On February 3, just nine days before he was due to report for spring training in Arizona, Justin Dunn ’13 of the Seattle Mariners came home to The Gunnery to talk with students, faculty and their families about achieving his childhood dream of becoming a Major League Baseball player.
A four-year senior who attended Boston College after graduating from The Gunnery, Dunn was drafted by the New York Mets and traded to the Mariners last year. He made his MLB debut in September with the full support of The Gunnery community behind him. Throughout his career, Dunn has kept in contact with Jeff Trundy, the David N. Hoadley '51 Head Baseball Coach, who welcomed him back to campus and onto the stage of the Tisch Family Auditorium, saying, “He always looks forward to coming back to Gunnery. He’s always a Highlander.”
Dunn spoke candidly, and with a good dose of humor, about his experiences and some of the people who helped him along the way, as he pursued his dream from The Gunnery to the minor leagues to what he hoped would be a spot in the Mariners’ pitching staff this spring.
Dunn first met Trundy when he was 12 years old. He was at Loomis Chaffee, playing in a showcase with The Boys Club of New York. A few years later, he arrived at The Gunnery as a freshman. Dunn said he was about 4 feet, 5 inches tall and weighed all of 90 pounds. Watching his parents drive away from Teddy House he said, “I was a mess. I remember vividly them dropping me off. I was like, ‘This is really happening, I’m here for good.’”
Trundy sent an upperclassman to check on him, and continued to check in to see how his young recruit was doing. Eventually, he began to settle in. “I forget where we went, but we went on a walk my freshman year. That’s when I started to open up and really make friends and things kind of turned for me,” Dunn said.
You have to be dedicated
The fall of his freshman year, Dunn played football, and suffered a concussion. So the following fall, he signed up to run cross country with Head Coach Ed Small. “No one told me cross country is hard to do but no one really told me Mr. Small is as dedicated to cross country as you think. One day me and my buddies were over there trying to hide and he comes and finds us and cuts us, right there on the spot,” he said to students, and his laughter gave way to a smile as he turned more serious. “That was the first lesson I learned: you have to be dedicated and sometimes you have to do the things that you don’t want to do to get where you want to be. At your age I didn’t realize it, but now I do.”
“To this day it was the best four years I’ve had in my life,” he said of his years at the school, acknowledging that he made some sacrifices along the way. “I honestly didn’t realize what I had until I left. I didn’t really take full advantage. I didn’t really keep in touch with a lot of people I was going to keep in touch with, but that’s because I was so dedicated to what I want to do. A lot of weekends it was just me and coach on a field, Coach Small, Coach Martin, and just working on baseball. Now I see that there’s way more.”
“You guys have this beautiful building. It’s very special,” he said to the students, referring to the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center. “My advice, first of all, is take full advantage of the school, top to bottom, get all you can out of it.”
Routine is everything
Dunn played three sports at The Gunnery. Here, he said, he learned how to be an athlete, whether he was playing soccer, basketball or baseball. But his experience gave him something more: the opportunity to be on a team with people from all walks of life. It was a chance to meet new people and make friends with everyone. Being a student here also gave structure to his days, and taught him how to be independent.
“We had to check in at breakfast every morning. At the time I hated it, but as I started to get older, I realize this structure that you all have here, and that I had when I was here, is what made me the person that I am – on and off the field. In the sport I play, routine is everything. A lot of that came from being here. When you get older and get into the real world, it’s going to help a lot, especially when you get to college,” he said.
He remembers arriving at Boston College as a freshman and looking around as his friends’ moms were “unpacking their rooms, making their beds, all that. My mom threw my bag on the floor. My dad got in the car, and said, ‘See you at Thanksgiving.’ And I’m looking around at all these kids with their parents unpacking and [thinking] what is going on?”
In college, his days followed the same schedule that they had at The Gunnery, especially because he played baseball. He went to class, to practice, to study hall, to sleep. “The days are exactly the same,” he said, telling students that they might not like getting into those habits now, but he said, “I promise you, it will help in the long run.”
Even as a Gunnery student, there was no question in his mind that he would make it to the MLB. “At 10, I told my mom I was going to play in the major leagues. At 12, I told her I wasn’t going to college and then coach told me I had to go to college, along with my parents, so that kind of went out the window. But it was funny. A lot of kids when I was here, they used to mess with me because I was so small. They didn’t see it but I had been saying it since I came on campus.”
The friendships and connections he made at the school have been lasting. In response to a question about his recent move to Seattle, Dunn said he was hoping to find housing near his classmate, Charlie Kissel ’14. The two were roommates from sophomore to senior year, and Kissel was one of the few people outside of his family in attendance when he took the mound as the Mariners’ starting pitcher on September 12. “That was a pretty cool moment to share with someone I’ve known, who has seen me go through the whole process,” he said.
He still jokes that The Gunnery baseball team could have won a championship if Trundy had let him pitch his junior year, but credits his coach with helping him get to where he wanted to be. “I would like to think I would have gotten to the same place, the road just would have been a little longer, “ Dunn said, adding of Trundy, “He was very instrumental in my college recruiting process because, for those who don’t know, Coach coaches in the Cape Cod league, which is the biggest summer league in the world for college baseball players, So he’s connected from top to bottom with all the major college coaches, and when I was going through the process, we would talk to him everyday. I went to a school that was perfect for me and everything worked out.”
The game’s the easy part
Asked by a faculty child about his favorite baseball memory so far, Dunn didn’t hesitate. “Getting drafted,” he said, “because it was my childhood dream.”
Over time, he has learned to maintain his focus, and acknowledged that so much of the game is a mental challenge. “Ironically, the game’s the easy part. You can have a hundred thousand people screaming at me. Except for my debut, I’ve never heard a sound in the stadium except for my mother’s voice. That is it. All I hear is ‘Breathe.’ That’s it. I don’t know if it’s me hearing her in my head or what, but I don’t hear anything,” Dunn said.
Dunn said he is aware of the importance of not making the game his life. “There’s a fine line between making it your life and being dedicated to your craft. Kobe [Bryant] was the best example. It’s being able to kind of shut the brain off and being mentally locked in. And I’m just now getting to this point. It took me forever. I would let umpire calls spiral and start pacing around the mound, throwing balls ... Once I kind of learned to narrow the focus down and really indulge in the moment is when things took off for me.”
Heading into spring training, Dunn said he found himself in an unusual position, where he no longer has to fight for a job. “This is the first year where it’s my job to lose. I have to go in, be ready to play, and win a spot at camp.”
“That’s something that I talked about with coach a lot,” he said, referring to Trundy, who was just a few feet away, smiling. “Trust the process, Respect your teammates, Get better every day. Those are the things that are my biggest goals. I’m usually pretty good under pressure, and when I do get there, it’s just learn every day. Learn from the older guys, learn from the younger guys, learn from the coaches. So learn, and then once you get there, never get back.”