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Knee Pain Lessons from Hall of Famer Andre Dawson

Rick Stewart / Getty Images

If athletes wonder what sports was like in the 1970s and 80s, when AstroTurf fields were common in the NFL and Major League Baseball and nobody had yet heard of core conditioning, they should consider the career of Andre Dawson.

The outfielder known as “The Hawk,” who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame over the weekend, nearly retired early in his career because of knee injuries suffered while patrolling the AstroTurf outfield of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.

A member of the Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals) from 1976-86, Dawson played 81 home games a year on AstroTurf. Many of his road games took place on artificial turf surfaces in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Houston, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.

The AstroTurf surface was little more than a hard green felt pad laid over concrete. It took a toll on all players in the field, none more so than outfielders required to patrol huge stretches of ballparks much bigger than those of today.

A knee injury suffered playing high school football caused Dawson to favor the other knee, which eventually wore out, too. All told, he had eight knee surgeries by the time he left Montreal for the soft grass of Chicago’s Wrigley Field to play for the Cubs.

“I got to the point where I was more or less bone on bone,” said Dawson, now 56. “A lot of degenerative, arthritic conditions had manifested itself and my preparation was basically to stay off of my feet as much as possible when I was away from the ballpark.”

Few baseball players lifted weights in the early 1980s and it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that players such as Roberto Alomar and Jason Varitek were introduced to Mark Verstegen’s program now known as Core Performance.

Dawson embarked on a mostly self-taught program of stretching and strengthening his core region to take the pressure off his knees and back. Because of his conditioning, he never endured back problems, a common ailment of players who spent a lot of time on artificial turf. The 6-foot-3 outfielder also kept his weight down to reduce the pressure, never playing above 196 pounds.

“A lot of players that I talked to about it complain about back issues and I’m surprised that I never really had back problems playing on the turf,” Dawson said. “I was told that the problems are going to go from your knees to your back next and if you have knee replacements then all of that pounding over the years is going to surface somewhere else sooner or later. But I never really had any back issues. It was always just the knees.”

The Hawk, a childhood nickname that stuck in the Majors because of Dawson’s intense gaze in the batter’s box, nearly quit during his fourth season because of a knee fracture that wasn’t diagnosed until two months into the season.

Still, he did not go on the disabled list until 1986, his tenth season and last in Montreal, when he suffered a hamstring pull.

“Those years of playing on that turf really did a number as far as the wear and tear is concerned,” Dawson said. “It just made playing on the grass feel like a difference of night and day.”

Dawson had the misfortune of becoming a free agent in the winter of 1986-87, when baseball owners lowballed players and later were found guilty of collusion. Instead of enjoying a big payday, he received little interest and handed the Chicago Cubs literally a blank contract, offering to let them fill in the number.

The Cubs wrote in $500,000, a small salary by baseball standards even then, and Dawson responded in 1987 by winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award, hitting 49 home runs and driving in 137 runs, both career highs.

A true five-tool talent, Dawson won eight Gold Glove Awards for his defense and stole 314 bases, mostly before the knee problems worsened. He finished his career in 1996 with 438 home runs and 1,591 RBIs.

Those are impressive numbers for any era, but they were overshadowed by the inflated numbers of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some players of that era have been exposed as users of performance-enhancing drugs.

In 2002, Dawson’s first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, just 45.3 percent of voters cast their ballot for him, well shy of the 75 percent needed for induction. That number gradually crept upward as voters came to appreciate the numbers produced by a clean player who often played in pain.

Longevity always was the key,” said Dawson, who managed to play 21 seasons. “If you’re consistent over a long career and you’re consistent enough to put the numbers up, then at the end of those 20 years you see what exactly have you compiled and how it ranks and compares with individuals who are already in.

“I felt that I had kind of gotten the best of what I was going to get out of my ability and the knees were starting to take a toll and I could see myself starting to really slow down. So at that I just felt that and I hoped that I had done enough.”

Tags: Back Pain, Injury Prevention, Baseball, Knee Pain