For Korey Dunbar, there’s more to life than baseball
Korey Dunbar sits in his Charleston, W.Va., home, his parents at his side, gathered around a coffee table that defines the family’s living room. A glass showcase lined with accomplishments frames Korey and his older sister Kara together — just as they are in life. There’s a fireplace, too, surrounded by Christmas trees that his mother, Joyce, decorates according to the season — she loves that kind of stuff, he says. She even has his goofy tee-ball picture still hanging from the refrigerator a few rooms over. She loves that kind of stuff, too.
The living room is inviting, relaxing. But during this stretch of a then 17-year old Dunbar’s life, the room was the site of stress. Tension.
The next day, the phone rings again.
It seems like it’s been relentlessly vexing him every day for months without a break — and if he decides to take the call this time instead of ignoring it, he’ll head back to the living room with his parents. That’s where all of the calls are made, where all of the visiting scouts sit when they enter his home.
But by now — after coming home from high school each day to phone calls and questionnaires from scouts of all 30 Major League Baseball teams— the glory has dwindled away, and the stress has sunk in. A high school Dunbar is exhausted.
“It’s not — I don’t know — it’s not as glamorous as it seems,” he said sitting on a couch in UNC’s baseball center — his home now that he’s 20 years old and UNC’s starting catcher. “I don’t want to underplay it. It was great and everything like that — but at that time I was 17.”
A 17-year-old senior at Nitro High School, who just three years earlier had been a scrawny 135-pound freshman willing to give up his love for soccer if it meant finding a starting role on the baseball team. A 17-year-old senior who knew a dozen years earlier at just 5 years old that there was something about baseball that he couldn’t get enough of. A 17-year-old senior who thought he was ready to forego his dreams of playing college baseball and take the plunge straight into the daunting world of professional play.
“There was one point where it was so stressful where I was like, ‘You know what?’ It started overlapping with school, and I was like ‘I just don’t want to do it anymore,’’’ he said. ‘“I just want to sign and then go.’’’
And that plan certainly would’ve been feasible — the prospects were there with both the Reds and the Angels attempting to strike a deal with West Virginia’s top player in the third round of the 2012 draft.
But after hours of thought and guidance from mom, dad and Kara, Korey decided there were a few things he wanted to do before taking the leap.
First: put himself in the position to earn a college degree.
“My main concern was getting a good education and being a part of this program,” he said.
Second: enjoy an intimate sense of belonging one final time.
“I just wanted to be a part of a team one more time for at least however many years here (at UNC) and then go from there.”
The last, and perhaps most important: make a difference in someone else’s life before baseball consumed his.
“I want people to know me as not just a baseball player but as an actual person,” he said. “I want them to see me as Korey Dunbar. Not the baseball player.”
Going to class
It’s now a typical day after school, and that same high-school Korey Dunbar, the same one that is being bogged down by scouts and coaches, is taking a visit to Stonewall Jackson Middle School. But today he’s not thinking about them.
The difference of course is that today he’s Korey Dunbar the person. Not Korey Dunbar the baseball player.
He walks through the doors of the classroom, which is vibrantly decorated with posters and eye-popping artwork. The white on the walls is barely visible beneath it all. There are tables instead of desks, and they’re formed into a circle instead of rows. Much like his living room before all the chaos began, he feels comfortable here. It’s an escape.
As he enters the room, not a single student in that classroom knows that, if all goes as planned, one day they might see him on TV. As far as he knows, not a single student even knows that the then 17 year old plays baseball.
His older sister Kara, 13 years his senior and the teacher of this special education class is the only one who knows. And that’s just how he likes it.
The kids light up the second he walks through the door. They instantly gravitate to a shy, yet compassionate Dunbar, who has a gentle tone when he speaks. His smile is soft, blue eyes welcoming.
“They would kind of just cling to me,” he said. “It makes me so happy to see them light up and have a great day. Some of them don’t really know if they’re there or where they are, and just to see a smile and that’s it? It just gives me butterflies.”
There’s one particular kid in the room that is selective with his speech. He suffers from an emotionally tolling home life, and Kara says he’s been in the class for more than a year now and still won’t share his words with anyone outside of his family. To communicate, he writes his thoughts on a blank sheet of paper. But he feels comfortable with Korey, who plays games and throws a ball with him to make him feel like he’s having some fun.
