By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
[su_dropcap style=”flat” size=”5″]A[/su_dropcap]lan Dunn has put his career in professional baseball behind him.
Those are, quite literally, the optics for anyone meeting with the pitching coach in his office inside Alex Box Stadium. Whether he’s giving tough love to a struggling hurler or selling an incoming recruit on the program, the eye of whoever sits across the desk will inevitably be drawn to the three framed items adorning the back wall.
Two are from the final game in the old Yankee Stadium in 2008. Dunn was the bullpen coach for the Baltimore Orioles then, a post he held for four years, and the Orioles played visitor on that historic night in the Bronx. On the left is a souvenir lineup card given to everyone in the organization. On the right is his authenticated bullpen card from that night.
Between them is a signed lineup card from Dunn’s first game as a Major League pitching coach. Dunn moved in from the bullpen to the dugout for a weekend series against the Washington Nationals when the team’s pitching coach went home for his daughter’s graduation. When the Orioles won the first game, manager Dave Trembley signed the lineup card and gave it to him.
“I didn’t keep a lot of memorabilia stuff,” Dunn says. “I’ve had some balls signed. I just didn’t do that a lot. But those were the kind of things I thought I could hold on to.”
Those mementoes serve as a testament of sorts. A physical representation of that fact that Dunn knows what it takes to make it to The Show. He coached there. He knows what big leaguers look like and how they work.
Grooming pros is only half of his job these days, though. Located prominently over his other shoulder, atop a bookshelf: Dunn’s 2015 National Pitching Coach of the Year award.
“Yeah, I kept that too,” he laughs.
Now in his sixth season as LSU’s pitching coach, Dunn received a nominal promotion to associate head coach and a raise last offseason in concordance with Paul Mainieri’s contract extension. Mainieri calls him his ‘right hand man,’ a sage confidant above micro-management.
Dunn is afforded a similar level of freedom over the Tiger pitching staff as Dave Aranda is to coordinate the football team’s defense. The head coach eventually calls the shots, sure, but he’s left alone to run the pitching side of things as he sees fit.
“Honestly I don’t micro-manage Alan,” Mainieri says. “I don’t manage him hardly at all. He’s almost my age. He’s got almost as much experience as I do, and I just let him go and do his thing with those guys. We talk about it a lot. He knows I’ve ultimately got the final word, but we don’t disagree very often.”
For Dunn, that means walking a fine line between between now and later, between developing pitchers for the future and doing whatever needs to be done to win games today for a program that treats every loss as a monumental setback.
It’s a fine line he’s navigated just fine. Dunn has put four pitchers in the Major Leagues to date, headlined by top-10 draft picks Kevin Gausman and Aaron Nola. He’s had 14 of his pitchers selected in the MLB Draft since arriving in town.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have now been national seeds in the NCAA Tournament in all six of his seasons on staff, a remarkable run of consistency in an age of college baseball when parity is at an all-time high.
He’s never leveraged the future for the present, or the present for the future. He’s commanded both, and relished every second of the challenge.
“You kind of balance the two, and I love that aspect,” Dunn says. “Every kid who comes here has aspirations of pitching in the big leagues. We want that. It doesn’t negate the fact that to try to teach and coach and develop those guys to have that opportunity, but at the same time, you’ve got to be on your A-game here. So it’s a juggling act, but it’s a good thing, too.”
Winning and development. Dunn has fallen in love with the balance between the two. In the meantime, LSU has started to feel like home for the Alabama native and former Crimson Tide pitcher.
Pitchers are by nature creatures of habit, and the college life has afforded him and his family a level of stability that simply isn’t part of the cold, chaotic and calculating nature of pro ball.
The 55-year-old pitching guru is now as happy as he’s even been in baseball. He just had to develop a new routine and give up some pieces of himself first.
THE DUNN FAMILY got used to moving after a while.
Alan pitched at Alabama from 1981-83 and spent 1983-84 in the Detroit Tigers and New York Mets organizations. He began coaching in 1991, as an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, but left in 1992 to become a scout for the Chicago Cubs.
The next year he took over as pitching coach for the New York-Penn League Geneva Cubs, a Low-A ball affiliate, and began climbing the ladder. That meant a never-stay-in-one-place-long lifestyle for him and his wife, Jay, as well as their two children, Davis and Bailey.
