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In the Shadow of the Hawk

By Milan Bhandari

In 1987, the same year that Andre Dawson joined the Chicago Cubs, I began my own baseball odyssey as a member of the Bolingbrook Cubs, a tee-ball team in my suburban Chicago hometown.

I was not born into baseball. I didn’t grow up in a “Cubs family,” privy to generations of tradition and folklore, knowing the names of all the great players and horrible seasons. My parents came from India, land of the cricketers, and up until tee-ball, the only contact I’d ever had with the baseball world was the lightweight White Sox jacket I’d convinced them to buy me in 1984, to be like my best friend Robby.

My indoctrination into the baseball world began on July 8, 1987, when, while switching between our eight or nine broadcast TV channels, my brother Neil and I came across the sports replay that would alter our lives. It was a brawl from the previous day between the San Diego Padres and Chicago Cubs. At the time, we were both pro wrestling enthusiasts, always on the lookout for any form of man-on-man violence. And at the heart of it all was Andre Dawson, a tall, muscular, black man, who had been hit by a fastball thrown by Padres pitcher Eric Show, a skinny, youngish, white fellow. (Both men had mustaches.) Because Andre had hit three home runs in his last five at bats, including one that very game, everyone assumed the pitch had been intentional. The sight of “the Hawk”—a fallen hero—lying on the ground, spitting blood, was all it took to win me over.

In retrospect, the twenty-two stitches Andre received that day did more than hold his face together. To me, they bound the image of the Hawk and that which I would aspire to over the next decade.

The Hawk came to the Cubs after ten years of playing for the Montreal Expos, where he had already achieved star-status. Yet, those years spent on the astroturf at Olympic Stadium had severely damaged his knees, and he was desperate to relocate to Chicago, where he hoped the day games on natural grass would help add longevity to his career. The Cubs, however, were initially reluctant to sign him, insisting they already had a right fielder, and when the Hawk still decided to show up to training camp with his agent, then-general manager Dallas Green derisively referred to the stunt as a “dog and pony show.” Eventually the team altered its stance, when Andre presented them with a blank contract, agreeing to play for the league minimum. Doubtless, it was a tough pill for a man as accomplished as the Hawk to swallow.

My arrival onto the Bolingbrook Cubs was no less humbling. Besides the fact that I’d never played baseball before, my parents had signed me up late, resulting in my already having missed the first few practices.

“Where’s your glove Muh-lon?” Coach Mike asked, mispronouncing my name like the city, a moment after I introduced myself properly. He was a slender man of average height, with a thin brown mustache and tight navy Bike brand sports shorts.

“I don’t have one,” I told him, establishing myself as the prime target for ridicule from my new teammates.

“Well, you’re gonna have to get one,” he replied, shaking his head in disapproval and walking away.

This was news to me. No one at sign-ups had mentioned anything about a glove to us. I figured gloves were part of the uniform—something provided by the coach, or someone besides my parents, who had only factored my registration fee into their budget. I had never caught with a glove (nor thrown an actual baseball) before.

For the first couple of practices I made do by borrowing other kids’ gloves, while my parents and I shopped around for a good deal. Having to ask favors of strangers, however, was straining on the already tenuous relationship I had with my teammates. I had initially approached one of the six-year-olds named Kevin, since he was two years younger than me, and had a quietness about him I mistook as a sign of friendliness. Yet his congeniality proved short-lived, when one day he pointed at my face and declared, “You have a big nose!”

The observation came as a shock to me, as up until then ridicule for my nose had been relegated to my school classmates, guys in the neighborhood, and, in a benign sort of way, my sister Nina and uncle (who lived with us). I attempted to ignore it, but the suddenly talkative Kevin wouldn’t let the subject go.

“Look at his nose,” he told the other guys, bringing my facial indiscretion to the attention of my tee-ball superiors. Lacking adequate leverage to fight back, I had no means of recourse but to stare ahead at the field, while the angry blood flowed to my ears. Besides, the evidence was right there on my face, in clear view.

When we finally picked out a glove at Kmart—a “leather laced” MacGregor—I couldn’t wait for the chance to show it off at practice. I imagined my teammates surrounding me to get a better look at it, congratulating me and asking to borrow it. It would be the thing that brought us together.

