"I was the Pioneer League Player of the Year. I was only there two months because it was short-season league," recalled Dawson. "[In 1976] I was sent directly to Double-A [Quebec], and after two months, I was leading the [Eastern] League in hitting. An injury situation up in the big leagues then prompted me to leave Double-A and go to Triple-A [Denver], where I hit 12 home runs in my first 14 games. People started comparing me to Willie Mays, and it was like, 'No, not even close.'"
Dawson combined to hit .352 and slug .658 over 383 Minor League at-bats with 28 home runs, 73 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in 1976. This prodigious output earned the well-traveled 21-year-old a late-season callup to Montreal. It marked the beginning of a 10-year stint patrolling Olympic Stadium's unforgiving outfield turf and a 21-year Major League career that included playing for the Cubs, Red Sox and Marlins.
Dawson was one of many standout performers on the 1976 Denver Bears, whose roster included more than two dozen players who would go on to compete at the Major League level. Dawson was joined in that outfield by Warren Cromartie and Ellis Valentine, the first time this illustrious trio would appear together prior to becoming fixtures in the Expos' starting lineup for the remainder of the 70s.
Cromartie and Dawson became fast friends, particularly because the two shared a similar background.
"We both grew up in Miami and were both signed by [Expos director of player development] Mel Didier," recalled Cromartie in a telephone conversation Thursday afternoon. "So we had heard about each other, but didn't meet until Spring Training in 1976. We were picking up balls in the batting cages, and when we got to the last ball we looked at each other and it was like 'You're Andre Dawson, I'm Warren Cromartie. Cool.'
"That was just a monster team we had out there in Denver," added Cromartie, who played for the Expos through the 1983 campaign. "We were young and hungry and knew we had a shot at the big leagues; that some way or another we belonged. We took that Minor League experience and brought it straight to the Majors."
Dawson has long been known as "The Hawk," but Cromartie chose to compare his teammate's demeanor to a different sort of predatory creature.
"[Dawson] was a real quiet guy, who always led by example," he said. "He didn't have too much to say when he got upset, but you'd know he was upset because he'd swell up like a cobra. He was the sort of guy who just commanded instant respect."
And as one of Dawson's long-time friends, it pained Cromartie to watch him come up short for the Hall of Fame in each of the previous eight years.
"There was always something he didn't do. People would say 'Well, he didn't have a great on-base percentage or he didn't hit well in the 1981 playoffs,'" said Cromartie. "But I'm looking at a guy who played through pain, who was at the ballpark three hours early and stayed two hours late. He never wanted a day off, he just wanted to get out there and play. From the beginning, he was all about intangibles and integrity."