The Dunns moved at least three times a year annually as Alan worked his way up through the system — not unlike the minor leaguers he coached. The family would go to spring training together, and once camp broke, Jay and the children would meet Alan in whatever city he was assigned to. Then, once the offseason came, they’d move back to Alabama together until spring. Alan and Jay homeschooled their children to keep the family together year round.
“We were doing that every single year,” Alan says. “Did that for a long time. Coming to college and having that one spot where you’re going to be, that was different for us, first of all. It was refreshing for us as a family.
“For us, as a family, when we moved to Baton Rouge and lived here for a year, that was the longest we’d been in one place for over the last 20 years.”
By 1998 Alan had worked his way up to being pitching coach of the Double-A West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx. He held that post until 2005, the longest he’d spent at any one job, before being promoted to Triple-A Iowa. He spent one season in Iowa before taking over as the organization’s Minor League Pitching Coordinator, the position he left to serve as Orioles bullpen coach in 2007.
That’s nearly two decades of grinding in the minor leagues, all the while relocating the family three times a year.
Professionally, the travel wasn’t even the toughest strain of the job.
Here’s the thing about coaching in the minor leagues: results of the games don’t actually matter. The job of a minor league pitching coach, Dunn explains, is to prepare pitchers to be promoted with the goal of one day making the big leagues. That’s all.
Every ascending level of an organization isn’t so much a team as it is a group of independent contractors that ride on the same bus. The focus is on the individual, and never the collective. Winning games comes secondary, if that, to the development of the individual athletes.
Dunn loved the developmental side of the job and thrived at helping young pitchers reach their potential and eventually their dreams. But as a competitor, it left an itch that still needed to be scratched.
To fill that void, Dunn turned to his other lifelong passion: running.
Dunn grew up as an avid runner. When he first got into baseball, his father warned him that the first thing to go for pitchers is their legs. That philosophy has stuck with the old-school coach to this day as a way to build discipline and endurance.
As a pitcher, Dunn ran religiously. A grueling regiment on an almost daily basis, taking just one day off a week to recuperate. As a coach in need of a competitive outlet, Dunn began running in 5Ks and 10Ks whenever he could.
Combined with constant jogging on pavement and a family history of joint trouble, Dunn’s knees started to hurt during and after his runs. Even a few minor surgeries didn’t slow him down much. He was always right back at it pounding the pavement as soon as he could.
“Once I hurt it one time and kept doing it, it just kind of exasperated it a lot,” Dunn says. “That kind of started it then, and then it just got worse.”
Drive, dedication and discipline kept him coming back for more road work. But as time went on, there was a heavy price to be paid.
IT WAS TIME to make a change.
That was Mainieri’s thinking after LSU missed the postseason entirely in the 2011 season. He looked over a roster and recruiting class littered with premium arms and decided he needed a pitching coach who would bring the best out of them.
The coach wanted someone who could mold Gausman, Nola, Ryan Eades and Nick Rumbelow into the pitchers he thought they could become.
“I saw all these power arms that had a future in the game beyond LSU,” Mainieri says. “I just felt like we had a real responsibility to those kids to get them the very best developer of pitchers that we could possibly give to them. I felt an obligation to get a pitching coach who could help prepare them for the next level.”
With that in mind, Mainieri turned to the professional ranks. He put in phone calls to two of his closest friends in hopes of finding a jumping off point for the search.
Mainieri’s first call was to Randy Bush, who was and still remains the Assistant General Manager of the Cubs. He asked Bush if he’d come across anyone in the professional ranks who he felt would be a good fit on his staff.
“There was silence for about five seconds,” Mainieri recounts. “Then he came back on: ‘I’ve got the perfect guy for you.’ And he told me about Alan Dunn.”
His next call was to Jim Hendry, who at the time was the Cubs’ General Manager. He’s now a special assistant with the Yankees. Mainieri asked Hendry about Dunn, who’d spent more than a decade in the Cubs’ organization, and Hendry called Dunn ‘the best employee I had for 15 years.’
Subsequent calls to Ryan Theriot, who played for a team Dunn coached, and Mike Quadie, the Cubs’ Manager at the time, garnered similar responses.
“I didn’t talk to one person who had a negative thing to say about Alan,” Mainieri said. “And then, when I went and met him, I could tell him and I would mesh.”