Eventually, I would learn that “leather laced” was a euphemism for “This glove sucks,” since it meant the rest of the glove was made of plastic.

The Hawk could do it all—hit for average and power, fly around the bases, throw a guy out at home from the deepest corner of right field, and catch anything hit right of center field. But that was the stuff everybody knew. What made me love him was the amalgamation of all the little, less discussed details that I could never help obsessing over.

First, there was his demeanor. On the field, the Hawk rarely smiled. He had a workmanlike attitude about him, and seemed to never waste words on anybody. And yet, whenever any of the other players spoke of him, they talked about how great it was to be on his team. He was always dignified, and everyone loved and respected him for that. As sportswriter and Official Historian of Major League Baseball Jerome Holtzman put it, “I saw Andre Dawson. And let me tell you something. There were only two players in my lifetime whose teammates held them in awe. One was Mickey Mantle. The other was Andre Dawson.”

Though all players claim to have their own batting stance, the singularity of the Hawk’s was undeniable. Long and slender in build, he crouched down low over the plate, fearlessly hovering in the line of fire, his back elbow in line with his shoulder. From the view of the center field camera, his bat rested at a near perfect 45-degree angle with his body. Further distinguishing his approach was his feet, for, instead of resting the heel of his back foot flat on the ground, like every other baseball player, he raised it up, so only the toes made contact with the ground. Trivial as this may have been, I truly believed it was integral to the magic of the Hawk. In fact, in later years, on days when his back foot seemed flat, I was sure the at-bat would end poorly.

Unlike most other guys, Andre wore black batting gloves, with the red Rawlings “R” in a small, barely visible circle on the outside. To me, these became the norm, rendering those worn by other Cubs (mostly white Franklins or blue Wilsons) clumsy and cheap looking. On my tee-ball team, no one except the coach’s son had batting gloves, yet I knew if and when my day for such gloves ever came, Rawlings would be my brand; black, my color.

On occasions, after taking a big swing and missing his pitch, Andre would reach down and grab some dirt, cupping it in his hand, then pause momentarily as if weighing it, before rubbing his palms together and getting back in the batter’s box. He was old-school, sure, but it ran deeper than that. Like a sorcerer with his potions, or the Native Americans, with their ears to the ground, the Hawk was in touch with something special that summer. I don’t doubt the dirt spoke to him, stealing signs from the catcher, perhaps, passing along word of another high fastball to hit onto Waveland Avenue.

The dirt spoke to me, too. But mostly in the form of tripping me up, as I slipped and slided all over the field in the oversized, plastic-bottomed school/gym/everyday shoes I had picked out from Payless, that had on their shells’ outer-halves the image of some unnamed bluish cartoon character.

“Get some spikes, Muh-lon!” Coach Mike’s son (little Mike) yelled at me incessantly, mispronouncing my name like his father would for the entire year (as well as for another entire year, two years later, when I would inadvertently end up on their team again). Having already burdened my parents with the mitt purchase, I kept the dream of spikes to myself.

And yet, even without the aid of spikes, I wasn’t terrible. Due to the countless hours I spent playing catch on the driveway with Nina and Neil, as well as the horrendous play of some of my other teammates (even by my amateurish standards), I started the season at second base. Although most balls hit at me usually grazed my glove, bounced off my chest, and ricocheted off each of my nostrils before landing at my feet, ripe for the put-out, I was getting the job done.

“Remember me when you’re famous!” a fellow teammate’s mother yelled to me the day I hit my first (and only) homerun. It was a proud moment for me, as well as my entire family, who were in attendance in the bleachers at every single game, learning the sport for the first time, along with me.

“Of course I’ll remember you, Mrs. So-and-so,” I probably thought to myself. When I became famous, I’d remember them all.

Every kid who plays little league baseball dreams of someday playing in the big leagues. For some it’s a bigger deal than others, of course. But still, to care enough to play any sport for a number of years, requires that the dream exists somewhere within you. And when you’re young, it all seems possible. Everyone tells you to dream big, and you think to yourself that the steps to reach those dreams are so clear. The way I saw it, there was little league, then the middle school team, than the high school team, then who knew?

