There was a time not so long ago when the baseball world only thought it revolved around numbers. Players made an average of slightly less than $500,000 a year. The superstars made somewhere around $2.5 million. These figures were considered untenably exorbitant.
Walks remained a sign of weakness; only the enlightened had even begun to appreciate the value of on-base percentage. Visionaries like Bill James had started asking serious questions about the game and its numbers, but in 1987, the answers were still a long way from clear.
In this world of grit and guts, Andre Dawson was king. Dawson did all the things that humanized baseball players, the things that made them heroes. He hit long home runs. He chased down fly balls in right field, then fired the ball on a rope to home plate. He stole bases and ran out ground balls.
He played hurt: played even on a fractured knee for a while. He handed the Chicago Cubs a blank contract for the 1987 season and allowed them to pay him scarcely more than the league average. He then hit 49 home runs and won the MVP award.
Maybe most important, Dawson looked like a ball player, and a heroic one. He stood 6'3", with massive hands (his paws still swallow the hands of fans with whom he shakes hands, some two decades later) and broad shoulders. Every inch of Dawson was lean and angular, as though he remained perpetually tensed for battle. They called him "Hawk".
There was one last thing about Dawson. Everything he did on the diamond, from his vicious swing to his rocket arm, looked easy and elegant. Yet it was ruthlessly violent. Dawson had such force and malice in his swing, such fervor in his defensive demeanor, and such ferocious focus in his eyes that he seemed perpetually angry.
As Padres pitcher Eric Show found out one afternoon in 1987, that anger was not illusory. It was only, very narrowly, restrained. Show hit Dawson with a pitch in the at-bat directly following Hawk’s third home run in two days against San Diego. The bean-ball set off an enormous brawl, part of which involved Dawson going furiously after Show.
Put it all together, and you had the very type of player many nostalgic fans feared the game had lost. Dawson was well-rounded, enthusiastic, dramatic, powerful, and uninterested in the economic and aesthetic alterations the game underwent seemingly every day. At the end of 1987, Dawson was a titan.
Unfortunately, by the time of Dawson’s crowning moment, the wheels that would spin his breed of player into extinction were already in motion. In the American League, Mark McGwire won the Rookie of the Year award. His teammate Jose Canseco would win the MVP in 1988. These men added super-human physiques to Dawson’s prodigious power and became the new faces of the game.
Bobby Bonilla became Major League Baseball’s first $6 million man in 1992. Bonilla had none of Dawson’s toughness, his power or his speed. Bonilla could barely manage to competently patrol the outfield. Bonilla played with flash, boasted to the media, and played just 375 games in his first three seasons on the record-braking deal. Andre Dawson, meanwhile, faded slowly from glory.
Twenty years later, Andre Dawson has his sweet vindication. Canseco and McGwire, along with a half-dozen other artificially super-charged robot athletes, have retired or been run out of the game in shame. Bonilla, Albert Belle, and Danny Tartabull have become virtual no-names, lost in the sands of time despite all their desperate efforts to retain the spotlight.
Dawson is now a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He gained entry Wednesday by receiving 420 votes on the 539 ballots cast. He never left baseball behind, choosing instead to stay around the game and coach. He is a member of the Florida Marlins’ front office to this day, after earning a World Series ring in that capacity in 2003.
History won’t remember Andre Dawson all that fondly. Baseball might once have only thought it knew numbers, but now it truly does. Statistical analysis advances at the speed of lap-top computers and Blackberries. These analyses are no fad, and they will come to define the evaluation of ball players more and more over the coming years.
Those numbers tell us Dawson was good, and sometimes great, but never legendary. That is no deception. Dawson had warts. He rarely drew walks, and he ran more often than he should have, especially early in his career.
He also hung around the game long after he was any semblance of his peak self, a flaw common to the truly magnificent paragons of this game: Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, and Cal Ripken all played long past their utility, too. Had any of them not had the kind of relentless competitiveness that drove them to play on, however, none would have attained their levels of success.
No, Andre Dawson is not the best player of all time. He is not even the best of his generation. But the Hawk is a symbol of a game that has long since passed out of this world, never to return. He still signs autographs. He still attends the annual (and upcoming) Cubs Convention in Chicago. He still shows the warmth and class he has always shown off the field, and that many modern players strive to replicate.
In his hawk eyes, though, the glint remains. Dawson still has the hard edge; he still has the fire that made him unique. No future entrant into Cooperstown will ever have that again: it simply isn’t the way of things anymore. It simply isn’t there. Ken Griffey, they can say, knew how to be a baseball hero. Craig Biggio, they can say, always got dirty, and always played tough. Randy Johnson, they can say, intimidated his opponents with no more than a glare.
None of these, however, were all three at once. None can match the dynamic Dawson brought to the diamond every day of his 21-year career, nor that which he still brings each day to the front office in Florida. None are the old definition of the term baseball hero. Andre Dawson is truly the last of his kind.