Knee High to the Hall of Fame
"Andre Dawson, the Hawk...no player in baseball history worked harder, suffered more or did it better than Andre Dawson. He's the best I've ever seen. The Hawk, I watched him win an MVP for a last place team in 1987. It was the most unbelievable thing I've ever seen in baseball. He did it the right way, the natural way and he did it in the field and on the bases and in every way. I hope he will stand up here one day."
--Ryne Sandberg, in his Hall of Fame Induction Speech
No matter what hat his hall of fame plaque has, Andre Dawson will represent the Cubs honorably into Baseball's Shrine. This is a man who overcame his own obstacles, or more specifically his own knees. We all know that Dawson came to the Cubs in 1987 to flee the hard artificial turf of Montreal Olympic Stadium which was playing havoc with his knees.
Dawson might have never made it to Chicago, where he said he rejuvenated his career, were it not for the encouragement of his wife, Vanessa. Dawson was in so much pain in his fourth big league season because of a “fractured knee” that he told her he didn’t know if he could play any longer. Pain medication was barely getting him through games.
“The third (Darvocet) took the pain away but it came back at night. That’s why I didn’t want to do it anymore,” Dawson said. “And she looked at me and said, `You know you’re hurting now, but just see what the problem is because a year, two years from now you are going to regret walking away.”’
The last 10 years of his career (including 6 with the Cubs) were based in home parks where right field had mother natures own soft grass turf. This prolonged his career well beyond what most of his early teammates could have projected.
In 1985, then-Expos teammate Tim Wallach said of Dawson's perpetual struggles with his knees, "It hurts me as much as it hurts him. Sometimes I wish I could give him my knees. He never moans. He never complains. He has no excuses. Everyone here respects him."
Most watched in awe at the agony he put up with but few knew why Dawson had to methodically prepare for games and baseball seasons. He made it onto the field for 2627 games over 21 seasons.
His first injury ironically was due to football, well before his professional baseball career started.
His first knee operation dated to a 1972, when he tore up his knee while playing defensive back for Miami's Southwest High. In hindsight he realizes how beneficial physical therapy would have been, because he never fully regained his range of motion. Compounding matters was playing his first 11 big-league seasons on the hard artificial turf of Montreal's Olympic Stadium.
"A lot of people only see the glamour side of the game, when we're out on the field," said Dawson, currently a Marlins special assistant. "There's a lot of preparation that has to take place. For myself, I had a very painful career. I had to take medication almost daily to get through those three hours."
Dawson recounted the daily taping before games and icing afterwards before ever leaving the clubhouse. Sometimes the knees would flare up again and he'd have to ask his understanding wife, Vanessa, to run late-night errands for more ice bags.
As Dawson explained, "The damage was done very early on in my career. I couldn't really control that, but I could control how I reacted to that."
Back in 1972, orthopedic surgeons didn't understand knee anatomy very well and many of the reconstructive procedures didn't really restore the normal kinematics of ligaments. Knee surgery involved fairly large incisions to open the knee joint and look around just to see what was wrong. Torn cartilages were removed in their entirety rather than repairing or trimming just the torn portions. This usually lead to life-long knee problems and eventually arthritis at a fairly early age. The structures that were most poorly understood were the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) and the medial and lateral meniscus cartilages. Back then, if a knee was unstable from an ACL tear, the ACL's function wasn't thought to be important and the instability was addressed by taking nearby tendon structures and shifting them around the outside of knee joint. This left the knee with less instability but more stiffness. Fractures inside of the joint involving articular cartilage back than might have been identified but the treatment to replace focal damage didn't develop until the 1990's.
When I think of these procedures, I always reflect on my Chicago Bears hero, Gale Sayers who's career was all too brief because his knee ligament injuries (initial injury in 1968) happened before the modern era of orthopedic knee surgery.
Chalk up Andre Dawson's hall of fame career to his courage but not his doctors. The modern era of orthopedic knee surgery didn't develop until the fiberoptics of the arthroscope and the MRI scanner (magnetic resonance imaging) were available in the early to mid-1980's. This lead to a renaissance of insight into functional knee anatomy. The development of many tools and techniques to do procedures that directly repair or replace and restore damaged intra-articular meniscal and articular cartilage and ligaments came from this new understanding. ACL reconstructions have evolved and drastically improved over the last 30 years but alas the damage had been done too soon for this to help Dawson. I've read that Dawson has had as many as 12 knee surgeries.
I didn't realize things had been that medically difficult for Dawson until I heard WSCR's Mike Mulligan ask him about how his health was lately in an interview this morning. Apparently his knees don't give him pain nowadays but he still has to work around some stiffness issues particularly in cold weather. In 2006, at age 51, he had two knee replacement surgeries on his left knee. That means that his cartilage was severely worn and with significant pain, arthroscopic options were no longer worth considering so the joint was replaced with metal and plastic components that resurface/replace the worn articular cartilage. I don't have details but in the interview Dawson implied something didn't go well with the first surgery (in October 2006) and it had to be revised (in December 2006). The second surgery seems to have held up. Currently, his right knee is bone on bone and it has an occasional flareup but generally any pain has calmed down since the left knee replacement (which now is protecting the worn right knee from overuse). He said in the interview that the right knee will need replacement eventually if and when the pain returns.
It's been a tough road to the Hall of Fame, Hawk. My heartfelt congratulations and thanks for some great Cub memories. On a personal note, I'm finally getting to make the trip to Cooperstown this May (after my daughter's graduation from nearby Syracuse University). I've been long promised a visit to the Hall of Fame.
If things fall into place, I just might make it two trips...seeing Hawk getting inducted into the HOF on July 25th at 1:30 pm, would be, well lets just say... hard to estimate a price (although admission to the ceremony is FREE!).