Dawson belongs in Cooperstown

How do you remember Andre Dawson?

The answer is easy for Dusty Baker.

"Nobody played on sheer guts and bad knees longer than Hawk," said Baker, the Chicago Cubs manager. "He could have had a lot bigger numbers. He was a big-time player."

Is Dawson a Hall of Famer? Not yet, but he should be.

If Kirby Puckett is in the Hall, if Tony Perez is in the Hall, if Gary Carter, Ryne Sandberg and Ozzie Smith are in the Hall, Dawson needs to be there, too. He's every bit the player any of the other five are -- although, yes, we're comparing apples to oranges in some cases -- but is undervalued because he hit the Hall of Fame ballot in 2002, the year after Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs and Bret Boone drove in 141 runs.

It's time many voters take a second look and give Dawson the love he always gave fans, teammates and the clubs that paid him, even once giving the Chicago Cubs a blank check in exchange for his services.

Few remember Dawson when he came up with the Montreal Expos, as an oversized center fielder with Rookie of the Year skills. More, but still not many, remember him when he was at the peak of his skills in Montreal, a triple threat at the plate, on the bases and in right field.

Some will remember him only at the end of his career, when he limped through two hard-to-watch seasons with the Boston Red Sox and two more with the Florida Marlins. For most of us, however, the most vivid memories of Dawson came during his run with the Chicago Cubs.

With the Cubs, Dawson won a Most Valuable Player award in 1987 and helped his team to the National League East title in 1989, putting an end to the New York Mets' dominance. Even then, we weren't getting the best of Dawson.

We saw him struggle against the San Francisco Giants in the championship series. Only his teammates and peers understood the daily battle he went through to get onto the field with knees that only an orthopedic surgeon could love. He had been born with good ones, of course, and still had them when he left Florida A&M in 1976. He destroyed them playing with reckless abandon on the concrete-like artificial turf at Montreal's Olympic Stadium.

Maybe this wasn't as tragic as the irreversible glaucoma that ended Puckett's career in 1995, after 12 seasons. But there's reason to give Dawson the benefit of the doubt in terms of his Hall of Fame candidacy.

No eligible player has ever collected as many hits (2,774) or RBI (1,591) without becoming a Hall of Famer -- a claim that Dawson will almost certainly pass to Harold Baines (2,866 hits, 1,628 RBI) when he goes onto the ballot a year from now.

Despite receiving mail in trainer's rooms and whirlpools, Dawson hated -- and that's not a strong enough word, really -- being out of the lineup. He pushed himself onto the field to establish marks that come with durability.

Dawson, who was such a good athlete that Davey Johnson started him in center field and Eric Davis in left in the 1987 All-Star Game, was the first player to ever put together 12 consecutive seasons in which he finished with double-figure home run and stolen base totals. He piled up 45 extra-base hits in 15 consecutive seasons, becoming the sixth name on a list that included only Henry Aaron, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Mel Ott and Honus Wagner.

On the picture-perfect day he was enshrined into the Hall last summer, Sandberg took time to campaign for Dawson, whose free-agent signing in 1987 energized a Cubs franchise that had grown dormant since an unexpected trip to the National League Championship Series in 1984.

"No player in baseball history worked harder, suffered more or did it better than Andre Dawson," Sandberg said. "He's the best I've ever seen. I watched him win an MVP for a last-place team, 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 some day."

Sandberg's comment about "the natural way,'' was, of course, a shot at the Jose Canseco generation of illegally-enhanced, often one-dimensional sluggers. The numbers Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Bonds and others put up from 1997 through 2003 diminished -- at least in reflection during that time -- the career statistics of hitters from the 1980s and early '90s, including Dawson and Jim Rice.

How much of a bump those guys get in voting remains to be seen.

Dawson gained 56 votes from 2002, his first year on the ballot, to '05, his fourth year. But because the electorate also grew in that span, that wasn't as big a gain as it might seem -- only from 45.3 percent to 52.3 percent. It meant he moved from 140 votes to 117 votes short of the 75-percent requirement for election.

That's a whole lot of minds to change. But if Canseco's book and the Richard Nixon moment experienced by Rafael Palmeiro aren't enough to get you thinking, well, maybe your reasoning, like Dawson's knees, is beyond repair.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.