A Tale of two hitters
As he stood before the throng of reporters and flashing cameras, Andre Dawson said something yesterday that I'd never known about him. He spoke of his mother, who died in 2006.
From the article: She would have been 71, but she died in May 2006.
"I just wanted to thank her," Dawson said Thursday. "I went to her grave site. I prayed and thanked her for the job she did as a mother, father and big sister to me. She probably was my best friend."
Dawson was born in 1954 to Mattie Brown, then a single, 16-year-old girl who, along with his grandmother, went on to raise him into the person he is today. Probably no baseball fan truly knows the player he's cheering (or booing), and I certainly wasn't aware of that part of the Hawk's story. But what I do know about him is this: he was a cherished man in Chicago, a consummate professional admired by his teammates and worshiped by his fans. It seems then that, like Dawson, we owe Mattie Brown a debt of gratitude.
Contrast that with Milton Bradley, who shares more than a few incidental similarities with Dawson. According to Alan Schwartz of ESPN, Bradley was born in 1978 to Charlina Rector, who by then was already a single mother of four. Bradley's father Milton Sr. -- whose name he passed onto his son while Rector was still unconscious from having given birth -- was a cocaine addict who'd left Rector several months previous. Bradley's mother raised and tried to protect him from the world and from his abusive father, and like Dawson the circumstances of his birth directed him to become the person he is today. Perhaps at home, away from the scrutinizing baseball fans who have heckled him, Bradley is a good husband and father -- i.e. everything his father wasn't -- but on the field he is an antagonistic, confrontational player despised by the fans and ambivalent to his teammates.
Dawson's grandmother -- who died before he reached the majors -- convinced him to go to university. Bradley went into the draft straight from high school. Both men were selected by the same team -- the Expos picked Dawson in the 11th round of the 1975 draft, Bradley was chosen in the 2nd round of the 1996 draft. Dawson kept his nose down and excelled with a focus "that was never seen for somebody (his) age," (hence his nickname, "The Hawk"), Bradley grew to mistrust authority figures and was suspended multiple times for antics like poking umpires and spitting on them.
By the time Dawson was 22 years old, he was playing in Montreal full-time. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 1977, for having slugged 19 homeruns and batted .282 while stealing 21 bases. Bradley struggled in his early years in Montreal, resulting in his first of many trades. He was sent to the Indians at 23, and he didn't really start to light it up until 2003 when he batted .321 in 101 games played.
Eventually, the Hawk wore himself down in Montreal. He spent a decade in the French-Canadian city, destroying his knees on the hard artificial turf even as he collected 6 Gold Gloves, 3 All Star appearances, and 2 runner-up MVP finishes. Then, at the age of 32, in order to preserve his career, Dawson landed in Chicago for a pittance - a 1-year contract for $500,000.
Bradley, meanwhile, suffered a variety of leg injuries as well, although he more wore out his welcome than wore himself down. After 2 full seasons in Cleveland -- which including incidents in which he was scolded by Cleveland manager Charlie Manuel for a lack of professionalism -- he finally exhausted the Indians' patience in the Spring Training of 2004 and was dealt to Los Angeles.
He played there for two turbulent seasons -- which included even more tantrums and suspensions -- before being dealt to the Athletics. Then Oakland designated him for assignment on July 21st, 2007, and the Padres picked him up. With the Padres, Bradley provided a brief jolt to the San Diego offense before blowing out an ACL in the final week of the season while being restrained from confronting an umpire. He then signed a one-year-deal with the Texas Rangers, where he reportedly informed the team late in the 2008 season that he'd be sitting out games so as to not risk injury and deflate his chances of receiving an impressive contract offer that winter. Then, at the age of 31, Bradley landed in Chicago for an exorbitant sum of money -- $30 million for 3 years.
Dawson's time in Chicago was nothing short of glorious. In his first year with the Cubs, the Hawk won the MVP award for a last place team while slugging 49 homeruns and driving in 137 RBI -- all for $500,000, a sum that would have insulted most stars. He did it on two bad knees -- for which he'd have more than 20 operations on over the span of his life -- and without complaint. As a result, the fans loved him. They bowed to him in the outfield, chanting "Awesome Dawson" whenever he made an outstanding offensive or defensive play. They wore his jersey. They worshiped him.
At his Hall of Fame press conference, Dawson said this about Cub fans, and in light of recent seasons and recent accusations by various acquisitions, one can't help but wonder if his comments were directed at some people:
"I'll tell you, going to Wrigley Field, playing in the Friendly Confines amongst the Cubs fans, that was amazing in itself.
"That really rejuvenated my career, I think, and put me at a point in time where I was unsure about myself in the game, and how much longer I was going to stay in the game. The way the Cubs fan embraced me that first year pretty much propelled me on to win the National League MVP award and I owe that organization a lot for believing in me.
"They didn't really meet the demands initially, but I just felt that since I played in a media center, I played somewhere where the fans really took a hold and adored me, and made me really want to go out and want to be, not a crowd-pleaser, but to not embarrass them and just give it what they expect day-in and day-out."
Bradley's time in Chicago was nothing more than tumultuous. He started out slowly and was booed for his effort -- or lack thereof. In the first year of his contract (in which he'd signed with the expectation of delivering a run-producing bat in the middle of the order) Bradley batted .257 and hit 12 homeruns while driving in 40. He described his experience with Cub fans as this:
"It's just not a positive environment. I need a stable, healthy, enjoyable environment. There's too many people everywhere in your face with a microphone asking the same questions repeatedly. Everyone is just bashing you. You go out there and play harder than anybody on the field and never get credit for it. It's just negativity. ... And you understand why they haven't won in 100 years here, because it's negative. It's what it is."
It turns out, according to Bradley, that Cub fans are not welcoming. They are not the loving group of fans that cheered for Andre Dawson two decades earlier. They are instead racist:
"I'm talking about hatred, period. I'm talking about when I go to eat at a restaurant, I have to listen to the waiters bad-mouthing me at another table, sitting in a restaurant, that's what I'm talking about -- everything."
As a result of a season of confrontations, harsh words, and disrespectful actions, Bradley was suspended on September 20th by Jim Hendry and dealt to the Mariners in the off-season. He wasn't even able to last a single year with the Cubs.
It's doubtful that they've ever met, but I wonder what Andre Dawson and Milton Bradley would make of each other if they did. Would Bradley see in Dawson a sell-out, a man who submerged his well-justified rage in order to get along with people who couldn't possibly understand the past which drives him? Would Dawson see in Bradley a lost cause, a talented athlete who was never able to overcome his greater demons despite the support of a loving wife and the love of a doting mother?
Whatever would happen, Cub fans have now experienced polar opposites. We've had the talented hitting right fielder who played hurt and was a consummate professional, and we've seen the talented hitting right fielder who lived his life hurt and was consumed by his anger. If possible, Bradley may have served in at least one positive role -- he's helped us remember and appreciate Dawson even more.
Mattie Brown has been dead for more than three years. She never had the chance to see her son honored by the Hall of Fame, but she surely knew it was coming. She raised her son right. Charlina Rector probably did everything in her power to raise her son right, too. Rather than condemning Rector for failing, let's instead praise Brown for succeeding. It's never easy to be a single parent, whether you are 16 when your child is born as Brown was, or already a mother of four as Rector was. For the unlikely success that he's had over the span of his life and baseball career, we should appreciate Dawson even more. He was clearly deserving of our adoration, whether he was trying to be a crowd-pleaser or not.