Ozzie Guillen of the Chicago White Sox invaded the enemy clubhouse before the Windy City Classic exhibition game at Wrigley Field on April 7, loaded for Cub. "Shawon. Sha-won! Where is Sha-won Dunston?" bellowed Guillen. "That man's been stealing the Tribune's money for three years now! I better not find him in the trainer's room, or I'll...."
The search did end in the trainer's room, and the hooting and laughter from the crosstown friends echoed through the clubhouse. In addition to playing shortstop, Guillen and Dunston have had one other position in common: supine in a hospital bed. Guillen needed surgery to repair torn knee ligaments, which sidelined him for virtually the entire 1992 season, and now Dunston is back after missing all but 25 games the past two years because of a herniated disk that required an operation. On this day Guillen was giving Dunston the needle, but having gone under a surgeon's knife, Dunston was impervious. His back was still stiff, his movements sometimes tentative, but at least it didn't hurt when he laughed.
It didn't hurt when he played, either, judging by the way he threw himself around the field the first three weeks of the season. Dunston doubled in two runs on Opening Day and had a pinch-hit double the next afternoon. But in his next appearance, three days later on the rock-hard artificial turf in Montreal that can make joints groan and spines tingle, Dunston showed he really is—well—back.
In the top of the seventh Dunston lofted a fly ball that smacked the overhanging speaker in leftfield—a ground rule home run at Olympic Stadium. Then, with an Expo runner on second in the bottom of the inning, Dunston flung himself to his left, extended his body almost horizontally and caught Larry Walker's liner to prevent a run from scoring. Dunston crashlanded on his side and rolled onto his back. For a grim instant it seemed as if Americans following the health-care debate would get to see the vaunted Canadian national medical system in action. But Dunston soon clambered to his feet. He capped his AMA-approved performance with a two-run single in the ninth inning. After the Cubs' 4-0 win, Chicago general manager Larry Himes told Dunston, "You really cut their heads off with that single." Dunston beamed.
Dunston, who was the Cubs' regular shortstop from 1986 until his back went out, was hoping to hear encouragement from Himes last summer, when his rehabilitation seemed to be taking its sweet time. He listened for something like "Oh, don't worry, the job is yours whenever you're well"—the reassuring message that Guillen got from the White Sox during his rehab. But the only thing Dunston heard Himes and then manager Jim Lefebvre say—quite correctly, incidentally—was that with Rey Sanchez, Jose Vizcaino and a healthy Dunston, Chicago would have three frontline shortstops. "I never wanted a handout," Dunston says, "but I was looking for something a little more humane from Larry."
Worse, Dunston thought Himes suspected him of jaking—collecting $3 million a year and sitting on his wallet instead of working diligently to get back in the lineup. "No," an agitated Himes said recently when asked if he had suspected Dunston of malingering. "I don't know where Shawon gets that stuff. Shawon had set a time frame with the Cubs for his return. That wasn't my time frame. That was our time frame. He helped set it, and it wasn't being met. I wanted to get Shawon back and not feeling sorry for himself. Guys feel sorry for themselves, and they want everybody to feel sorry for them."
But the air around Wrigley grew thick with suspicion and innuendo. First baseman Mark Grace, one of only three current Cubs remaining from the team that started the 1991 season, says he was constantly defending Dunston last year. "Reporters would be asking me if Shawon was dogging it," Grace says. "I'd tell them, 'No way.' There's no dog in him."
"My pride was hurt, but I knew my pain was tough for others to understand," Dunston says. "I used to look at Scott Sanderson when he was here. I thought Scott didn't want to play. I'd see him walking around the clubhouse, acting fine, then the day he was supposed to pitch, his back would hurt. [ Sanderson, now with the White Sox, had a disk operation in 1988.] I was 23, 24 then, completely healthy, and I didn't understand that with a back you have good days or bad days, nothing in between. I apologized to Scott last year for how I had felt."
Eight of every 10 Americans suffer back pain at some point in their lives—some of them are named Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Darryl Strawberry and Dave Winfield. Estimates put the cost of treating back pain in the U.S. at more than $24 billion annually.
For the Cubs it was $6 million: half of the four-year, $12 million deal Dunston signed after the '91 season. One morning that December, with the ink on the contract still wet, he took his youngest daughter, Jasmine, out to breakfast. He was putting her into her car seat when a searing pain in his lower back dropped him to the asphalt. "So there was this black man in the Denny's parking lot, lying next to a Mercedes," Dunston muses. "I can't imagine what people were thinking."