Commentary

Dawson to finally get his day in the sun

'Hawk' had, among other things, an intimidation factor that led to his landing in HOF

Originally Published: July 23, 2010
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

"Andre Dawson, the Hawk. No player in baseball history worked harder, suffered more or did it better than Andre Dawson. He's the best I've ever seen. The Hawk. I watched him win MVP for a last-place team in 1987, and it was the most unbelievable thing I've ever seen in baseball. He did it the right way, the natural way, and he did it in the field and on the bases and in every way, and I hope he will stand up here someday."

--Ryne Sandberg during his Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech in July 2005


COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Hall of Fame weekend is always an emotional time for inductees. Just imagine the pressure of standing on a stage in a coat and tie in 90-degree heat, trying to summarize a life and thank all the relevant contributors in 15 minutes or less. It can't be easy with the knowledge that 50-something baseball immortals are squirming in their seats and glancing at their watches directly behind you.

[+] EnlargeAndre Dawson
Jonathan Daniel /Getty ImagesAndre Dawson played 21 seasons in the major leagues, including six with the Cubs (1987-92).

The day is equally poignant for former teammates, who sit among the crowd and reminisce along with the inductee. They're the ones who helped support him through slumps and streaks, on bus rides and plane trips, from rookie year to retirement. They can best relate to the sacrifices a Hall of Fame career entails.

Five years ago, Ryne Sandberg received his Hall plaque and used the forum to deliver a celebrity endorsement. Andre Dawson had barely cracked 50 percent in his fourth year on the ballot, and Sandberg feared his former teammate might become an afterthought in an age of cartoonish, steroid-fueled power numbers. So he took a moment in the middle of his speech to pay tribute to the Hawk, a man who embodied everything he held dear about the game.

"When I talked about respect for the game of baseball, he was the first teammate I thought of who fit that mold," Sandberg said. "I had a fear he'd lose out of going to the Hall of Fame based on the state of the game at that time in the steroid era. I felt like his numbers were being overlooked, and I wanted to put in a good word for him."

This Sunday in Cooperstown, the two ex-Cubs will swap roles. Dawson is entering the Hall along with former big league manager Whitey Herzog and umpire Doug Harvey, and Sandberg will be a spectator. He will not be thinking about the heat or fretting about whether he'll be able to catch a late Sunday flight out of Albany.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," said Sandberg, manager of the Cubs' Triple-A Iowa farm club. "It'll mean a lot -- the fact that we were teammates and I added him into my speech promoting him for the Hall of Fame. It feels gratifying to be right on that call. Andre is going in, and baseball got it right."

Forever the Hawk

Amid baseball's statistical community, you won't find many people on board with that sentiment.

Willie Mays, Barry Bonds and Dawson are the only three players with 400 homers and 300 stolen bases. The Hawk also won eight Gold Gloves, a rookie of the year award and an MVP while making eight All-Star teams. But he was only a .279 career hitter, and his .323 on-base percentage is easily the lowest of any outfielder in Cooperstown. Scroll through the career OBP listings on Baseball-reference.com, and they end with Randy Bush, Brook Jacoby and Jeff Reed in a tie for 997th place at .3339. Dawson trails even that at .323.

Words such as "respected" and "feared" can be overused, of course, but there's no doubt Dawson possessed an intimidation factor that resonated in opposing dugouts. How many people know that Dawson, that inveterate hacker, holds the major league record with five intentional walks in a game? It happened May 22, 1990, in a 16-inning affair against Lou Piniella and the Cincinnati Reds, who decided it was a sound strategy to take their chances on Lloyd McClendon, Luis Salazar and Shawon Dunston in the three spots behind Dawson in the Chicago lineup.

What attributes help cultivate a player's mystique? In Dawson's case, the nickname is a good place to begin. During Dawson's youth in South Florida, his family referred to him as "Pudgy," a designation he still can't explain or understand. At age 9, he began hanging around his uncle's senior league team, and "Pudgy" mercifully gave way to "Hawk."

"My uncle would hit me ground balls and throw me batting practice, and he said I had this presence," Dawson said. "I would be all over the ball, and my approach was different from normal kids. A lot of kids would back away. They would be afraid of the ball. He said that I would attack it and it would remind him of a hawk. And it just stuck all of those years."

Ryne Sandberg It'll mean a lot -- the fact that we were teammates and I added him into my speech promoting him for the Hall of Fame. It feels gratifying to be right on that call. Andre is going in, and baseball got it right.

-- Former Cubs 2B Ryne Sandberg

Dawson always had a knack for impressing his elders. When he arrived in Montreal for a cameo in September 1976, the veterans saw a quiet kid with a 30-inch waist, skinny legs and the upper body of an NFL cornerback.

"He looked like a thoroughbred," said Steve Rogers, Dawson's Montreal teammate from 1976 through 1985.

Dawson applied himself with a seriousness that belied his youth. For two springs, he worked exhaustively on his throwing motion with pitching coach Jim Brewer to get maximum carry, and baserunners learned it was an exercise in futility to challenge him. Dawson began his career in center field, shifted to right in 1984 when Warren Cromartie left for Japan and won four Gold Gloves in both outfield spots.

