Andre Dawson the water-safety advocate could make another splash with Cubs kids

By on June 2, 2018

Some kind of middle ground in apparel must exist between Andre Dawson‘s funeral suit for his family business and the T-shirt and trunks for the youth swimming program that bears his Hall of Fame name in west suburban Lombard.

Like a Cubs uniform?

Andre Dawson is starting his first year as a Cubs ambassador.

In an under-publicized manner, Dawson has indeed worn the Cubs uniform officially for the first time in 26 years in spring training, and hopes to do so again sometime this season for Cubs minor leaguers. Add in more brightly-colored business casual wear for meeting fans and sponsors in other duties as a new team ambassador, and you have the perfect balance in the life of one of the most respected Cubs in history.

“Let’s say I’m all over the place,” Dawson, tracked down in Chicago the other day, said of his 2018 schedule. His base is hometown Miami, but much of his heart is in the city that he claims vaulted him into Cooperstown via six memorable Cubs seasons from 1987 to 1992. Mention that he’d spend even more time in Chicago if the temperature did not drop below 50 and he’d not have to wear anything heavier than a windbreaker, and Dawson breaks into a knowing laugh.

He was cast aside in the off-season, along with fellow Hall of Famer Tony Perez, as a Miami Marlins special assistant by budget-slashing Fish boss Derek Jeter. Regrets are few because Dawson can now work for the Cubs — a longtime goal — while still tending to the funeral home he operates with wife Vanessa and two uncles, earning him national profiles such as respected baseball scribe Bob Nightengale in USA Today:

And when two female fans of Dawson hired him a decade back as national spokesman for their Baby Otter swimming program and wanted to expand out of Florida, he suggested Chicago for obvious reasons. A photo of Dawson in the Lombard pool with a young student and a story in the suburban Daily Herald provided a surprising aspect of his 63-year-young life:

His Cubs role, though, is still in development. He had talked to team chairman Tom Ricketts about a return to the organization on several occasions. He was officially free when he left the Marlins. And Dawson received an alumni 2016 World Series ring in 2017, proudly wearing the bling on three occasions at events. The Chicago Baseball Museum played a role in ensuring Dawson got the ring. The only better outcome would have been Dawson earning the jewelry as a Cubs player in, say, 1989, but that’s a whole other story.

The Cubs now have all their living Hall of Famers in the fold — Dawson, Fergie Jenkins and Ryne Sandberg as ambassadors, and Billy Williams as a special assistant. By now, Billy must be closing in on Yosh Kawano for most years in the team employ. “Whistler” has 57 seasons recorded as a player, coach, special assistant and marketing speaker.

Lee Smith (left) and Andre Dawson were 1975 draftees, Smith being picked by the Cubs nine rounds ahead of Dawson. But Dawson, who will represent the Cubs at the 2018 draft, made the Hall of Fame.

“I was hired as independent contractor,” the Hawk said. “I’ll go to  a variety of events during the year. When we reached agreement, the only other matter was getting out to spring training. I was in Mesa the final two weeks (of camp). I worked some with the outfielders.”

Dawson will represent the Cubs at the amateur draft starting Monday night, June 4. Back in 1975, the Cubs knew all about the Hawk coming out of Florida, but they passed on him, leaving Montreal to snare his rights.

Outfielder Brian Rosinski of Evanston Township High School was the Cubs’ No. 1 pick in ’75. Injuries derailed Rosinski’s career. Master scout Buck O’Neil got GM John Holland to pick Lee Arthur Smith at No. 2.  Big Lee ended up as the only ’75 Cubs draftee to make the majors — and he should have gone all the way to Cooperstown. Dawson eventually was picked by Montreal in the 11th round. Choosing ahead of the Expos, the Cubs picked shortstop Robert Umfleet out of the University of Oklahoma. Smith and Dawson do a lot of appearances together, so the subject of draft pedigree probably comes up.

A minor-league instructional tour for Dawson at some point this season is under discussion. The Cubs are multiple-men deep in hitting instructors, but they could always use the acumen as an eight-time Gold Glove winner in the outfield.

“I’m waiting to hear from upper management what the next step will be,” Dawson said. “However they see me going forward, that’s what I’m here for.”

Dawson the outfield counselor would be welcome. The Cubs haven’t employed such a big name in the minor leagues since Jimmy Piersall‘s 14-season stint starting in the mid-1980s. Baseball thinking men like Doug Glanville and Darrin Jackson praised Piersall’s animated instruction. Dawson would not be available full-time like Piersall. But the Hawk with his commanding presence and credentials will command attention whenever he steps on the field.

Dawson may not bring up the anecdote to his Cubs pupils, but fundamental outfield play can win games all by itself. Somewhere in the WGN archives is his laser throw to zap a Giants baserunner at home plate and end a Wrigley Field game in 1991.

One wants to be a fly on the wall when Dawson and fellow Miami native Albert Almora, Jr., two experts in center-field play, get together. Dawson was a Montreal Expos Gold Glover in center before the ravages of the Olympic Stadium artificial turf caused his shift to right.  So he knows what goes into a champion ballhawk.

If and when Andre Dawson gets to tutor Cubs minor leaguers, the latter will get the kind of pedigreed outfield instruction not seen since Jimmy Piersall, pictured early in his Red Sox career, worked in the farm system in the 1980s and 1990s.

“He’s very, very exciting,” Dawson said of Almora, Jr. “I enjoy watching him play. He gets great angles on balls. He has good instincts, and reads flight of the ball off the bat. He knows he’s got to get to a certain spot. He’s only going to get better.”

So what are the best qualifications of a good center fielder?

“You don’t want to become complacent out there,” Dawson said. “It takes studying the hitter. Sometimes you can gamble, who can beat you and who can’t beat you. You have to know where the guys next to you are all the time. The center fielder always is in charge. It’s like you’re the quarterback out there. That’s’ a given. For Almora, it helps the guy next to him (Jason Heyward) in right field is a Gold Glove. so that makes your job a little easier.”

Still more qualities are a kind of continuing education program. Dawson has had to practice this at the funeral home, where business is, well, constant and he needed to learn all aspects of the business. Ditto with the Baby Otter swimming program. Both are people-oriented pursuits. Dawson was never a holler guy, but was always tremendous one-on-one. Remember, he had the physical stature and strength of character to help harness focus in protege Shawon Dunston back in the day.

For Baby Otter, which licenses Dawson’s name in Lombard, he had to learn basic swimming techniques.  All his athletic life in high school football, then baseball, he was a landlubber by necessity. He can get by now in the water in which he formally dipped as part of rehab for his many knee injuries.

“Let’s just say I’m no Tarzan,” he said.

But he is loyal to the owners, and wants to help further “their hopes and dreams” to expand. That sounds like the vintage Dawson.

Any activity, Cubs-connected or not, that brings Dawson back to Chicago is welcome. He and Greg Maddux were unceremoniously cast aside at the same time in 1992. But now Dawson has joined Maddux — who returned to the Cubs twice as a starting pitcher and front-office assistant — are proving you can come home again.

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