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MLB Hall of Famer Dawson reflects on playing career during YSU’s ‘First Pitch Breakfast’

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes. MLB Hall of Famer Andre Dawson speaks at the YSU Baseball First Pitch Breakfast Saturday morning in Canfield.

CANFIELD — After spending over two decades in the major leagues, Andre Dawson has seen the very best baseball has to offer. The Hall of Fame outfielder spoke at Youngstown State’s “First Pitch Breakfast,” an annual charity event held at Waypoint 4180.

With temperatures chilling in the single digits Saturday morning, the current conditions are a far cry from baseball weather, yet the college season is just a few weeks away.

Also speaking was YSU coach Dan Bertolini and current major league umpire Brian O’Nora, an Austintown Fitch alum.

Dawson recalled his humble beginnings prior to his professional career.

“I just took a sincere interest once I was introduced to (baseball) by one of my uncles, who bought me my very first fielder’s glove,” Dawson said. “I watched a local men’s team practice and I wanted to be out on the field. So they would call me out after practice and hit me some ground balls and throw me some batting practice.”

“Along the way there were a lot of bumps in the road, blood, sweat, some tears, but I was always informed to be surrounded with the people that would push you and motivate you, which is what I did. As I continued to get older and older, it’s the only thing I really wanted to do and see how far I could go playing the game of baseball.”

Earning the nickname “The Hawk” by his uncle, Dawson would walk on, and eventually play, for Florida A&M until being drafted by the Montreal Expos in 1975.

As a career .279 hitter with 2,774 hits and 1,591 runs batted in, Dawson also finished his career with 438 home runs over the course of 21 seasons. The duel between a pitcher and a hitter is one that Dawson had to master, while learning to overcome the failure that baseball brings.

On Sept. 11, 1976, Dawson made his major league debut at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh against the Pirates. He remembers it fondly.

“Very surreal. I was in one of those awe moments. I had arrived. I was with the elite, the best players in the world,” Dawson said, describing the feeling of his call up. “Not to get intimidated by them, but enjoy and embrace that moment, and I just tried to recollect over the years what it took to get there, and what it was going to take to stay there.”

Playing for Montreal for a bulk of his career until 1986, Dawson looks back at the Expos fans with gratitude, especially when the Expos were still a fairly new franchise during the mid-1970s.

“They were hockey fans in principle, but they were learning the game. Montreal was still an expansion team, they called baseball games ‘le match,’ which was a hockey reference,” Dawson said. “Once they really got a grip and a hold of the game and how it was played, they really came out and supported us.”

The Expos moved to Washington to become the Nationals following the 2004 season. Olympic Stadium, their former home still stands and has been in use for exhibition games in recent years. The blueprint is in place for expansion talks down the pipeline.

Dawson sees the possibility, “It’s a lot of red tape, a lot of places want a franchise. I personally feel that Canada can support two teams, with Montreal you’re going to have to have the right venue, a ball park suitable for baseball. The facility that I played in was designed for the Olympics and it was massive. They made it work for baseball, but going forward you do need a viable ball park that’s conducive for baseball if you’re going to have the sport there again.”

Also donning the Cubs, Red Sox, and Marlins uniform during his career, some of Dawson’s standout personal moments include a three-home run game against the Phillies to score all five runs for Chicago, and when his son Darius was born during a game, eventually rushing to the hospital and gifting him a game ball when he was older from that day.

Bertolini watched Dawson during the latter years of his career growing up, really admiring the type of offensive threat he was at the plate.

“He was one of the most feared hitters in the game, the reason why I think he’s special is that he’s played the game the right way,” Bertolini said. “Not a lot of talk, he showed up every day, he went to work and played the game the right way at a high level for a really long time, so his Hall of Fame (honor) is much deserved.”

Dawson’s first of eight All-Star games came back in 1981 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, as a still-standing All-Star record crowd of 72,086 filed in to watch the very best baseball had to offer.

“We got the opportunity to meet (President George H. W. Bush), he would come through the club house. Just the fact that you were on that stage with the greatest players in the world, it made it that much more fun.” Dawson said.

Spending numerous years within the National League made for frequent trips to Pittsburgh at Three Rivers, recalling how difficult those ’70s Pirates teams were to play against.

“I go as far back as ‘We Are Family’ and that wrecking crew and how they probably didn’t steal it, they just flat out beat us and went out ahead to win the National League championship and the World Series,” Dawson said. “Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, just to name a few guys that really solidified that ball club to make them who they were.”

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