At the end of the year, to everyone’s astonishment, I made the all-star team. Though it came as a shock to me (I hadn’t even known there was such a team), I took it all in stride. I was an all-star, and on my way.

My finest memory of the Hawk’s ’87 season was the game on August 1st, in which he hit three home runs against the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field. Due to my limited storehouse of baseball knowledge, I believed I was witnessing history—as far as I knew, no man had ever accomplished the triple homerun feat.

After the miraculous third home run, I ran upstairs to my parent’s room to tell my Dad, who had just gone up to change into formal clothes for a dinner party. He was in his dress pants and sleeveless undershirt.

“He hit another home run!” I screamed. “Andre Dawson hit another home run!”

“We saw it,” he replied, believing I was still talking about number two.

“No, a-nother one. Three!” I yelled, before running back downstairs, with him alongside me, both of us eager to watch the replays with my brother.

Later that game, at the end of an inning, a female fan ran onto the field, all the way out to right, and asked Andre to autograph a baseball. She was a blond haired girl, probably in her early teens, and the Hawk, ever the perfect gentleman, gladly obliged. By then my whole family had gathered around the TV, eager to witness firsthand the next Dawson miracle, whatever it should be.

By the end of the season, Andre had hit a league-leading 49 home runs, and became the first player ever to win the Most Valuable Player award while playing for a last-place team. So ubiquitous became the name “Andre Dawson,” in my otherwise oblivious-to-sports household (as well as the nickname “Awesome Dawson”), that even my Mom, who knew nothing about baseball, still knew enough to ask us, “Did Andre Dawson hit a home run today?”

The following year, instead of signing up to play little league, I worked on my skills at home by playing catch on a near-daily basis with my brother. After having finally received a new mitt (50% leather, 50% poly!), and spending the first few weeks walking around the house wearing it, sniffing its rawhide pocket, and regrettably—unable to contain myself—writing all over it with black permanent marker, I began training in earnest, by playing catch in the front yard with my brother on a near-daily basis. Neil was starting tee-ball, and, as it turned out, would himself have to cope with the challenges of trying to catch with an inflexible, plastic mitt—a newer version of my first one, which I helped my parents pick out for him.

A month or so before the season opener, I got my first Andre Dawson baseball card—the 1988 Donruss, in which he inexplicably appeared with jheri curl in his hair. Although I would have ordinarily greeted any sighting of the Hawk with plain delight, his altered appearance threw me off. As a nine-year-old, I hadn’t really seen the hairstyle before. Suddenly, I couldn’t help but wonder if the success of his MVP season had gone to his head in other ways too.

For the most part, though, his greatness went unchanged. He stayed healthy that year (appearing in 157 games) and hit .303, sixteen points higher than the year before. Yet, his home run total—the thing for which he had so quickly become a Chicago icon, eliciting the reverential “salaam” from fans in the bleachers—fell to 24, less than half the number of the previous year.

In 1989, I returned to the diamond as a member of the Bolingbrook Lions. Despite the year off, it didn’t take me long to hit my stride. Once again, I gravitated to my natural position of second base, and even stepped in as a relief pitcher, in some non-crucial late inning situations. Although I was initially dogged by the re-emergence of Coach Mike (now an assistant coach), who upon recognizing me asked, “Muh-lon, why the heck’d you take a year off?” even he had to acknowledge that I had come back a better player than before.

Yet, the Hawk’s year wasn’t nearly as fruitful. After having another knee surgery in the winter, he sat for a large portion of the season. Though he still managed to hit 21 homeruns (in 118 games), while the Cubs were on their way to a division title, Andre was on his way to having the worst individual year of his career. During the playoffs, when the team needed him most, he hit a meager .105, as the Cubs lost in the first round to the San Francisco Giants.

I, too, was guilty of letting my team down. For, earlier that summer, just as we were poised to make a run at the playoffs, I left with my family for our month-long vacation to India, ending my season prematurely by putting 8,000 miles between myself and my fellow Lions. We flew out the night of a big game, and as I sat in the plane, I imagined my teammates on that small suburban baseball field far below, and wished, somehow, I could have been there with them.