Suddenly, one day, he breaks down the barriers he’s had up for more than a dozen years.
“One day he whispered to me,” Dunbar said. “And he would have his bad days and when he would, if I happened to be down there, he’d cling to me. And it would be OK.”
That’s when Kara confirmed that Korey’s love for kids and his natural ability to connect to them was more than just a passion. It was a gift.
All his life Korey had wanted to be an architect. Then when he arrived at UNC he flirted with sports medicine.
But after she watched her brother take another child at daycare under his wing before he ever even started school, and after she watched her little brother calm down an upset special-needs student at a school dance better than she could, Kara knew that teaching would suit Korey well. After he left West Virginia for North Carolina, he’d learn that kids at home would dress as him for Halloween, and identify Kara as Korey Dunbar’s sister before they would as their assistant principal.
“I’ve been in education for quite a few years now. The battle we fight more than any other with teachers is relating to the kids,” she said. “He has that. I think that’s something that you either have, or you don’t have. And he has that.”
Fewer than two years later, Korey declared an education major at UNC. His big sister and best friend was right.
A reassuring pat, Trent Thornton says. That’s all he needs from Dunbar.
It’s Friday, April 11, and the ace pitcher is on the mound for his eighth inning of work against Wake Forest at Boshamer Stadium. He’s feeling good, commanding the ball well as he continues to blister strikes into Dunbar’s mit.
But to slow the pace of the game, Dunbar makes a mound visit midway through the inning.
“‘You got this, boss,’’’ he tells his freshman year roommate with a quick butt-tap before he jogs back to the dish. That’s his go-to routine.
“Oh yeah, he’s definitely a butt-toucher,” Thornton jokes. “He’ll come up to the mound and immediately his hand’s right on your butt and he’ll say, ‘Come on man, you got this.’”
Thornton tossed a career-high 10 strikeouts that night for eight shutout innings.
Even when he’s behind the plate, Dunbar is teaching. As a catcher, he’s involved with every pitch, and, with Thornton especially, the chemistry is natural. The two met two years ago when they both had their official visits to UNC as high school seniors and after Dunbar decided to forgo the pros and play collegiately.
It’s the companionship with teammates like Thornton that assures Dunbar he made the right decision to not only come to college, but also to come to UNC. He had a hunch the second he left UNC’s campus two years ago that he wanted to commit to Mike Fox’s program.
“It just felt right,” he said. “I remember telling my mom and dad as soon as we got in the car to go back home, ‘I don’t even want to go to my other visits. I know I want to come here.’”
But once he got here, the journey wasn’t that simple.
Pegged one of the top recruits last year as a freshman, Dunbar put so much pressure on himself to succeed that eventually it began to break him down.
“He kind of put the pressure on himself to say, ‘Hey, I need to be really, really, really good to play here,’” said undergraduate assistant coach and former professional catcher Mark Fleury, “instead of ‘I just need to be Korey Dunbar, who is really, really, really good.”
Last season Dunbar hit .159, with three RBIs, five runs and two doubles — a stat line that he quickly obliterated in his first two games back from an early season illness. He followed a go-ahead two-run homer with a grand slam the next day.
He’s got more than eight times the RBIs to his name this season than last and has tallied 30 hits, six doubles and three home runs, good for a .252 average.
In 2012 the Dodgers drafted him in the 39th round, but one day soon, he hopes those dozens of coaches will call him again. This time he’ll sit in his new home — the UNC baseball center, which also has glass showcases displaying his program’s accomplishments. Just like his living room. This time, it’ll be for real. And this time he’ll be ready.
“I think it’s going to be a lot less stressful,” he said. “I know what to expect.”
Kara knows her little brother can do it. She knows he has the work ethic. She always saw him lifting weights — even once on Christmas Eve.
But Korey Dunbar is a person first, baseball player second.
“Like I said, I don’t want baseball to reflect who I am,” he said. “And it doesn’t.”
That same gentle smile.
“Obviously, it’s a game that I love and it’s a game that I want to take as far as I can in my career. If it works out? Awesome. And if doesn’t? Be a teacher,” he said.
“And be the happiest teacher in the world.”