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Adam Dunn, Matt Garza about to discover why Chicago’s a whole new ballgame

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Nick Swisher thought he was ready.

The self-anointed ‘‘Swish-a-licious’’ had spent his early major-league years in the Bay Area with the Oakland Athletics, had experienced the postseason stage in 2006 and put the swag in swagger when it came to the media and Swisher promoting Swisher.

He was ‘‘Dirty 30’’ with an eye-catching resumé, and when he came to the White Sox in 2008, the question wasn’t if he was ready to play in Chicago but if Chicago was ready for him.

By July, there were hints. By September, it was apparent. Swisher was moping around on the bench for a playoff-bound team, barely speaking to reporters and cramming critical articles written about him into his cap before games as motivation.

The 2008 season was his one and only in Chicago.

Windy City 1, Deflated Pro Athlete 0.

Matt Garza and Adam Dunn, c’mon down!

New York is known for the bright lights and big stage, while Philadelphia can drown an athlete’s psyche in boos. But there’s something to be said about making it in Chicago.

You’ll initially be given the Midwestern benefit of the doubt, but it comes with a warning: Succeed and you will be loved. Fail, and your failure will be evaluated. If it comes through all-out, blue-collar effort, patience is granted. If it comes with defiance, ‘‘The City of Big Shoulders’’ will prove too heavy for yours.

Hoping for heroes

The Cubs and White Sox had some minor face work done this offseason — a tuck here, a shot of Botox there. The North Siders did a one-and-done deal with first baseman Carlos Pena and brought reliever Kerry Wood back to their bosom, but the big get was Garza, a right-hander who bolsters a starting pitching staff that needed a stronger foundation.

The Sox kept their core intact by re-signing first baseman Paul Konerko and catcher A.J. Pierzynski but kicked the payroll up to a franchise-record $125 million when they spent $56 million for the “Big Donkey,’’ Adam Dunn, over the next four seasons.

Garza and Dunn will be counted on to be heroes on their respective sides of town — no easy task.

Konerko, the longest tenured baseball player at either Red Line stop, has seen them come. He’s watched them go. And his advice for the new faces in Chicago is they’ll have to walk the road to truly experience it.

‘‘Someone who is just traded here, they have to learn how to deal with the media questions, the fans, all that kind of stuff,’’ Konerko said. ‘‘It can become a shock. It’s normal for me because I’ve kind of been bred here.

‘‘I’m sure there is an adjustment period, but the question becomes how long is the adjustment period, or does it turn out the guy can’t do it here? That’s the tough one. If it was just the between-the-lines stuff, there would be a lot more people successful. There are so many more distractions . . . and to go to a bigger city, there’s just more of that.

‘‘It’s knowing how to navigate through it. It’s not easy.’’

Dunn has right demeanor

Despite the money thrown his way, Dunn, 31, might be better-wired to make the transition than Garza.

Dunn is country mellow. True failure for him comes in missing a head shot on 10-point buck rather than striking out. And he’s consistent: Put him down for 40 homers, 100 RBI, a .250-.260ish average and 185 strikeouts — year after year after year.

Yes, he has spent his career in media-friendly places such as Cincinnati, Arizona and Washington, and yes, he’s making the jump from position player to designated hitter, but his makeup could be solid enough to make the change seamless.

He also knows what’s in store in the insane asylum that is Sox baseball.

‘‘I’ve heard some of the stories,’’ Dunn said with a laugh when asked early in camp about life with manager Ozzie Guillen, general manager Ken Williams and chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. ‘‘It sounds like a good time.’’

Closer Matt Thornton played with Dunn on Team USA in the World Baseball Classic two years ago and was a strong supporter when the Sox were rumored to be trading for Dunn last season.

‘‘He’s one of my favorite guys that I ever got a chance to play with, actually,’’ Thornton said then. ‘‘It was only for about four weeks that I got to play with him, but just a great clubhouse guy. Then, obviously, the power in his bat, he’s one of the best in the game.’’

Garza: Big ego, small ponds

Garza, on the other hand, is more risk-reward.

His ego was one of the reasons the Minnesota Twins traded him to the Tampa Bay Rays after the 2007 season, and it was behind a scuffle with teammate Dioner Navarro in 1998 that resulted in Garza being introduced to a sports psychologist. That episode was a huge red flag, but for Garza, it worked. The results finally caught up to the talent as Garza went 11-9 that season and the Rays won the American League pennant. Garza was a 15-game winner last season.

But that was on a small stage in St. Petersburg.

An athlete coming to the Cubs will find his own history being put on trial. Plus he’ll have to deal with 102 years of failure that have absolutely nothing to do with him. The latter might be tougher to overcome. The longer the Cubs go into a summer atop the division, the more “Is this finally the year?’’ becomes an every-day, suffocating question.

Is Garza, 27, ready for that? Spring wasn’t a very good indicator.

His explanation for a 1-4 record and 10.38 ERA in the Cactus League was, ‘‘It’s my first year in Arizona. And it sucks. . . . It’s so dry, but whatever. Now it’s time to go to Chicago, where there’s a little more moisture in the air.’’

Moisture isn’t the only thing in the air in Chicago. There’s hope, doubt, excitement — heck, pick an emotion.

‘‘Shoot,’’ Garza told a reporter last week, ‘‘I played in Boston during the playoff run and [pennant] stretch time, and I was the most hated person on that hill. I’m pretty sure Chicago will like me a lot better than that.’’

For now, yes.

Just don’t test it.



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