After failing to make the middle school team in 1990, I played out the early part of the decade for a number of sub-par, B-division teams in the Bolingbrook Youth Baseball League. Although I was never the best player, I was always among the best. And despite the seriuosness with which I regarded my progress and performance, I wasn’t too worried. Like every kid in Chicagoland, I had heard the story of Michael Jordan failing to make his freshman-year high school team. When the time came for me to be at my best—high school tryouts—I would be ready.

Meanwhile, Andre continued on as the Cubs go-to power guy, though questions about his knees, his age (38), and his contract (which was up at the end of the ’92 season) began to arise with increasing frequency. Steady as ever, the Hawk’s offensive numbers remained among the team leaders, his defense remained stellar, and he continued to thwart attempts by younger, cheaper, would-be replacements, hoping for a chance to supplant #8.

As the 1992 season came to a close, however, the Cubs still had not offered Andre a new contract. Though early in the season the prospect of a deal getting done seemed automatic, as the summer winded down, the situation changed.

“I want to be with the Cubs,” he said in August, “and they know it. But I really doubt I’ll be back. It’s confusing and distracting.”

I cursed this pessimism, which had become prevailing opinion, still unconvinced that the Cubs could let him go. I hadn’t experienced a Cubs season without him, and couldn’t imagine the prospect of one. The clichˇd refrain, “This is a business” had not yet made its way into my still-optimistic mindset. Yet, as the off-season dragged on, and the inexistent contract talks failed to manifest themselves, everyone knew it was over.

After six seasons in Chicago, the Hawk had flown away.

My baseball life limped on. In 1994, my big moment finally arrived in the form of high school baseball tryouts. Lining up with all the guys I grew up playing community ball with, the guys who made every all-star squad (the cool guys), I looked around and imagined how great it was finally going to be to play on a team with them—to finally show them how good I could be.

Yet, somehow, just as in tee-ball, from the outset it already seemed like I was on the outside. From day one of tryouts, these guys—the elite players of Bolingbrook Youth Baseball League—seemed to already be friends with the coach. And worse—he seemed to already be friends with them. He called them by their first names, and laughed with them. When they dropped balls, he said things like, “Come on, Nick,” like he was disappointed, because he expected them to do better. Like he already knew they were good.

And they were. I watched as one by one each of them stepped out of line and made their plays cleanly, and superbly. Yet, as my turn came, it was as if those many years of preparation for this moment had suddenly vanished.

I was near the end of the line, with guys I considered to be mostly losers—a ragtag bunch from Romeoville, the poorer town that we in Bolingbrook looked down on. When I stepped out of the line, the coach struggled with my name. “Muh-lon?” he asked, as if there’d been a typo or some mistake made by me. “Yeah,” I nodded, cursing the city that had plagued my career.

When the ground ball came to me, I bobbled it. Then, after quickly recovering, my hand—brittle and frozen from standing outside in line for so long (in February)—launched a misguided throw at the first baseman. And that was that.

No one said a word to me when I got back in line, not my friends nor the Romeoville jerks, some of who also ended up exceeding me in skill. I don’t recall walking up to the gym door to look for my name on the list of cuts that year, probably because it wasn’t a particularly poignant moment in my baseball career. Always looking ahead, I didn’t quite grasp the significance of the moment. Or maybe it was too large a deal for me to get my head around. Whichever the case, it was a fact—my playing days had reached their unofficial end.

I would go on to play two more seasons of community baseball, but not for Bolingbrook. For, failing to make the single Bolingbrook community squad, I was sent across towns to play for the Romeoville league, which was short on players. And so I spent my final two years in exile, playing for a town that was not my own.

The Hawk, too, would finish his career far from the town that had been his home. First he went to the Boston Red Sox for two years, where he hit his monumental 400th homerun, the homerun every Cub fan had been hoping he’d hit as a Cub. I caught it on the local news, feeling bad for Andre and angry at the Cubs “front office,” (of which I had only a vague notion), for letting my hero get away. As he rounded the bases, I wondered what he could be thinking about, and if at that very moment, he might have recalled any of the 49 times he did the very same thing, in 1987. Without the internet or cable TV, the extent to which I could continue following the Hawk’s day-to-day performances was limited to checking the newspaper box scores, which I did dutifully that first year after he left, 1993.

