MIAMI — Andre Dawson got his nickname as a young boy growing up in Miami. An uncle would hit him ground balls. Said most kids his age would be afraid of the baseball but that Andre would “attack it like a hawk.”
And there it is today, in bronze, on his Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y.: Andre Nolan Dawson. “The Hawk.”
Around that same time, as a child, sometimes Andre would be made to dress up and attend the funeral of a relative or family friend. He hated that.
“I was frightened by the sight of death,” Dawson, now 65, said Thursday, by telephone. “Didn’t like seeing someone laying in a casket. It was like a teenager watching a horror movie. You can’t sleep. As a kid growing up, the funeral home was my fear factor.”
Strange how life sometimes turns out, right?
Today Dawson owns and runs the Paradise Memorial Funeral Home in Richmond Heights, a small city in southwest Miami-Dade County. He has been in the business for 12 years, when Dawson and his wife took it over from relatives.
Once, Dawson accompanied three employees to a home in Liberty City to oversee the removal of a deceased body of an older man. The grieving son kept staring at the tall gentleman in the dark suit. Through tears he finally spoke two words.
Yes it was.
We haven’t had much occasion to speak with Dawson since he retired from baseball as a Florida Marlin in 1996 and was inducted into Cooperstown in 2010, but the spring of 2020 — a time like no other — seemed the right time to catch up.
The coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic is killing people and has shut down sports, and Dawson is a former ballplayer now in the business of death.
It has “turned everything upside down” for his work and erased the sport that raised him, the game he loves.
A month ago Dawson buried the uncle who was his father figure in place of the father who wasn’t around. John, a military man, was buried at Arlington. Andre called him his “road dad” because John would sometimes go and visit Dawson when he traveled with the Montreal Expos, Chicago Cubs or Boston Red Sox before winding up playing back in his hometown.
On Thursday, over the phone, Dawson sounded weary:
“Everybody’s fine. We’re holding up our end. But it’s challenging right now.”
Paradise Memorial, one small funeral home in one small suburb of Miami, has cremated or buried five victims of COVID-19 so far.
Funeral services at his place are limited to 10 mourners.
Employees wear protective hazmat suits when removing bodies that might have the virus.
Dawson spends much of his time disinfecting the premises, “lobby, chapel, hosting room, everywhere. I will help out on services if needed. I do what needs to be done. If I have to go on a removal, I will do that.”
The former Southwest Miami High and Florida A&M standout was the 1987 National League MVP. He hit 438 home runs. To Cubs fans, he is beloved to this day.
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It is not lost on him — the contrast in the job that made him famous, and one he does quietly today in a small city of less than 2 square miles.
“It’s a big adjustment. A lot of sadness,” he says. “I’m used to hearing cheers and hearing a crowd roar, a far cry from this particular type of business. Now, I’m like another ear for the family. Nobody grieves or mourns the same. Some people never heal.”
Dawson served as a special assistant in the Marlins front office but left in the ownership change to the Derek Jeter group after declining a reduced role and “drastic” pay cut. Dawson doubts he will attend Jeter’s Hall of Fame induction on account of the hard feelings.
“It didn’t go over real well with me,” he says.
Dawson is now in his third year as an ambassador with the Cubs. He received dozens of letters from Cubs fans welcoming him back home.
The child of Miami found that sort of funny.
Dawson tries but cannot quite imagine baseball coming out of this pandemic and resuming play with no fans watching.
“It would be like a ‘B’ game on the back field in spring training,” he says. “Fans are what drives you. That’s who you play for. I can’t see that. I understand the concept behind it, but you’ve got to have fans.”
But this is where we’re at in the spring of 2020. This is what we’re looking at.
Baseball games as quiet as a funeral home.