Dwight Gooden knew.
Dr. K had gotten tipped off that the 29th-round pick of the 2003 draft by Yankees, a rookie 5-foot-8 second baseman from Long Island, had a secret talent. So during one of the long bus rides across Florida for the 2003 Gulf Coast League Yankees, for whom Gooden was the pitching coach, he requested Adam Unger get up and sing.
The 18-year-old Unger obliged. He sang Frank Sinatra — his go-to was always either “New York, New York” or “My Way.” He wasn’t the only one who would entertain teammates on the bus. Tyler Clippard played his guitar. Some of the Dominican players on the team rapped.
“It was basically kind of like ‘American Idol’ on the minor league bus,” Unger said.
But none of them got the reaction he did — that he should quit baseball and start singing.
“Which I didn’t love at the time, because I was trying to make it to the major leagues,” Unger said.
A little more than a year later, though, he left baseball and forged a new dream, which would still put him under the bright lights of New York. This one involved singing opera. It included a detour to become a lawyer along the way — this, after his voice went missing — but Saturday, Unger will make his professional operatic debut in New York City in a production of “Rigoletto.”
“It’s been a real comeback story for me,” Unger, now 34 years old, told The Post in his big, booming voice this past week. “I was kind of a smaller player, only 5-foot-8, and was kind of an underdog to even make the minor leagues or professional baseball, but I did it. Now I feel like I’m doing the same thing with opera.”
Follow the voice
Unger was already singing at the age of 2. His dad was a singer, so he followed suit, and he sang in a production of “Oklahoma” in middle school. But by the time he got to high school at Great Neck South, baseball took over his life. He earned a scholarship to play at Florida State, but when the Yankees drafted him with the 874th-overall pick in 2003, he put college on hold and signed up for pinstripes.
In 16 games playing in the rookie Gulf Coast League that summer, Unger went 2-for-24 with four walks and a caught stealing. Future big leaguers Clippard and Phil Coke pitched for that team, as did future Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden.
After a slow start in Yankees spring training in 2004, Unger landed with the Rockies for extended spring training, where he hit .270, he said. They found out about his singing, too, and former Yankee Denny Neagle was among those who got him to show off the pipes. But that ended up being his last taste of professional baseball, getting released when a new wave of Rockies draft picks entered the organization and he was unable to latch on elsewhere.
So Unger began a new dream. He went to Queens College and got into opera while he was there — though at one point was trained in what he said was the wrong vocal category, tenor, which was too high for his natural bass-baritone. Unger said it messed up his voice for a while, so eventually he decided to go to law school — first at Hofstra, then at Penn, where he graduated in 2015.
Unger got a summer associate position at Paul, Weiss, a corporate law firm in New York, which turned into a full-time job. Like everywhere else he went, his colleagues found out he could sing. It made for quite a surprise when they brought clients out to karaoke.
While he was at Paul, Weiss, Unger began to sing again on the side as his voice was coming back to full strength. He sang with William Hicks, who was Luciano Pavarotti’s pianist. That led to an opportunity to sing the role of Schaunard in the Opera Company of Brooklyn’s production of “La boheme.”
Just about a year ago, though, Unger decided he wanted to give opera a real shot.
“That athletic instinct I had to kind of go for it, the same way I did with the Yankees, it kicked in,” Unger said.
Last May, Unger sang in the New York Lyric Opera competition at Carnegie Hall and won second place. He has gotten to sing with a famous tenor like Neil Shicoff. More and more opportunities have come his way, including the production he’s in this Saturday. He’s part of a cast of rising singers and playing the role of Monterone in “Rigoletto” at The Box NYC, produced by Rebecca Fay. His new colleagues refer to him as the Yankee lawyer who’s now an opera singer.
“Opera is actually quite athletic to sing it,” Unger said. “It’s like hitting a ball 400 feet — everything’s got to be coordinated really well. You’ve got to use your body, you’ve got to use everything to create that sound that’s going to carry over an orchestra. So it’s really like a combination of an athletic skill and an artistic skill at the same time. So it really fascinated me as someone who was a professional athlete.”
Unger is hoping this is just the beginning. He never made it out of the Gulf Coast League as a Yankee, but he sees that experience as an opportunity to learn from his failures now that he’s taking on another challenge in a different field.
The new dream doesn’t involve the House That Ruth Built, but instead the Metropolitan Opera House.
‘Getting to the Yankees [organization], I learned something,” Unger said. “But also not making it to the major leagues … you learn lessons from failing. You learn how to dream. How to think about that dream from the time you’re 5 years old to the time you’re 20 years old and accomplish that dream. But then what happens when that dream is taken away from you or not fulfilled? Where do you go from there?”