade from Cincinnati to Arizona in 2008, and then a four-month search for a new team after the Diamondbacks wouldn't sign him - or even offer him arbitration - for 2009.
He landed in Washington two days before spring training in 2009, signing a two-year deal with the Nationals after again searching in vain for a long-term commitment. But through two losing seasons, another set of trade rumors and a year of protracted contract negotiations, Dunn arrived at what could be his penultimate home game on Tuesday night. And as he has all week, the big slugger felt the love from Nationals fans.
They chanted "Sign Adam Dunn!" every time he came up to bat, only they had signs on Tuesday night against the Phillies; they were more organized than they had been in the first eight games of the team's final homestand. They cheered him even as he went 0-for-3 in his first three at-bats and missed a leaping attempt at a liner in the fourth inning.
And in the ninth inning on Tuesday, Dunn paid the Nationals fans back.
His walk-off homer, his first of the season and the eighth of his career, was one of the snatch-your-breath shots in which Dunn specializes. He knew it was gone, stopping to watch it travel well up the second deck in right center field. Jose Contreras, who had retired Dunn in all nine of his at-bats against the pitcher, knew it was gone. So did the other eight Phillies players on the field.
By the time Dunn reached home, nonchalantly chomping his gum and making a part-the-waters gesture to clear room in the Nationals' mob so he could touch home, Nationals Park was as worked up as you'll see for a last-place team's second-to-last game at home.
"It's something I'm very unfamiliar with," Dunn said. "I feel like I'm growing with these guys, and as far as the fans, they're great."
Since the idea of a contract extension first surfaced at a season-ticketholder luncheon in January, with Dunn leading his own round of applause after a fan asked general manager Mike Rizzo about resigning him, the first baseman has repeatedly said he wants to stay in Washington.
He has become a fixture in the Nationals' clubhouse, his wry sense of humor a source of camaraderie in good times and a welcome diversion in bad ones. He is a friend of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's, and something of a protector for him in the Nationals' lineup. And he is second in the National League in home runs, his 38th homer breaking a tie with the Reds' Joey Votto for second place on Tuesday.
"Obviously the numbers, the power in clutch situations speak for themselves, but I think not having him around in the clubhouse would be thing I would miss the most," said reliever Drew Storen, who got his fourth win on Tuesday. "He's not a guy who rides the emotional roller coaster of the season. He's the same guy every day, and young guys like me feed off that."
Dunn's shortcomings as a player are well-documented, as well; he has 191 strikeouts this season, and is still seen as a below-average fielder at first base, despite his improvements this year. He has said he wants a four-year deal, and the Nationals must decide if they can make that kind of commitment to a player who will be 31 in November. Trade rumors swirled around Dunn in July, and on Tuesday, he sounded tired of answering questions about his future.
"I've said it all along, and I'm done saying it," Dunn said when asked if he wants to stay.
His last home game at Nationals Park could come tomorrow, though Dunn diffused that topic with his typical sarcasm, as well -- "I'm not going to go in tomorrow going 'This is my last home game ever,' cry and hand out Adam Dunn baseball cards," he said.
But the message was clear: The fans love him, and Dunn loves them back. Maybe more importantly, he loves that they love him.