This was precisely the task for which the young man had been groomed since the Cubs made him the first choice overall in the June '82 free-agent draft, an anointing that drew national attention to Dunston and enriched him with a bonus in excess of $125,000, which he immediately gave to his parents. "It's my family's money," he says. Jack Dunston, who worked alternately as a barber, cabbie and limousine driver, and his wife, Brenda, raised their three children in Brooklyn, just across the border from Queens.
The family was wound as tight as a baseball, and still is. "It's a remarkable situation," says Jack. "Life as it is supposed to be with a family. We're very close. A lot of harmony." The oldest son, Bryant, 25, is a sergeant in the Army. The youngest, Kindra, 21, is a receptionist with a Wall Street law firm. Shawon, the middle child, had only one idea in mind from the age of nine.
"Baseball, baseball, baseball," Brenda says. "Everything he did was life or death. He was always aggressive. He talked early. He walked at 11 months. He's still striving, God bless him."
In 1968, during Bowa's third and penultimate year in the minors, Shawon Dunston was five and just beginning to learn the game from his father. "We played and played and played," Shawon says. He started in organized ball in seventh grade, and by the time he got to Thomas Jefferson High in Brooklyn, his coach, Steve Nathanson, could see he was just an average budding 14-year-old superstar. "But not smooth in the field, all elbows and kneecaps," says Nathan-son. Dunston was All-City four years, and in his last year he hit an astounding .790 and stole 37 bases in 37 tries.
Dunston has hung up some fancy numbers on offense in his three years as a minor-leaguer, including a .310 average with 62 RBIs and 58 stolen bases in Class A ball at Quad City in 1983. Inconsistency plagued him then, as it does now. "I saw him play two weeks where he looked like he could play in the big leagues," says his Quad City manager, Larry Cox, "and two weeks where he couldn't."
Last year Dunston was uneven, too. Dividing his time between Midland (AA) and Des Moines (AAA), Dunston made a thumping 58 errors, most of them by rushing throws after eagerly charging, and then hobbling, routine ground balls. At the plate he hit .329 at Midland, but fell off to .233 at Des Moines, where he struck out once in every 5.2 at bats, a grim ratio unless you're Reggie Jackson. Notwithstanding Dunston's erratic fielding and hitting, Frey took a close look at him last fall in Arizona Instructional League play and apparently liked what he saw.
Wondering whether the Cubs planned to pick up his option, Bowa called Green in late October. "Jim thinks the kid's ready," Green told him. "But I'll let you know one way or the other." Bowa figured he'd had it as a Cub.
On Oct. 31, Green called Bowa to tell him they were keeping him another year. Bowa was shocked. "Why?" he asked. "Jim wants the kid to play."
"I want to make sure," Green said. "I don't want any 'I think he's ready,' or 'He might be ready.' "
So Bowa went to work to keep his job. He converted the top floor of his new house in Seminole, Fla. into a batting cage, and all winter long he hit balls off a tee. He worked hard on his stroke from the left side. "I pulled off the ball on the left side," he says. "My head was moving a lot and I wasn't getting a good look at pitches. I was jumping at the ball."