MIAMI — The call was urgent, and the emotions raw, when three businessmen pulled into the Little Havana neighborhood in the early afternoon, rang the doorbell and solemnly walked into the home to get the dead body.
A man directed them to the bedroom where his father had just died. He looked up twice and stared intently through his glassy, reddened eyes, as his face contorted in an odd mixture of grief, confusion and thrill.
“The Hawk?’’ he blurted out.
“Yes,’’ Andre Dawson said, “that’s me.’’
The man couldn’t believe it. Andre Dawson, the Hall of Famer who was only the second player in baseball history to hit 400 homers and steal 300 bases, was about to carry out his dead father?
The man tells Dawson that he got a picture taken of him when he was 7. He scurries to the back of his home, looks through his bookshelves and finds the scrapbook. He proudly shows Dawson, who was wearing a Florida Marlins uniform, to let him know he wasn’t making it up.
“Well,’’ he said, “I guess this is what it took for me to finally get a chance to meet you.’’
Dawson, who for 21 years was one of the most dynamic players in baseball, winning one MVP with the Cubs and finishing runner-up twice with the Montreal Expos, has gone from the ranks of the enshrined in Cooperstown to the ranks of the embalmers in a land where many go to die.
Dawson and his wife of 40 years, Vanessa, own and operate the Paradise Memorial Funeral Home in Richmond Heights, Florida.
“I always thought that Andre was a renaissance man,’’ Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said, “but this is taking it to a different level. You see Hall of Famers go into all kinds of businesses when they retire, but the funeral-home business?’’
Dawson is believed to be the second Hall of Famer to enter the business, joining Waite “Schoolboy’’ Hoyt, who was a funeral director and vaudeville performer on the side during a playing career that ended in 1938. He was called the “Merry Mortician.’’
Dawson, 63, who has owned the funeral home for 10 years, doesn’t have any catchy moniker, probably for the simple fact that everyone who learns of his line of work simply is too stunned to even talk.
“Jim Rice said, ‘You do what? And then all of the questions began to flow,’’ Dawson said. “Rice thinks it’s comical because he always thought I was grumpy and moody when I played.’’
Well, 14 knee surgeries, including two knee-replacement surgeries that left Dawson wondering whether he’d even be able to walk again in 2006, have a way of putting a damper on life.
Yet when you’re dealing with grief each day, with 130 services last year at the funeral home — a quaint building with a 99-seat chapel, two offices, three reposing rooms and a holding room — it can change your perspective in a hurry.
“You never know where God is going to lead you,’’ Dawson said, “but wherever it leads you, you have to be prepared. When this first fell into my lap, I prayed on it. I thought, ‘How am I really going to pull this off without having the background or knowing anything about the industry?’ But I wanted to make this as good a facility as I possibly could, and I’m proud of it.
“It’s important to me because this is a product the community needs.’’
This isn’t some business to which a famous athlete merely attaches his name, hoping to attract customers. On a given day, you’ll see Dawson driving one of the five black hearses or limos, carrying a casket, consoling families to even mopping floors on nearly an everyday basis. He does everything but embalm the bodies.
Funeral director Van Brown, business manager Curtis Taylor and staffer Anthony Truesell say they still can’t believe that a man who earned nearly $30 million in his career is scrubbing the toilet and washing out the sinks most days.
“I’m a perfectionist: I want to see everything done right,’’ Dawson said. “I could’ve called it the Andre Dawson Funeral Home and not really been a part of it, but that’s not me. I want something this community can turn to. I want them to be proud.’’
Still, you can just imagine the surprise when a grieving family happens to look up, and there’s Dawson in a black suit, leading families to their seats. He has never been asked for an autograph during a service, but afterward, he has taken plenty of pictures, with folks never believing it would take a funeral to finally meet one of Miami’s favorite sons.
“People are so awestruck when they see him,’’ pastor Alphonso Jackson of the Second Baptist Church of Richmond Heights said. “In this community, everybody knows who he is. We’ve had a lot of special athletes that have come out of here, but no one has had a single business in our community.
“Everyone has so much respect for him and Vanessa around here.’’
That connection no longer includes employment with the Marlins, who let him go in a controversial offseason shakeup after the sale of the franchise. Dawson, flipping to an all-sports radio station in his gray Bentley, says he has better things to do now than worry about them. Besides, he has been swamped with work. They had four telephone calls alone one night requesting funeral services.
“You have to be strong in this business; it’s not for the weak,’’ Dawson said. “The hardest thing is that you’ve experienced to some degree what they’re feeling, but you don’t know how they feel because everyone mourns differently.’’
Dawson says he has little trouble keeping his emotions in check during services, but there are times it can be heartbreaking. He sees kids who were killed on the streets in senseless murders or involved in accidents. He nearly lost it a few years ago when a kid he coached in Little League was killed in a motorcycle accident in an explosion that dismembered his body.
“This kid was almost like family,’’ Dawson said, “and to see him in that condition, knowing how much work would be required to the body, that one really hurt.’’
It would’ve been easier, of course, if he followed Hall of Famer Tom Seaver’s footsteps and become a wine-maker in Napa, except he doesn’t drink. Hall of Famer Zack Wheat became a police officer. Eddie Plank ran a car dealership and gave tours of the Gettysburg battlefield.
But, no, the funeral home was Dawson’s calling, a business he plans to keep in the family and for generations after he’s gone.
“If someone had told me I’d be doing this when I played,’’ Dawson said, “I would’ve looked at them like they were crazy. It takes a minute to grow on you. People may look at me funny when I tell them what I do, but I truly believe I’m right where I belong.’’