The interest turned out to be mutual. After 20 years of professional baseball, a run that took him to the top of his profession, coaching pitchers in the Major Leagues, Dunn too felt it was time to make a change.
DUNN WAS LIVING with chronic knee pain by the time he moved to Baton Rouge in 2011. His knees started to go in his 30s, and years on continuing to pound the pavement had zapped whatever cartilage he had left.
Trips up and down the dugout steps were painful. Mound visits were an arduous grind some days. Bus rides and flights required a solid stretch before he could get moving afterward.
Dunn insists the pain never impacted his work — and given LSU’s success in his first five seasons as pitching coach, the numbers back that up — but as anyone who has lived with chronic pain will attest, it takes a toll on you day by day.
It can wear you down to the point you’re almost numb to it. It’s your default setting when you get out of bed in the morning. You make concessions to the pain because, after a while, it’s just a fact of life.
“I think I had been feeling it for so long that you just kind of deal with it,” Dunn says. “Anybody who has had chronic pain, it changes your thought process. It’s something that — I guess it’s hard to put into words.”
Every time Dunn saw a doctor he’d inquire about options. Minor procedures or exercise regiments that could help manage. Eventually Dr. Brent Bankston, LSU’s team physician, told there was only one option left: knee replacement.
Those were the two words Dunn dreaded hearing. It felt like giving up a piece of himself, he says, both literally and figuratively. Doctors advised him he’d never be able to run again if he underwent knee replacement.
That’s a tough pill to swallow. Physically, he says, he could’ve had the surgery years ago. It took him longer to reconcile it in his mind, but there came a time when knew he was ready.
“I realized I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Dunn says.
Dr. Bankston performed a complete replacement on Dunn’s left knee in 2015. He also scoped his right knee in order to buy some time and performed a partial replacement on his right knee back in November.
Relief was instantaneous, he says. The left one felt better even as the healing process continued. The right one continued to give him trouble until the partial replacement. Rehab would be a grueling process, but the weight of that constant pain had lifted.
“That’s such a relief off your mind,” he says. “It’s night and day, man. Seriously, it’s night and day.”
Dunn continues: “Now looking back, and how I feel now, I’m like ‘Wow, it’s so much different.’ Knowing how I feel now and looking back, it’s so different man. I didn’t really realize, I guess. You think you do at the time, but not having to deal with that has been eye-opening for sure.”
Aided by LSU trainer Cory Couture, Dunn has gone through a grueling rehabilitation process to get himself back to moving at near full speed.
The healing process is still ongoing, he says, especially in his right knee, and Dunn goes through daily workouts and frequent rehab sessions to get the strength back in all of the muscles around the knee. Still, getting around is already much easier than before.
Of late he frequently sports weighted belts around his ankles as he makes his way around Alex Box Stadium during practice. There’s not even the slightest hitch in his giddy up as he strolls out to the mound to chat with one of his pitchers these days.
“He’s a grinder, man,” says Jared Poche’, who has spent four years under Dunn’s tutelage. “Every day he’s grinding in the training room. He’s 50-something years old, and he’s still got a better work ethic than I do.”
Doctors estimate most knee replacements will last somewhere between 20 and 30 years. Dunn, feeling comfortable as ever, says he hopes to spend the first chunk of those decades serving as the pitching coach in the place that now feels like home.
“I love where I am,” Dunn says. “Obviously I love LSU. I’m so blessed and fortunate to be able to do what I do and coach here. I’m excited about the future for sure. Hopefully we can continue to be able to do the things we need to do to stay here for a while.”
There are a lot of things that you don’t see about Coach Dunn. We sit near first base and the bullpen. I watch Coach Dunn warm up the starting pitcher every game, and he watches the kids in the stands. After the warmup, he presents the ball to one of the young kids. Last year, he gave a ball to my grandson. He has that ball up on his shelf in his room and still remembers the kindness of Coach Dunn. Sometimes nice guys do end up first.
I was a teammate of Alan Dunn’s when we both lived in Alabama. I’ve never played with a more talented athlete before or since. Also, I have never had a friend with an outstanding character as Alan. Although I’m a graduate of another SEC school who is a major rival of LSU, if any of my kids had the talent to play at this level, regardless of my desire for them to attend my alma mater, I’d guide them to LSU because of Alan.