To fully appreciate Andre Dawson, you had to see him play in his prime, before the horrible artificial turf in Montreal ravaged his knees. You had to see him streak across the outfield on his way to a great catch, make throws that had to be seen to be believed, tear holes in the sky with line drives to all fields, steal bases in crucial situations and slide so violently into a base to break up a double play. You had to see him at work before and after games in the clubhouse, silently leading, quietly teaching that winning is all that matters in baseball.
You had to talk to those who managed him, such as Dick Williams. You had to talk to those who played with him, such as Warren Cromartie. You had to talk to those who played against him, such as Tony Gwynn. They'll tell you Andre Dawson is a Hall of Famer.
"He's probably my favorite teammate ever for a lot of reasons, but mainly because he played the game right," said former Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg, a Hall of Famer. "To see what he had to go through to play the game on those knees: first to the park, last to leave. But once the game started, you would have never known he had bad knees because he played so hard. His numbers speak for themselves, but as far as character, integrity and professionalism, he's at the top of the class in all of those categories."
Some of his numbers speak loudly. There aren't too many Hall of Famers who won a rookie of the year and an MVP, finished second in the MVP race in two other seasons, started seven All-Star Games and won eight Gold Gloves and four Silver Sluggers. Dawson was one of the greatest combinations of speed, power and defense in history. He had 438 home runs and 314 steals; Barry Bonds and Willie Mays are the only others in the 400-300 club.
Dawson finished with 2,774 hits (more than Ted Williams and Billy Williams), 1,591 RBIs (more than Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey) and 438 home runs (more than anyone eligible for the Hall except Jose Canseco, Dave Kingman and Mark McGwire). There are 18 players eligible for Cooperstown who have 1,500 RBIs and 400 homers, and they are all in. There are 11 eligible players with 2,700 hits, 1,500 RBIs and 400 homers. They're all in.
"For the life of me, I can't understand why he's not in the Hall of Fame," said Gwynn, a Hall of Fame outfielder. "In Montreal, he was as good as there was in our league -- he did it all -- then he went to Chicago [in 1987] and turned it up another notch. When he went to Chicago, he was as good as everyone thought. When he hit 49 home runs [in '87], he was the guy on that team. Ryne Sandberg is a Hall of Famer, but you'd rather pitch to him than Dawson. He was clearly the best player in our league that year."
Dawson was as good defensively as offensively. He, Mays, Mike Schmidt, Ken Griffey Jr. and Bonds are the only players to hit 400 homers and win eight Gold Gloves.
"He never missed a round of infield," Sandberg said. "He liked to show off his arm. Ichiro is the only player I've seen since who can throw with Hawk. I saw it many times where a runner stopped at third because of the reputation of Hawk's arm. Wrigley Field is the hardest outfield to play because of the wind and sun. He played it flawlessly for us."
The main thing keeping Dawson out of Cooperstown is his .323 career on-base average, which clearly is not a Hall of Fame number, especially for an outfielder. Understandably, some voters can't get past that.
"They say his numbers fall short, but on his teams, he had to be the man," Gwynn said. "And when you're the man, sometimes you have to sacrifice your on-base percentage, not take a walk, to drive in a run and help your team win."
Critics also point to Dawson's .482 career slugging percentage, which is substandard for an outfielder trying to get to the Hall of Fame. But he played his prime years in one of the lowest offensive eras in history, and played his first 10 years in a non-home-run-friendly ballpark (Olympic Stadium in Montreal).
Reggie Jackson, whose prime years were similar to Dawson's, had a slugging percentage of .490 and he coasted into the Hall -- as he should have -- in the first year he was eligible (and he did so with a lower batting average than Dawson, with almost 100 fewer steals and no Gold Gloves). In 1987, when Dawson won the NL MVP, he hit 49 homers and slugged .568. He was one of two players (Mark McGwire was the other) to achieve those numbers in the same season in the 1980s. In the decade of the 2000s, those numbers were achieved in the same season 18 times by 11 players.
"He hit 49 home runs in what I call the dead ball era," Sandberg said. "I felt like that season, he hit a home run every other game. And he hit them in dramatic fashion that year. He was such an aggressive hitter when he was ahead in the count. I remember one day Dick Ruthven went right after him and threw one at Hawk's head. It was heading right for his chin, and he turned on it and hit it down the left-field line for a double. He had some kind of top hand. Every third baseman and shortstop was aware when Hawk was up."
The character clause in the Hall of Fame voting is invoked now more than ever given the steroid scandal, but be assured of this: There has never been a better character guy than Dawson. And that is why you have to look past some numbers. With Dawson, look at the intangibles, look at the era, and understand that in 1987, in a time of collusion, Dawson gave the Cubs a blank contract and told them to fill in any amount, and he'd sign. It wasn't about the money, it was about playing the game the right way. No one did that better.
There are certain classes of Hall of Famers, and Andre Dawson is a Class C. He's no Willie Mays, he's no Tony Gwynn, but a Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer, and to understand Dawson's place you had to see him at his best. I did. And it was breathtaking to watch.
"I hope he makes the Hall of Fame so all the young players would have a chance to revisit his career, to see his highlights and to understand how he did things," Sandberg said. "They would understand how the game was supposed to be played by watching Hawk."
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.