Alumni Share Their Views on Major League Baseball, and Life in the Time of COVID

Jeremy Cohen '87 and Justin Dunn '13

The second installment of The Frederick Gunn School 2021 Speaker Series featured Justin Dunn ’13, right-handed pitcher for the Seattle Mariners, and Jeremy Cohen ’87, Vice President and Group Director of Partnership Activation at Major League Baseball, who shared two different perspectives on their MLB careers, and what their experience has been like living in this time of COVID-19.

Moderator Sean Brown P’22, Director of Alumni & Development, who played baseball for four years at Trinity College, opened the program on January 28 with a fun lightning round of “this or that.” Dunn led things off as the pair answered questions like: Netflix or Hulu? Apple or Samsung? Jets or Giants? Adidas or Nike? Snow or sand? Yoga or meditation? Chiefs or Bucks? Brown also astutely pointed out that although Dunn and Cohen graduated from FGS some 20 years apart, both played baseball here, and had Ed Small, the Anne S. and Ogden D. Miller Senior Master, as their third-base coach!

Asked about the people on campus who influenced them and the life skills they carried with them from their years at the school, Cohen said: “There were a lot of great, great people and great teachers that we were lucky enough to have and learn from.” He said he school instilled in him a work ethic that has served him well. “I don’t know if you can necessarily teach work ethic. I think that it’s something that starts in your DNA and you’re born with. I think someone can help bring it out of you, but I don’t know how easy it is to teach somebody from scratch who’s not working very hard that they’ve got to work.” 

Cohen has spent the last 23 years working in baseball. In his current role as a Vice President of MLB, he oversees partner strategy, planning and activation and leads a team of 30 responsible for managing and implementing all national sponsor and media relationships, as well as media activations and programs on MLB Network, and the 30 Club websites. Cohen also manages MLB’s relationship with the sales leads of its national broadcast rights holders: ESPN, FOX, and Turner. Prior to joining MLB, Cohen served as Director of Operations for the USA Volleyball tours at IMG in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was responsible for scheduling, organizing, marketing, promoting and producing approximately 100 international indoor and beach volleyball events featuring the U.S. Men’s and Women’s national and Olympic volleyball teams.

Looking back, Cohen said he has learned to always keep his options open. “You learn that the hard way. You learn to listen to people, you learn to talk to as many people as you can. You can learn a lot more from listening than you can from talking. I had a couple of different job offers over the years and I’ve had a couple of different interests. It was either never the right time or not the perfect offer,” said Cohen, whose decision to stay with the MLB was well timed. Not only was the organization exploding, it gave him the opportunity to grow more and learn more.

“I have seen so many unbelievable things from a business perspective. I’ve seen some of the most unbelievable and experienced some of the most unbelievable moments in the history of the game across the board, met some of the game’s greatest characters and some of the game’s greatest people, including the legendary Henry Aaron, who died January 22 at the age of 86. “I’m really fortunate for all the experiences that I’ve had.”

Thinking back to his days on campus, Dunn thanked his former baseball coaches, Jeff Trundy, the David N. Hoadley ’51 Baseball Coach, and Assistant Coaches Richard Martin and Small. Trundy saw something in the 4’1” freshman, who already had big plans to make it to the major league when he arrived at Gunn. “I still to this day don’t really know what he saw but he saw something and invited me to come play for him, and then when I got there, continued to work with me and helped me develop me into the person and man I am now,” Dunn said. Trundy always was there for him, he said, recalling then he emailed the coach requests to open the batting cage, hit him ground balls, or talk about pitching, “He would always say, ‘When and where.’ So I owe him a lot for that.” 

