Can it really be 30 years since The Hawk soared into Mesa – and into the collective hearts of Cubs fans everywhere?
It was early March 1987, and I had already completed my first internship with the Cubs’ Media Relations department. By this time, I was in my senior year at the University of Missouri awaiting a second Cubs internship – this time of the 13-week summer variety.
I remember where I was when I heard the news, sitting in my one bedroom Tiger Village apartment in Columbia, Mo. – squinting at my 12-inch TV. I had woken up to the reports that Andre Dawson’s agent had offered the Cubs a blank contract. I watched ESPN with amazement at the possibility that Dawson – The Hawk … free-agent outfielder … multiple-time All-Star … longtime Montreal Expos stalwart – could possibly be Cubs-bound.
I knew my bosses in Media Relations, Ned Colletti and Sharon Pannozzo, would be busy dealing with the speculation – so I didn’t want to bother them. I also knew if I called the Chicago office, I might get some gossip. I called … was told to hold tight … and sat on pins-and-needles waiting for final word.
Back in the day, ESPN was social media. Forget Facebook and Twitter. There wasn’t Internet. There wasn’t round-the-clock sports talk radio. If you weren’t sitting in front of the TV watching ESPN, you might be out of luck in finding out sports news until the next day’s newspaper was at your door step. But as a journalism school student, I was blessed with the opportunity to go to the Columbia Missourian newsroom, hop on a computer terminal, and keep waiting for any news the wire services would provide.
So I waited … and waited … and waited some more … and then: BREAKING NEWS: DAWSON TO SIGN WITH CUBS.
There’s an adage: No cheering in the press box. That probably should translate to a newsroom, too, but I know I screamed “YESSSSSS” when that AP story flashed in front of my eyes.
I’m not going to lie. Andre Dawson’s scowl made me nervous around him for a couple years. He never growled at me. He never said anything mean to me. He just always seemed to have his game face on.
If I had to guess, it only took me four-plus years before I made him smile. And he was one of the greatest players I worked with – both on the field and off.
I started feeling comfortable around him in 1989 – a year the Cubs won their second division title in six seasons (remember when that was big news?!). That year, I took on postgame clubhouse duties for home games – meaning I opened the clubhouse to media after the game and had supervisory responsibilities. Dawson had an up-and-down season – although he rebounded quite nicely in ensuing campaigns – as his surgically repaired knees were giving him all sorts of issues (more on that later).
Anyway, in 1989 (and 1990 and 1991 and 1992), Andre had enough big moments that he often had media members wanting to speak with him after a game. So we worked out a plan. I would open the clubhouse to the media … walk halfway through the clubhouse, right across from Dawson’s locker … make sure to say “Andre’s at his locker” as media would go running by to get to the manager’s office … and watched as 99-to-100 percent ignored me and would continue on. If no one stopped, I nodded my head to him and said “Bye” … and watched him walk to see the athletic trainers for his 45-to-60 minute postgame work.
To repeat: He was always at his locker when media entered the clubhouse. He would always be at his locker, waiting for them to stop. After media flew by, he’d go to have work done on his knees. Then, I’d take the heat as select members of the media would grouse because they needed Andre’s quotes for their stories – reminding me they were on deadlines.
“I told you he was at his locker when you came in,” I’d say.
“I needed to get Zim,” I’d be told – as if manager Don Zimmer would be out of the clubhouse 15 minutes after the game ended.
“You could have stopped to talk to Andre first. Zim wasn’t going anywhere,” I’d reply.
Rinse, lather, repeat. It happened all the time.
And then, 45-to-60 minutes later, out would hobble Andre – slowly taking one painful step after another.
About those knees …
I never saw anyone work harder to get on the playing field than Hawk. His knees were shot. Bone on bone. But he gutted his way through it every day.
To put it in perspective, our traveling secretary, Peter Durso, had a rule for road games: The bus leaves one hour after the game; NO exceptions. No exceptions, that is, unless Andre had trouble moving postgame. When that happened, the bus waited for him.
Coming from me, I can’t accurately describe what Andre went through in order to compete. So I turned to former Cubs athletic trainer John Fierro, who worked with the future Hall of Famer during Dawson’s six seasons in a Cubs uniform.
“I remember the day he first showed up in camp like it was yesterday. I’ll never forget him walking in and signing autographs and everybody going crazy down by the fence,” Fierro said. “We had played against him, but at first glance, when he walked in … what a specimen he was. Obviously, we knew his history and had researched him beforehand. I talked to (Expos trainer) Ron McClain, and he said Andre will be a lot of work – probably two hours before the game and an hour or so after the game – but you’ll never enjoy a player any more than you will with this guy. So we knew a little bit going in.
“His first day in, we sat down kind of like an interview, and I said ‘Give me the dirt.’ I knew what he had based on his medical history. ‘What do I have to do to get you ready?’ We went down a list of what he had been doing, and (assistant trainer) Dave Cilladi and I devised a plan of action that we would do – incorporating what he had been doing and adding some new ideas. The plan varied day-to-day.
“The hardest thing with him was to try to talk him into a day off. He didn’t want to take them. Basically, we had to reach an understanding – especially on turf. Out of three games, he would have to take one off in order for us to get any kind of longevity out of him. He did agree to that.
“A typical day was him coming in, whirlpool for 15-to-20 minutes, come into our room and work to get him ready. He was bone on bone, and you can’t massage bone and make it feel better. So we tried to keep the upper and the lower – the thigh and the calf – as loose as we could. Massage, then stretching, then some mobilization for his knees. Then some exercises. Then he’d go in the gym and ride the bike for 20 minutes or so, just to get the blood flowing. He’d come back in, then we would tape him up – both knees, every single day, right before batting practice. He would go out for batting practice, come back in, and we’d cut the tape off. Do another whirlpool, a little more stretching, back up on the table for Round 2 of taping. The one thing we didn’t compromise on was that he had a specific way that he needed them taped for comfort, so we followed that. That’s what we did for as long as he was there.
“After the game, he’d come in and cut the tape off. He’d always walk into the training room with a full box of fan mail and/or 25-pound dumb bells. We would do another cool down massage on his legs. We would hook up some stim to calm the knees down – or ice – and the whole time we were doing that, he’d either be doing biceps curls and lifts or signing fan mail. Then we’d all go home and repeat again tomorrow.
“One thing I want to say … he never wanted pain medicine. I know he was playing in pain; there’s no question about that.
“I can’t really describe the pleasure of being around him on a daily basis. He was inspiring. He was frustrating … frustrating because there was only so much Dave and I could do for him to help with the pain. Seeing the results were probably the most rewarding of all the things we do. When you’re in my position, you want to help somebody make a difference. With Hawk, on a daily basis, this guy made a difference. He was special.”