Although he went on to play two more seasons with the Florida Marlins, by then it was all aftermath. In August of 1996, when it became clear that his road trip through Chicago would probably be the Hawk’s last time at Wrigley Field as a player, the Cubs made the final game of the series “Andre Dawson Day.” I took the train into the city with Neil and our best friend Fitzgerald, all of us hoping for one last glimpse of Andre in action. Although we showed up late and missed the pre-game ceremony, after the game we waited by the Marlins’ buses, alongside other Dawson fans, eager to greet the man as he left Wrigley for the final time.

When he emerged from the clubhouse door, he walked the fifteen or so feet between the building and the bus quickly, not stopping to sign any autographs or shake hands. Everyone yelled things at him like “We love you Andre!” and “Keep playing Hawk!” hoping to get him to stop, a feeling of elation, sadness, and disappointment all taking hold at once. Then, just as he was about to board, he paused. Taking one step up into the bus, he turned, as if having forgotten something, and waved to all of us. It lasted for only a few seconds, but it was what we had all been waiting for. For one last time, the Hawk, our hero, saluted us as he had so many times before from the steps of the Cubs dugout, before becoming a shadow behind tinted windows.

Every summer, I end up walking by the baseball fields of my youth, nearly oblivious to the games going on. But this summer, twenty years after that first season, I stopped to watch a few games. And suddenly I awoke to a strange spectacle that had been taking place around me for years. In place of myself and my teammates of old were miniature kids. Dwarfs, almost. I watched them, squinting my eyes and shaking my head in disbelief. They seemed much too small and slow to actually take what they were doing seriously. When the pitcher—who resembled a toddler—pitched the ball1, I wondered how it would make it all the way to home plate. And once there, how something so sloppy and slow could really be worthy of categorization as a “ball” or “strike.”

The road I had once seen so clearly, as stretching from the tiny little league fields in south suburban Chicago all the way to Wrigleyville, was suddenly no road at all. And not only that, but it was clear to see—the two worlds were two islands, in no way connected. No one I knew made it to the majors, not the guys from the all-star teams, or the high school team, and not Neil, who would end up being on both, far surpassing me as a baseball player. And these tiny kids wouldn’t either. No matter how hard they tried, or how hard their coaches and parents pushed and cheered.

That first year of tee-ball, shortly after it had been announced that I had been chosen as one of the two all-stars to represent our team, little Kevin let me in on a minor secret: “You only got picked because they have to pick two eight-year-olds, and we only have two eight-year-olds on the team.” At the time, I disregarded it as a comment made by a jealous teammate who had it in for me.

However, after seven seasons of baseball during which I failed to make another all-star team, the statement finally proved itself to be true.

My mistake had been believing it was all leading up to something. In 1990, when my community ball coach facetiously declared, “Milan, if you hit a homerun, I’ll buy ice cream for the entire team,” I should have understood my place, rather than angrily vowing to prove him wrong. I always thought I could be like the other guys—the bigger, stronger guys, whose dad’s were all coaching, while my dad politely recommended to me, “Maybe you should try to swing harder.” I was always tinkering, always trying to be like the all-stars, instead of momentarily enjoying it for what it was, that birthright of every American boy—my very own little league experience. Not everyone is meant to swing for the fences. Not everyone can be like the Hawk.

In 1987, while Andre Dawson was in midst of his magical season, someone asked him if he was at all taken aback by the extent of his success.

“I’m not really surprised that this is probably the best start of my career,” he replied. “I just felt that the intelligence and wisdom I’ve acquired over the years have made it so my better years are ahead of me.”

He wasn’t the only one who thought so. Given my lack of perspective, it only seemed natural to me that what he was doing, he would go on doing.

What neither of us realized was that a phrase like “career year” had a deeper meaning to it. Unlike the Rookie of the Year award he won in 1976, the MVP award of 1987 stood for something much different, something that my untrained eyes, and unwilling heart, failed to acknowledge—the Hawk made his grand ascent that year, one he would never repeat, or even come close to again.

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