When Andre Dawson retired, his place in baseball history was secure.
He was generally considered a first-ballot Hall of Famer by writers active in the game, but by the time his name came up for election five years later, his sparkling career had been forgotten.
So what happened between September 1996 and December 2001 that caused him to get only 45 percent of the vote when it was announced in January 2002?
“Performance-enhancing drugs is what happened,” Dawson said from his home in Miami. “All I heard near the end of my career is that I was a Hall of Famer, but when it was my chance on the ballot it seems like I was not considered worthy anymore.”
When Dawson retired after the 1996 season, he was 23rd on the all-time home run list with 438, a number at the time considered an absolute lock for the Hall of Fame, especially considering his all-around game that included eight Gold Gloves and 300-plus stolen bases.
Every player ahead of him on the home run list — except for Dave Kingman — was in the Hall of Fame, or would be in short order.
“For many years, 400 home runs was the barrier for the Hall of Fame,” Dawson said. “You crossed that line and you had a very good chance to get in.”
What happened the next 16 years is shocking historically. It took 127 years of baseball for 22 men to hit more than 438 home runs, but in the last 16 years, 16 men have passed Dawson on the home run list, increasing the number of players ahead of him by 70 percent.
The time elapsed in baseball history was 11 percent.
In extra-base hits, Dawson dropped from 18th (1,039) to 26th, increasing the number of players ahead of him by 44 percent.
In total bases, he fell from 21st (4,787) to 27th, increasing the number of players ahead of him by 29 percent.
In RBI, he dropped from 24th (1,591) to 36th, increasing the number of players ahead of him by 50 percent.
In hits, Dawson fell from 39th (2,774) to 50th, increasing the number of players ahead of him by 28 percent.
These are enormous percentage leaps in a fraction of the time it took for those lists to be formed.
“The thing is, I played a long time in the majors (21 years), and a couple more in the minors, and I didn’t play with that many Hall of Fame-caliber ballplayers,” Dawson said. “I didn’t play against more than a few Hall of Famers.
“You don’t just suddenly have 20 or 30 Hall of Famers in both leagues at one time, but that’s what the numbers said. That’s what all the commentators said.
“You knew something was wrong when numbers were getting obliterated in a short period. That many great players don’t just show up like that. It just doesn’t happen. You don’t see 40 Hall of Famers show up out of nowhere in five years.”
Dawson went from being considered among the truly elite sluggers in baseball history in 1996, a tremendous all-around player often compared to his heroes, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, to just another player in 2001.
“I don’t let bitterness and anger weigh me down, but I won’t pretend it doesn’t offend me,” Dawson said. “I was talking to Frank Robinson about it last year, and he’s really angry about what’s been done to the history of the game.
“The guys who took steroids disrespected the game, and disrespected the history. Our history relies so much on the numbers, and the numbers have been destroyed.”
So you can’t envision yourself in Cooperstown, sharing the stage with known cheaters?
“I can’t see it,” Dawson said. “I can’t imagine them holding their head high with pride, thinking they accomplished something great. No, I wouldn’t want to be up there with them. I don’t think it’s right for the game.”
But there are many writers today who are voting for the steroids players, and trying to encourage their brethren to do the same, saying you can’t ignore this time period in the game.
Some are voting for them all because they simply don’t know what else to do.
“That’s a cop-out,” Dawson said. “It’s the writers’ job to decide who belongs in the Hall of Fame, but they don’t want to punish guys who cheated? The all-time hits leader (Pete Rose) isn’t in the Hall, and I know it’s not the writers’ call on that, but Pete has been punished.
“You telling me you don’t have the heart to punish those guys?”
Dawson says he isn’t bitter, but he’s got every right to be. His career numbers were swallowed up by the steroid era, and it took him nine years of agony to finally take his rightful place in Cooperstown among the greatest who have ever played the game.
Instead of first ballot, he garnered only 45 percent of the vote in his first year, and it was another eight elections before he was granted entrance to Cooperstown.
“The consequences were big for me, and a lot of guys were forgotten,” Dawson said. “Now, the guys who did (PEDs) have to face the consequences.
“They made millions and millions and millions of dollars doing that, and they put up huge numbers, numbers nobody has ever seen before. What they did was wrong and it was unfair to the other players in the game. They weren’t on a level playing field, and they shortened other players’ careers and took money out of other players’ pockets.
“They knew what they were doing. If they weren’t cheating, why did so many guys try to hide it and lie about it? If it was all so great for baseball, why don’t they all just tell the truth about it?”
Dawson’s already in the Hall of Fame, so he says his anger isn’t about what happened to him. His concern is for the numbers that are so crucial to the romance that surrounds baseball, which has had its heart broken by steroids.
“I’m mad about what they did to the game. I think of Hank (Aaron) and Willie and Mickey, it makes me really angry,” Dawson said. “We worked really, really hard to get to a certain level. They did it with drugs.
“I love the game, and I hate to see the stain on our game. It makes me sad, but I don’t think we can pretend it didn’t happen by voting all those guys in. That would be the ultimate stain.”
ŸHear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.