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Dawson had the tools to build a solid case

Like Jim Rice, who will receive word today whether he finally will be elected to baseball's Hall of Fame, Andre Dawson doesn't have the ''automatic numbers," as he calls them, that would assure his ticket to Cooperstown, having fallen short of 500 home runs and 3,000 hits in his 21-year career.

But just as Rice deserves admission for being the American League's dominant player from 1975-85 -- a span in which he led the league in home runs, RBIs, runs, slugging percentage, and extra-base hits -- so, too, should Dawson. Over roughly the same period, playing for the Expos and Cubs, Dawson was almost as dominant in the National League, and in every way a player can be: with his bat (45 or more extra-base hits in 15 consecutive seasons, a feat achieved by just five other players, all Hall of Famers), his glove (eight Gold Gloves and a Deweyesque arm in the outfield), and his feet (12 straight seasons of double figures in home runs and stolen bases).

''I come well-documented," Dawson said dryly yesterday from his home in Miami, where he grew up, finished his playing career with the Florida Marlins in 1996, and has spent the last six seasons in the team's front office, now serving as a special assistant to the president. ''I took pride in being a four- or five-tool player, and being consistent."

Dawson, like Rice, is by no means assured of election this year. This could be the Year of the Closer, as Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage loom as leading candidates. Rice fell short by 80 votes last year, Dawson 117. But in the wake of baseball's steroid scandal, voters may be willing to take a harder look at their accomplishments, which statistically have been dwarfed by players in the Steroid Era.

Ryne Sandberg, the Cubs second baseman voted into the Hall of Fame last year, lobbied for Dawson in his induction speech, and made a pointed reference to how Dawson did it ''naturally."

''I kind of have mixed [feelings]," Dawson said when asked about the suitability of the Steroid Era stars for the Hall. ''The players who used performance-enhancement substances knew they were illegal, but Major League Baseball is to blame for it, too. They let something like this through the cracks. If they had not been so sold on how many fans were coming through the turnstiles, they might have responded sooner. Now baseball is left with a bad scar, and we've got to deal with it.

''But you really can't compare players from era to era. The game is played differently. The talent is different. Jim Rice, if you put him in today's ballparks, he'd hit 50 home runs a year, without taking steroids. The numbers are what they are."

Three players in big-league history have hit as many as 400 home runs and stolen 300 or more bases. Barry Bonds (708, 506) and Willie Mays (660, 338) are 1-2. Dawson is the third (438/314).

Dawson won an MVP award playing for a last-place team in 1987, when the bleacher bums in Wrigley Field honored him with ''salaams" well before Sammy Sosa arrived on the scene. He and Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter were the best players in the history of the defunct Expos. Don Zimmer, who managed Dawson in Chicago, said when the Hawk retired, ''I don't think I ever managed a greater player or a human being." Richard Griffin, the Toronto columnist who was the Expos' PR man when Dawson played in Montreal, named his son after Dawson.

Shawon Dunston, who played with Dawson in Chicago, said that if he could choose a second father, it would be Dawson. ''In my time," Dunston told me a decade ago, ''Andre Dawson was Mickey Mantle. If Andre didn't have bad knees, he would have finished with 600 home runs and 500 stolen bases."

Dawson had 12 knee operations during his career, which is why, by the time he landed in Boston in 1992, Sox fans never got a true feel of the great player he was. He played just 121 games in his first season with the Sox, 75 the second, and hit a total of just 29 home runs in that span.

''I hurt my knee in the beginning of my first season [with the Red Sox] in Texas," Dawson said. ''I got caught between sliding and standing up on a passed ball. I was on second base, and I took a chop step between strides and hit the corner of the third-base bag.

''I had knee surgery and they decided to use me in the DH role. Then I had knee surgery the following year, too. I never got untracked the way I wanted to in Boston, which was disappointing, because I was a free agent then and Boston had shown a lot of interest."

Dawson was teammates with Terry Francona on the Expos, and was the first player to Francona's side when the Sox manager blew out the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Francona, after double-digit surgeries, underwent knee replacement surgery this offseason, and Dawson is facing the same prospect.

''We had a long conversation about it," Dawson said. ''I've been putting it off as long as I can. I have some apprehensions about it. I don't do real well with anesthesia. I'm like a guy who's been flying all his life who doesn't want to get on a plane. I've had 12 knee surgeries and all of a sudden I'm afraid of having knee surgery."

Even on bad knees and at age 51, Dawson accomplished something athletically this winter. He learned to swim, no small achievement for a man who nearly drowned when he was 13 after being pushed into a swimming pool during a soccer team party.

''I didn't really panic," he said. ''I could see the side of the pool, and somehow I got there and was pulled out. But I must have gone under three or four times. For three or four minutes afterward, my body went completely limp, I was so exhausted. And I remember having migraine headaches for three or four months afterward."

One of the first things he did as a father, he said, was to make sure his two kids learned to swim by the time they were 4. But he kept putting it off for himself until presented with a major incentive: A charity organization called the Baby Otter Swim School, which is dedicated to teaching underprivileged kids water safety and swimming, with hopes of building aquatic centers around the country, approached Dawson about being its national spokesman.

He agreed to do so, under one condition.

''I told them I had to learn how to swim first," he said. ''But as an adult, you fear the water more than the kids do."

The Baby Otter group had a five-day program for adults. By the fourth day, the Hawk was swimming.

''I'm not Tarzan by any means," he said with a laugh. ''But I got the basics."

What he is, is a Hall of Famer, whether or not the call comes today from Cooperstown.

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