“There’s nothing like Chicago fans,” baseball Hall of Famer Andre Dawson said with a heartfelt smile. “The luster of this evening – it will not diminish. It’s your evening. I’m not an author. I’m a retired baseball player.”
At 6-foot-3-inches, Dawson, 57, stood ramrod tall and was still cut in a charcoal grey suit Wednesday, compared to the powerful upper body bulging out of his white-and-blue double-knit Cubs pinstriped uniform of a generation ago.
He was buoyed walking in by the huge ovation from the overflow crowd in the special events section at The Book Stall in downtown Winnetka. Here was the umpteenth example of the fans’ love affair that hasn’t diminished 25 years after he won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award as a bargain-basement Cubs free agent signee.
Dawson made his first-ever visit to Winnetka – “I had just passed through before” – to promote and sign copies of his second book, “If You Love This Game…An MVP’s Life in Baseball.” But the autographing of dozens of copies seemed secondary to meeting and greeting his ever-loyal constituency. Many came from far beyond Winnetka to The Book Stall to get a few moments with the 2010 Hall of Fame inductee.
A Detour on Way to Crystal Lake
Some were like the father-and-son duo of Allen and Mark Paul, who made a big detour on their way home to Crystal Lake from the Cubs-Braves game at Wrigley Field.
“Dawson was a star when I was just out of college,” said Allen Paul. “When we’re eating dinner at the game today, I was showing him his statistics. He’s a right fielder for his travel baseball team – like Andre Dawson.”
Mark Paul said, “I’d ask him how he’d set up to throw home [from right field].”
And that’s exactly what he did during a question-and-answer session. Replying to the grade-schooler’s question, eight-time Gold Glover Dawson spent three minutes demonstrating with body English how an outfielder uses proper technique to unleash an accurate throw.
Others came from just blocks away. Winnetka’s Ann Spieth greeted Dawson at the corner of Elm and Chestnut as he first arrived. “I’m a huge Cubs fan…huge fan of the game,” Spieth said. Later, she asked Dawson to name his toughest pitcher.
“I didn’t like Bruce Sutter because that ball danced around,” Dawson said of the split-finger fastball. “The toughest pitcher for me…John Smoltz.”
Cancer Surgery Delayed to Treat Dawson
A most interesting fan story came from Francine Wagner of Glenview. Wagner reminded Dawson she was at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago for a scheduled skin-cancer surgery on July 7, 1987 – and her operation was delayed when Dawson suddenly was admitted. He had been hit in the face by a pitched ball from San Diego’s Eric Show. With his otherwise handsome visage a bloody mess, Dawson required dozens of stitches, so Wagner’s plastic surgeon shifted over to the emergency before he tended to Wagner. Then and now, Wagner did not mind at all.
“My memory [of that day] is very dear to me,” said Wagner.
“The reason they bumped her was to get an athlete back on the field,” Dawson mused.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Years later, as Wagner was hospitalized in Seattle for a bone-marrow transplant, Dawson visited her again. She and husband Michael Wagner, also in the house at The Book Stall, are now lifelong fans.
Another man, who cracked with emotion when he said his wife could not attend due to a recent auto accident, extended her greetings.
Dawson, whose full-time home is in his native Miami, is just as big of a fan of Chicago as his loyalists are of him. He frequently returns for appearances, even in winter. To show his affection for the Cubs and their fans, he wanted to be inducted into the Hall of Fame with a Cubs cap displayed on his Cooperstown plaque. But Hall of Fame officials decided he had spent more years in Montreal, so he is shown with an Expos cap.
“I didn’t have a final say on the Cubs hat,” he said. “But I had a choice on the cover of this book [showing him in a Cubs uniform].”
Well-known for his grueling preparation to overcome knee injuries that dated back to his high-school football days, Dawson told the crowd he is now healthy and whole.
“After 12 knee surgeries and two [knee] replacements, I can’t dance,” he laughed. “But the pain is gone. I feel great.”
Those feelings didn’t diminish as he continued to sign books and memorabilia even after The Book Stall’s official closing at 9 p.m. And then Dawson signed even more books reserved for purchasers who could not attend.
“The first day fans salaamed [bowed] to me in right field, [I asked] ‘What is this?’” he recalled. “It made me feel welcome here. It gave me goose bumps.”