The Ballad of Swingin Shawon

So it's over.

Colby Rasmus between the last time he Went Moneyball (my hip new way to get kids interested in drawing walks) and yesterday, when he finally bit the bullet and decided to take a free base, if offered: .339/.339/.587, with nine doubles and five home runs. It started five weeks ago—his OPS was .675 then, and this morning it sits at .810. 

All this is to say it was fun while it lasted. I can't be the only one who checked the boxed-score every day—who tuned KMOX into his crystal set to see if The Kid could really keep the streak going, to break the record so many thought to be unbreakable. But all national obsessions have a shelf-life, and I suppose I wasn't surprised when this one fell short of the goal. At least the streak ended before an off-day, that he and we alike may pause and reflect on what we saw. Thirty-three games—it's not a record, but it's something I'll tell my grandkids about. 

But we in St. Louis, of course, are spoiled, and should know better. Why, two of the three most unassailable no-walk streaks in the Liver Ball Era (1993 on) also occurred, in part, under the watchful eye of the Best Fans. Same man, different tenures: the one—the only—Mr. Shawon Dunston. 

In the second game of longtime Cub Shawon Dunston's first stint with the Cardinals, the Busch Stadium crowd unwittingly witnessed a historic event. With leadoff man Darren Bragg on in the sixth inning, with the Cardinals up 6-3, Shawon Dunston drew a walk. [fake editor conceit: It's important to note here that Shawon Dunston, 36 years old, having walked 14 times in his last two Major League seasons, is starting at shortstop and batting second.Mark McGwire proceeded to use the out Dunston would have gobbled up to send Bragg to third on a deep fly ball. I can imagine lightbulbs going off here. I can imagine Dunston seeing things in a different way. 

Next up was Eric Davis. He sent a scorcher to the ever-disciplined Jeff Cirillo at third base, who proceeded to double Dunston off first. 

It had to have been a bittersweet free base for Dunston. For he knew—had to know—that just sixteen games away, lurking at the edge of the American conscience, was Mariano Duncan's unassailable no-such-thing-as-a-free-base record. From 86 games between June of 1994 and August of 1995—while Dunston was walking in the double digits every year, like a poor, unserious fool—the sultan of swings had not gone past three balls in a single count. (This was before such records were cast under the cloud of the Mitchell Report; we were innocent then, ready to take Duncan at his word, ready for a hero.) A free base today, but tomorrow—what? Certainly not immortality. 

Those close to the man could infer a distressing frustration from the atrophy of his usual tenacious work habits. In batting practice he began requesting high and low pitches, as if it mattered to him; a Post-Dispatch intern reported hearing him ask a worried Kent Bottenfield whether a man could really throw a ball that curved in mid-air. But the question of whether something might be wrong was answered in the affirmative when, just six games later, on April 20, Dunston walked again. 

He was of little use to the Cardinals with his confidence shattered, and at the trading deadline they dealt him for Craig Paquette, a younger guy—a guy more confident in his ability to not draw a walk. It was a challenge trade as has never been seen in the annals of not reaching base—it was a changing of the guard.

So few paid attention when Dunston's new streak broke forty games, and fifty. Even at sixty people thought he was too old, that his bat wasn't fast enough, any longer, to swing and miss a hanging changeup. But nobody's ever gotten rich by doubting Shawon Dunston's resolve—no, sir. The move to the Mets did nothing to resuscitate his batting eye, and soon he was not getting on base at a pace that few had ever thought imaginable. Mariano Duncan began attending his games. 

Finally, on September 17, 1999, it all came to a head. Dunston had not walked the day before to tie the record. Now, against the Phillies, he faced perhaps his greatest challenge yet: wild rookie southpaw Randy Wolf, who would go on to walk 67 in his 120 inning debut season. The crowd sat in hushed anticipation—young Wolf, rattled, waved the catcher outside, then further, than further again—finally the pitch, the big release, and Dunston can only set his uncoiling swing into motion, and close his eyes, and there it is! A fair ball to centerfield! Doug Glanville pulls it in and Dunston has done it; he's gone 87 games without drawing a walk. 

Dunston got through that last month of 1999 without drawing another walk, and in the off-season he knew there was only one place he could go: back to where he'd let the fans down in the first place, St. Louis. With his streak on the line he signed a one year deal with the Cardinals to prove that he'd faced down his demons, and for two months in 2000 he put on one of the most magical shows of this baseball fan's lifetime. Every day the streak ticked up, past ninety, past a hundred, until, with his nearest competitor nearly fifty games back, Dunston willingly took four pitches on June 23, 2000.

But of course there was some fun left in those old bones. After drawing his first walk, with 49,000 adoring Busch fans cheering him on, Dunston drew his second! J.D. Drew would homer in the next at-bat, to break a 2-2 tie.

The streak that some never thought possible was over at 133 games. In 308 at-bats he'd hit .292/.304/.455 and stolen eleven bases, not to mention millions of hearts, and saved a league still reeling from the 1994 strike and record base-on-balls totals from the likes of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. 

So what if Colby's streak is over so soon? He's young, yet. When Shawon Dunston was 22 he walked 19 times in as many at-bats.

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