From Martin, who was also his dorm parent and English teacher, Dunn said he learned attention to detail, particularly from the infield drills he ran over and over again. “Mr. Small actually taught me the biggest lesson,” Dunn said, recalling that as a freshman, Small caught him walking during Cross Country practice, and cut him from the team. “On my walk back up to school, he told me: ‘How do you expect to be successful in baseball when you can’t put the work in in a sport that’s going to translate into your job, what you want to do? If you can have the stamina to do this,  you’ll have more stamina to be a pitcher.’ At a young age I didn’t understand it, but he taught me the value of working and doing the things that I didn’t want to do.”

After graduating from Gunn in 2013, Dunn was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 37th round of the 2013 Major League Baseball (MLB) draft. He declined to sign with the Dodgers and went on to play baseball for three years for the Boston College Eagles, where he was third-team All-America in 2016. Dunn was drafted by the New York Mets in the first round of the 2016 MLB draft. He signed with the Mets and rose through the ranks, playing for the Brooklyn Cyclones, the St. Lucie Mets and the Binghamton Rumble Ponies. Heading into the 2018 season, ranked Dunn as the Mets’ third-best prospect. On December 3, 2018, he was traded to the Seattle Mariners and spent 2019 with the Arkansas Travelers. The Mariners promoted him to the major leagues on September 10, 2019.

Dunn said he continued to set ambitious goals for himself through college and even after he began his trajectory into the MLB. In 2017, his first full season playing professionally, he set the goal of “going to the show” by the end of the year, pitching in the bullpen for the Mets, and helping the team to win the World Series. “I went out and put all that pressure on myself and had a really, really, bad first outing,” he recalled.

At 23, he learned to listen to others, to filter out his doubts, and ultimately figure out what worked best for him, lessons that are as applicable in life as they are in baseball.“As I get older, I’m learning that you’re all you have. When you understand yourself, it doesn’t matter what anyone has to say to you. You’re content with who you are in life in general, and no one can take you off that path.”

Understandably, the pandemic has thrown things off course for both Dunn and Cohen, who, like many people, did not initially comprehend the magnitude of COVID-19. It has been a worrisome time, Cohen said. Last spring, ballparks were shuttered, players were sent home, and so much was unknown. Dunn tried to stay sharp by playing catch on the pavement and throwing long balls in the street outside of his apartment in Seattle. He also worked on his golf game, walking 18 holes for exercise. 

On the business side of things, Cohen said there were salary adjustments at the top levels of the organization, and concerns about layoffs, which fortunately did not happen. He worried for his team of young executives, though most shifted easily to working from home. The MLB was able to have an abbreviated season, with players living and training in pods or bubbles, and playing in empty ballparks. Though he traveled constantly in the days before COVID, and rarely does so now, Cohen has been able to continue his work, structuring deals with MLB partners such as Chevy, T Mobile and Gaterade, which help to promote the game and individual athletes.  “It certainly is very rewarding, especially when we nail something. We’re generating revenue for the game, for the sport itself, that we’re sending back at the end of the day to the 30 MLB clubs.”

As for the upcoming season, Cohen said his hope is that the league will play a normal 162 games and that fans will come back to the ballparks. There are so many people whose livelihoods are at stake, from the security people, to those who run the concessions, clean and service the ballparks, and stock the hot dogs soft drinks and beer, he said. “We’re bullish on a full season and we’re bullish on fans coming back,” Cohen said, adding that if the vaccine becomes widely available, there may even be a postseason. Still, his optimism was tempered. “This isn’t something people will soon forget. My hope is that we’ll ease back into some type of a normal life again.”

The tradition of the FGS Speaker Series goes back to Frederick Gunn, who presided over town debates on political issues on Friday nights. Additional events in this winter’s series will feature: Laura Tierney, founder and CEO of The Social Institute, on social-emotional health, social media, and technology (February 3); John Dickerson, CBS News Senior Political Analyst and author of The Hardest Job In The World, on the American presidency (February 11); and Edward Conard, author and businessman, on definitions of conservatism, conservative economic policy and the Republican Party after the Trump presidency (February 25). Events are open to FGS students, faculty, current parents and alumni and will be held via Zoom webinar. 

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