The Hawk was so strong that he once broke his bat on a check swing -- a la Jim Rice. Rogers will never forget the day Dawson lashed a triple to the gap with pitcher David Palmer on third base, Cromartie on second and Dave Cash on first. Cromartie could move, Cash was fast, too, but Dawson kept gaining on him.

"It was like the starting gun went off and a track meet broke out," Rogers said.

Soon enough, the rock-hard artificial turf at Olympic Stadium did a number on Dawson's knees, one of which had already been damaged by a high school football injury. Dawson's Montreal teammates grew accustomed to the sight of him arriving early to prepare for games and leaving late because of the maintenance required to stay ambulatory. He would sit in the trainer's room with both knees packed in ice and do curls with a 35-pound dumbbell. He'd go home and his wife, Vanessa, would have to make emergency runs to the grocery store for more ice bags some nights.

The discomfort was so acute, Dawson took pain medication like candy and even considered retirement at age 25. He reportedly underwent 12 operations, developed arthritis in both knees and had double knee replacement surgery on the left one in 2006.

"I got to the point where I was more or less bone on bone," Dawson said.

The Cubbie years

Although Dawson will enter the Hall of Fame as an Expo, he'll be remembered by many for his exploits at Wrigley Field. After making $1.1 million for Montreal in 1986, Dawson spurned a two-year, $2 million offer from the Expos to go on the open market. No team stepped forward because of collusion worries, so Dawson offered to sign a blank contract and let his new employer fill in the salary. He had his mind set on playing for the Braves, because Atlanta was close to his home in Florida, or the Cubs, because he liked daytime baseball and always enjoyed the banter with the fans at Wrigley.

The Chicago players were so anxious to have Dawson in the fold that they lobbied publicly for the team to sign him. Pitcher Rick Sutcliffe offered to donate $100,000 in salary to aid in the fund drive. In response to that gesture, Sutcliffe received a stern, handwritten note from club president Dallas Green telling him to focus on pitching rather than team finances and personnel moves.

When Green responded to Dawson's offer with a $500,000 base salary, plus incentives, Dawson stuck to his word and signed the deal.

"I told them, 'I was man enough to present this to you, and I'm going to stand up to it,'" he said.

Dawson's fellow Cubs quickly learned that if they were willing to follow, he was happy to lead. The afternoon of July 7, 1987, will forever be ingrained in Cubs lore. After hitting a home run off San Diego's Eric Show, Dawson took a fastball in the face in his second plate appearance. The stands fell silent as Dawson lay on the ground near home plate in a heap. Just when it appeared he might have to be carted off the field, Dawson leaped to his feet and chased Show toward second base, then into the first base dugout.

"When Hawk got up and took off, it was like the Red Sea parting," Sutcliffe said. "If Hawk would have caught him, he would have killed him."

Dawson suffered a gash that required 24 stitches to close. Sutcliffe, who received an eight-day suspension for his part in the Show brawl, still maintains that the lost salary should cover his $100,000 pledge toward the Andre Dawson salary drive.

After the incident, Dawson went on to hit 49 homers, drive in 137 runs and win the MVP award for a Cubs team that finished last in the National League East with a 76-85 record.

Long before Dawson claimed his MVP award, it was common knowledge that knockdown pitches made him more determined to punish opposing pitchers. Former teammates recalled some particularly epic battles between Dawson and Nolan Ryan through the years. Ryan whiffed Dawson 25 times in 82 at-bats, but the Hawk connected for four home runs and 13 RBIs, and he never went down without a fight.

In the sanctity of the clubhouse, teammates occasionally would glimpse a different side of Dawson. It was particularly evident in his relationship with Tim Raines, the speedy Montreal outfielder with a chatty demeanor and high-pitched cackle to counter Dawson's stoicism. They were an odd couple, Rock and the Hawk.

"Every now and then, Raines would just chirp at Hawk, picking at him," Rogers said. "Pretty soon, Hawk would say, 'OK, put 'em on.'"

The two outfielders, clad in sliding pads, would wrap their hands in sanitary socks and take part in no-holds-barred slap-boxing contests in the clubhouse. Raines, a stocky 5-foot-8, would wade into the fray and try to slip in a few body blows while Dawson tried to take advantage of his superior reach. Both players would be woofing as 23 other Expos gathered in a circle and egged them on.

After Raines went into rehab for cocaine dependency in the early 1980s, he credited Dawson with helping turn his life around. Raines named his second son Andre, and it was only fitting that the two Andres shared a birth date -- July 10.

In a 1987 interview, Raines reflected on Dawson's impact on his life and his career.

"Everybody should have a friend like Andre. A friend who is always going to be there when you need him," Raines said. "If I call him, I know he will take the time out to talk to me … I really love him like a brother."

It's a sentiment many of Dawson's former teammates share. Regardless of whether they make it to Cooperstown for his speech Sunday, they will be with him in spirit, from the first word to the last.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer