The baseball Hall of Famer who runs a funeral home: Andre Dawson's second act

Andre Dawson's new career differs dramatically from his days on the baseball field. The former Cubs and Expos star is a mortician in Miami and, like the rest of the world, is grappling with grief and uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic. Jeffery Salter

"YOU RETURN A MAN to dust and say, 'Return, O children of man!'" the reverend prays to God, quoting Psalm 90 about the brevity of human life. "For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past."

The preacher, standing in one corner at the front of a chapel drenched in warm apricot tones, plays a traditional role in this ancient ceremony. So does the keyboardist in the opposite corner, sitting on the other side of a flower-topped casket. But the front row at this memorial service is empty, and the mourners around the room sit far apart. The speakers and singers wear masks, and staff members at the Paradise Memorial Funeral Home in Miami don gloves. It's just before Good Friday, and the coronavirus pandemic gives new meaning to walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

When the grieving family goes home and the hearses and limousines return to their parking spaces, the funeral home's owner takes up his custodial duties. He vacuums the three reposing rooms, straightens up the two offices, scrubs the bathrooms. He knows how he likes things done, so he figures he'll do them himself. And he doesn't consider it particularly physical labor -- he's 65 but still has broad shoulders and strong hands. Besides, he had to work a lot harder when he was playing major league baseball for 21 years. The man with the mop is Hall of Famer Andre Dawson.

"PARADISE KIND OF fell into my lap," Dawson says, by way of explaining where life and death have taken him.

After making more than $25 million during a 21-year playing career that ended in 1996, Dawson started investing in mortuaries as part of a group formed by his brother Vincent Brown, a Miami attorney. A dozen years ago, Dawson had the chance to buy a funeral parlor in Richmond Heights, a neighborhood at the southern end of Miami that's home to Second Baptist, the church he attends, and 15 minutes down the Don Shula Expressway from where he grew up. The closer Dawson looked at the deal, the more he realized it would require far more than a financial commitment. The state had shut down the business because of license violations. According to Dawson, the building's interior and roof needed renovation. The owner was retiring and moving to Georgia. Taking on the challenge of actually running the place would pull Dawson into an entirely different occupation. At the time, he was still a special assistant to the Florida Marlins.

"Do I keep [the funeral home]? Do I sell it? Does the community really need it?" Dawson asked himself. Meeting with local pastors convinced him the answer to the last question was yes -- churches worried about losing services from a partner they had relied on for more than two decades. Dawson began to sense that he personally needed to reopen its doors. "You don't know where God is going to lead you, and this never would have -- in my wildest imagination -- been something I would have thought that I'd be doing," he says. "But I feel like maybe this is my calling."

Dawson bought the funeral home and set about refurbishing the structure, redecorating the interior, assembling a staff. "It's not about me, it's not about you, it's about the service being rendered to this community," he told his employees. "Now it's time to make this thing work."

Dawson's wife, Vanessa, met Andre when they were kids, and with the engrained trust of a spouse who learned about her partner's fortitude a long time ago, she signed on to Andre's plan. But just about everybody else had doubts. Dawson could have done anything he wanted in retirement, and he chose to deal with dead bodies? His teenage children, Darius and Amber, didn't get it. Neither did his superstar friends. When Jim Rice found out where Dawson was working, he exclaimed, "You do what?" Rickey Henderson, like many people, just gaped.

It wasn't just the gruesome nature of his new vocation that gave Dawson's friends and family pause but also the emotion it demanded. Dawson has always been an introvert. And his piercing eyes beam like phasers from under a brow that has been furrowed since he was a child and defines his face even when he smiles. Everyone who knows the man uses the same first adjective to describe him: intense. Pitcher Waite Hoyt, the only other Hall of Famer known to have run a funeral home, had a third gig as a vaudevillian; during offseasons in the 1920s, he sang and performed comedy bits in New York theaters and picked up the nickname "The Merry Mortician." That's not Dawson.

Occasionally, Dawson ran into fans who recognized him, including some who wanted to let him know how much he had meant to them in his earlier life. "Are you who I think you are?" a young man once asked as Dawson and his aides approached a house to remove a body.

"Well, who do you think I am?" Dawson replied.

The answer came instantly, in the form of Dawson's longtime nickname: "You're the Hawk!"

"Yes, believe it or not," Dawson said with a chuckle.

His admirer disappeared -- and came back a few minutes later carrying a photo album. Inside was a picture taken a decade earlier at Pro Player Stadium: the man as a boy, standing with Dawson in uniform.

But Dawson didn't go out of his way to seek publicity. He rebranded the funeral home as Paradise Memorial rather than using his own name, and he doesn't speak at most services. It's Vanessa, outgoing enough that she once considered a career in broadcast journalism, who makes funeral arrangements with most visiting families. Her husband threw himself into all the less visible of aspects of their work. Dawson retrieved corpses from deathbeds. He drove a hearse. (On his first trip, he found himself reassuring the body inside the casket that he would try to keep the ride smooth.) He delivered cadavers to cremations.

"The funeral home business is not about volume," Brown says. "It's about controlling the quality of what you do and making it rewarding for the families that come to you and the people who work for you. Andre seems to have found enjoyment in that. Strangest thing!"

Maybe not so strange. Determined, studious and willing to deal with pain, Andre Dawson turns out to be who his fans always thought he was.

HE GREW UP the eldest of eight siblings, with a mother who worked two jobs, no father in the house and a grandmother who quietly but sternly steered him away from bad influences that were rapidly becoming more available in the late 1960s. "As a kid, I witnessed it all," he said years later. "I've been around people who have had drug problems, drinking problems, people who were very violent. But it just never got over with me. I never was in a position where something like that would get control of me."

Dawson played free safety for Southwest Miami Senior High School's football team. One October night against North Miami, he dove for an errant pass and a receiver smashed into his lower body, tearing the cartilage in Dawson's left knee and leaving him barely able to walk. An operation extracted the damaged tissue and essentially rendered Dawson arthritic, susceptible ever afterward to the agony of bone scraping bone -- and to spurs, and to favoring one leg over the other, and to back trouble.

Eventually, he would need 15 surgeries on his knees, including getting both replaced. He always came back. The carnage in his legs slowed him only insofar as a landslide humbles a mountain climber, or an inferior opponent's surprise left hook staggers a boxer. He kept working until he regained his footing. "I learned at an early age that you can't really control major injuries," Dawson says. "But you can control how you react to them."

His initial injury scared away college and pro scouts. But Dawson battered opposing pitchers at Florida A&M, and after the Montreal Expos made him an 11th-round draft pick in 1975, he rampaged through the minor leagues too. Dawson arrived in Montreal, where he went on to become NL Rookie of the Year in 1977, as a rare blend of power, speed and hustle. His ability to glide around center field and then fire cannon throws gave new dimensions to the nickname "Hawk." He twice led the league in total bases while winning Gold Gloves.

The pain was nearly constant -- and unbearable. "There were times when I felt like I needed to throw in the towel because of the knees, as early as four years into the big leagues," Dawson admits. "I had to take three Darvocets" -- a synthetic opioid later banned by the FDA -- "to get through a game."

It didn't help that Dawson played home games on the pavement-like artificial turf at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. A bone spur grew on his left knee, and landing on that hard surface, play after play, day after day, intensified the friction and swelling it caused. Dawson stayed in the lineup throughout the 1984 and 1985 seasons but was hobbled at the plate and on the bases and moved to right field.

After 11 years of wintry air, parking-lot turf and relative obscurity north of the border, Dawson wanted to move to day games on grass at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The Cubs wouldn't sign him, and neither would any other team; at the time, owners were colluding to control the market for players. (They would eventually have to pay $280 million in damages to the MLB Players Association.) Dawson insisted that he wouldn't be forced into returning to Montreal, even if it meant playing in Japan -- a far stranger idea in the mid-1980s than today.

"The Japan?" Vanessa asked.

Ultimately, Dawson and his agent, Dick Moss, went to spring training in March 1987, spoke with reporters at the Cubs' facility through a chain-link fence and presented the team with a blank contract. When Cubs GM Dallas Green wrote in a base salary of $500,000, Dawson signed, taking an initial pay cut of more than 50%. "The best avenue for me was to show up unannounced," he remembers. "I was sticking my neck out financially, but if you pay me what you think I'm worth, I'm willing to go from there."

Dawson was right about Chicago. He slammed 49 home runs and amassed 137 RBIs in 1987 and began a six-year love affair with Cubs fans, who regularly bowed to him from the stands as a sign of respect. (After homering in his final home game of that season, he shocked them by bowing back.) The baseball world enjoyed seeing Dawson clicking on all cylinders: He won the NL MVP award even as the Cubs finished in last place.

Dawson was the kind of player after whom teammates named their kids; Tim Raines' son Andre even has the nickname "Little Hawk." Dawson burned with perseverance, even when the next day was just like the last, even when seasons were lost. He also studied the game of baseball relentlessly. Dawson kept notebooks, documenting every pitch he faced, whether it was a strike or ball, inside or outside, up or down, trying to pick up patterns and to figure out what an opponent would throw next.

And he's still taking notes. Even if thoughts come to him when he is lying in bed at night, he will write them down, to give himself a visual reference the next day. It's part of what he calls "going back to resources." And that has helped him adapt to his new profession. Dawson was no dark romantic about funerals or corpses. He can still remember seeing the body of a high school classmate, a fishing buddy who was killed by a train at a railroad crossing. He wanted no part of being around that. He had to rappel his way into his new livelihood casket by casket, hymn after hymn.

"Initially, it was quite morbid," he allows. "It took a while to grow on me, but I got both feet in. Attending and working and being involved with so many services, I was learning, in a sense, every week, every month what the business is."

As stoic as Dawson is, he had to find a balance between empathy and letting in too much death. "Every case is different," he says. "No one mourns the same way. You have to be there for a family and help them through that process. You also have to know how to isolate yourself from that."

The coronavirus has smashed many of the rules of his new game. Funeral home staffs have had to worry about every aspect of the pandemic. Early on, a memorial service in Georgia resulted in one of the first American superspreader outbreaks of the virus. Then came reports from New York and other hot spots that infected bodies were piling up faster than mortuaries could handle them. It's still not clear whether the coronavirus can spread from corpses.

The virus has forced funeral-home mourners to separate, making it harder for many to lament. Dawson's Paradise Memorial has limited the number of people who can attend casket viewings, memorials and graveside services to 10 apiece, standing apart. And it has started livestreaming funerals. The deaths of young people, the hardest to deal with under ordinary circumstances, are even tougher in this new reality of grieving at a distance. "We had a 19-year-old recently," Dawson says about a young man who was a homicide victim. "It was very, very troublesome for the family. And kids that age, they want to flock."

Dawson has a staff of two dozen, including Darius, now 30, who warmed to the idea of working at the mortuary. (Amber Dawson, 29, is an assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade County.) The men and women of Paradise Memorial are wearing protective gear. They've handled six coronavirus cases so far and are doing what they can to get ready for more. "We are preparing every day," Dawson says.

His brother, who operates his own funeral home in northern Miami, has prepared the infected dead for memorial, under science-fiction-like conditions. "We just went through a viewing for a man who was 44 and will be buried tomorrow," Vincent Brown says. "I wore a hazmat suit, a face shield, a respirator, an apron and a gown. There was a fear factor. There was also a mother who wanted to see her child."

Now, with Memorial Day come and gone, the last responders wait, wary of what might be worse to come. As Florida nears 53,000 reported cases of COVID-19 and 2,300 deaths, with Miami-Dade County hit especially hard, the state has nonetheless allowed residents to reenter parks and golf courses and has reopened restaurants and retail stores. Gov. Ron DeSantis has even said professional sports teams that aren't allowed to play in other parts of the country are welcome to take the field in Florida. Some politicians and consumers are itching for normalcy -- but the old normal required crowded, communicable conditions for many of the workers who serviced them.

Dawson, now a part-time assistant for the Cubs, was in Arizona for spring training before the pandemic shut down MLB. He ponders his old business and his new business, and can't be sure yet what to think. "I miss baseball because of what it's meant to me, and also just the game itself," he says. "I can only envision how tough a time it is for fans right now. We keep throwing around dates when we hope to see a return of sports. But we don't know.

"We just have to keep in mind this thing is invisible. Nobody knows where it is or how long it's going to be around."

PSALM 90, THE PRAYER at the memorial service, continues: "Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom."

Dawson's Christian faith teaches that time has a destiny -- that events flow according to God's will, toward the moment his son returns. Much of our modern world also presumes that time is linear, indeed relentlessly so. We are trained to live and work toward one goal after another: Graduations, marriage, family, cars, houses, promotions are all signposts of accomplishment on our timelines.

There's an alternate conception of time that's cyclical, and rooted in nature, in waking and sleeping and the sun rising and setting, day after day. And sports, however drenched with money and technology and statistics they become, bring us back to this sense of time as recurrence. We get used to settling in for a game every night, celebrating drafts and playoffs at the same time every year, saying we'll get 'em next time. There's a reason we call one unit of athletic activity a "season."

Of all the awful things about the coronavirus pandemic, one of the weirdest is that it has ruptured both of these senses of time. Progress as we usually understand it has almost completely stopped. But at the same time, our regular, simpler social pleasures also have been yanked away. We have been furloughed into limbo.

Traditionally, funerals are at once the last markers on our individual roads and rituals that bring death into the repeating rhythms of life by gathering survivors together. "You get to experience firsthand, through friends and family, what kind of relationships an individual had with other people," Dawson says.

Not now, though. Livestreamed or Zoomed funerals are inescapably distancing, perversely lonely events that muffle both tears and laughter. And if grief has no place to go, where can a soul find rest?

Dawson is doing what he can to provide an answer. He has forged two careers by finding purpose, then steadfastly hewing a path toward his goals. For him, this is no time to change course. "It's painful, to a degree," he says. "We just have to stay as safe as possible and use all precautions necessary."

He also says: "We're hearing there might be a second wave."

He repeats: "We don't know."