Andre Dawson, the Right Field Bleachers, and Baseball’s Original Farewell Tour

Many Cubs fans–especially those under the age of about 35–are too young to have seen Andre Dawson in his prime, as he patrolled right field at Wrigley. He played six seasons for the Cubs, and all but the last of those seasons saw him make the All-Star team. Watching the Hawk play the game in person was a special treat, which for me started with the second game he played in a Cubs uniform in April of 1987. The green grass of Wrigley Field looked like heaven to the college freshman that I was at the time, and for the remainder of my college days I only wanted to sit in the right field bleachers. Right field couldn’t suck–regardless of what the left field crowd chanted during the games–because we had Andre Dawson in our midst.
Just watching the Hawk play catch in between innings was something special. It was clear that Dawson had a cannon for an arm, and nobody in their right mind would to decide to run on him. Sitting in the right field bleachers was the best party around in those days, and it still might be for all I know. But the presence of Andre Dawson on the field definitely helped to make it so.

The love that Cubs fans showed to Andre Dawson was epitomized by the salaam, or the prostrating bow that would later be used to greet Sammy Sosa. It was done for Andre first, beginning with his MVP campaign in 1987. Much has been made of the fact that it was the first MVP winner to come from a last-place team, but Dawson was legitimately on fire that year. The 1987 season did as much to propel him into the Hall of Fame as anything else in his career, and it forged a bond with Cubs fans that endures to this day. In fact, it helped give rise to what may have been the modern farewell tours of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and David Ortiz.

Player appreciation days were certainly nothing new to baseball. Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech in 1939 is probably the most well-known example, but the Cubs had an Ernie Banks appreciation day in 1964, and Ron Santo had his day in 1971. Honoring your own player is a very good way to get fans out to the ballpark. And even though Andre Dawson signed with Boston after the 1992 season, he was still beloved by the fans out in right field.

After two season in Boston, Hawk went to play for his hometown team, the Florida Marlins. And at the age of 40, when most players his age are out of the game altogether, the Hawk made 57 starts in 1995, mostly in right field. But he finished only a few of those games, and by 1996 the writing was on the wall. He waited until after the All-Star break before announcing his retirement on August 14. This left the Cubs with one last chance to honor the Hawk, when the Marlins came to town a week later.
Honoring a player on another team may have been a weird idea in theory, but when it came to Andre Dawson at Wrigley Field, it made perfect sense. I was clerking in a law office that summer, but when plans were announced to honor number 8 on Wednesday the 21st of August, I immediately felt something coming on. I often felt “under the weather” or “not up to coming in” in those days, but never in the winter and never when the Cubs were playing on the road. Whatever malady kept me at home that day was immediately cured by visiting a guy who was willing to sell me a single bleacher ticket.

When the Hawk came out in his Marlins uni before the game, he made a victory lap of sorts around the field. He knees were shot, and had been for a long time, so it was a stroll more than anything else. When he came out to right field, as he had in his late-80s heyday, the salaams were out in abundance. It felt great to show him how much he meant to the Cubs as a player, and he raised his arms and returned the gesture to all of us. It was as close to a perfect baseball moment as I have yet to experience.

The Hawk also gave a short speech to the crowd of almost 27,000 fans before the game, in which he told the fans that coming to Wrigley Field had “rejuvenated” his career. Some of the hand-lettered signs in abundance that day predicted the Hawk would be enshrined at Cooperstown, and I wished for that to happen. The odds were against him in some sense, because he had no championships on his resume, no 3,000 hits or 500 home runs, and a career that was very good in some places, but couldn’t be termed as being consistently great over an extended period. But whether that would happen or not was an issue for another day.
It was twenty years ago today–on August 21, 1996–that Andre Dawson made it possible for ballplayers to be appreciated by an opposing team’s fans. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and David Ortiz can now take a victory lap upon their retirements, but it was the Cubs and Andre Dawson who did it first. That says a lot about who Andre Dawson was as a player, and it says even more about Cubs fans and how much they appreciate what was–and still is–a unique relationship, forged over six seasons and cemented forever on a Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field.

Photo: Hawk watches a Ryno double / guano / CC BY-SA 2.0