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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Dunston Might Be Ready to Reclaim Spot

March 16, 1994|ROSS NEWHAN

MESA, Ariz. — The depth chart on Manager Tom Trebelhorn's office wall at the Chicago Cubs' spring stadium lists four shortstops.

Two, Jose Vizcaino and Rey Sanchez, have done most of the playing for the Cubs during the last two seasons.

A third, Jose Hernandez, is an insurance policy formerly of the Texas Ranger and Cleveland Indian organizations, still young enough at 24 to generate interest among scouts.

The fourth name is that of Shawon Dunston, who had a herniated disk removed from his back on May 13, 1992, and hasn't played regularly since the previous September.

Now, however, he might be ready to become more than a name on the wall.

"There aren't four shortstops," Dunston said. "I'm the only one. I know I can play. I know I can be the best again."

That's what the Cubs are hoping, too.

"We're talking about a phenomenal talent," Trebelhorn said. "If he's healthy, he'll be the opening-day shortstop, and right now he's ahead of the timetable I had for him.

"We're very happy where he is, but knowledgeable it can change quickly. He seems to have total freedom, but how will (his back) respond when we get back to the cold in April?"

Dunston played 18 games before the surgery in 1992 and seven games last September. It has taken two years for him to feel he is prepared to play at his previous level.

He knew, he said, that when Darryl Strawberry tried to come back from a similar operation after only a half-year of therapy last year, it wouldn't work. And, indeed, Strawberry gave up after 32 games.

"It's been a learning experience," Dunston said.

"I do want to play, but I'm prepared to walk away. I won't make a fool of myself.

"I'd miss the game, but my role as a parent is worth more than the money and more than the game.

'I believe I'm a better person now and can be a better player because of it."

Dunston suspects he injured his back lifting daughter Whitnie from a car seat. He played in pain even in 1991, he said, but neither the back nor the game will get in the way of his responsibilities as a father.

At his home in Fremont, Calif., during the winter, Dunston said he would get up at 4 a.m. to do three hours of therapy--swimming, stretching and weights--so that he could be done in time to drive Whitnie and her sister, Jasmine, to school.

He attended PTA meetings and romped with 18-month-old Shawon Jr.

"It's been tough," Dunston said of the long recovery. "Some days you feel you can do anything in the world, the next day nothing. If I have my health, they can take the money."

Dunston signed a four-year, $12-million contract before the '92 season.

"It's easy to sleep, knowing if I have to retire I'll be able to take care of my family," he said, "but the Cubs have been great to me and I want to come back and repay them, show my appreciation."

Dunston, 31, and the Cubs believe he is through the worst. He homered in his first exhibition at-bat, beat out a pair of infield grounders the other day and has been playing consecutive games.

His potential return obviously strengthens the Cubs' depth and bargaining position. Both Vizcaino, a former Dodger who batted .287 in 151 games last year, and Sanchez would become valuable commodities.

Of Vizcaino, a switch-hitter who can play three infield positions and the outfield, Trebelhorn said: "He may be the best in baseball for what he brings to a club. His versatility becomes a terrific asset (if Dunston is playing regularly). I can't make the world perfect for everybody, but my job will be to see that they all stay ready."

He nodded at the chart on the wall and smiled.

*

A former teacher in the Portland school system, Trebelhorn was asked what lessons he had learned managing the Milwaukee Brewers for six seasons. He was 25 games over .500 during that stint, but his authority often was tested by players who thought he was too soft and had two sets of rules.

"You can't keep everybody happy, you can't do it all yourself and I have to make sure everybody understands what I'm doing," he said.

"I have a tendency for my mind to get ahead of my mouth, so I have to slow it down a bit."

In the long-suffering world of the Cubs, Trebelhorn succeeded Jim Lefebvre, despite pleas by Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace and others to retain Lefebvre for the sake of continuity.

Every Cub manager inherits hefty historical baggage, but Trebelhorn, the 44th, said:

"I have nothing to do with the 43 who preceded me or the decades that preceded me. We've changed coaches, personnel, uniforms and divisions. It's part of the business, but I think we're comfortable and I think we're together on what we're trying to accomplish.

"We want to rebuild the mind set here. We have a good club. I want it to go out expecting to win. I don't want it hoping to win, but expecting to win."

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