01/07/10 4:47 PM EST
Former trainer lauds Hawk's election
Fierro by Dawson's side with each painful step in Chicago
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
The doctor was not aware who the patient was, or what he did for a living. John Fierro, who was the Cubs' head athletic trainer at the time, was with Dawson. He knew.
"So, the doctor looked at the X-rays and looked in the [arthroscope] and said, 'Is this guy able to walk?'" Fierro said. "Our [team] physician kind of chuckled and laughed and said, 'He does a lot of things on these.'"
Those knees, one fractured by a high school football injury, supported Dawson long enough to get him into baseball's Hall of Fame. The outfielder, who played 21 seasons on legs that shouldn't have lasted that long, was elected into Cooperstown on Wednesday.
Fierro, now the manager/partner of the Accelerated Rehabilitation Center in Chandler, Ariz., was the Cubs' trainer from 1987-96. The '87 season was Dawson's first in Chicago. The two spent more hours together than most families do.
Dawson was the first player to arrive at the ballpark, needing a minimum of two hours of treatment before batting practice. He'd sit in a whirlpool, ride a bike, stretch, then get taped for BP. He'd come into the trainer's room for more treatment and get re-taped prior to the game. His postgame treatment lasted another hour, including ice, exercises and massage.
"What he did on a day-to-day basis was an absolute shock," Fierro said Thursday from his clinic. "When you're inside the medical profession and you know what kind of hurts, and what doesn't hurt, and what should hurt and what shouldn't hurt, seeing X-rays of his knees and seeing what we had to go through every day with his knees, you're right -- he does not like to talk about it. He always felt that was a negative and he always accentuated the positive."
Dawson has always tried to downplay the pain he endured, aggravated by the 11 seasons with the Montreal Expos on the hard artificial turf of Olympic Stadium.
"I had a very painful career," Dawson said Thursday during his news conference in New York.
Former teammate Shawon Dunston likes to tell a story about how Cubs manager Don Zimmer would ask Dawson to take it easy in games to avoid injuring his knees. The outfielder known as "The Hawk" would tell Zimmer that he only knew one way to play the game: Hard.
"That wasn't possible for him to take it easy," Fierro said. "He wouldn't miss a game. We had an unwritten, even non-verbal communication system. We argued about it. You know how hard it was to get him out of the lineup. There were days when we'd go three, four days in a row on turf, and I'd say, 'You're not playing today, you're sitting.' He'd say, 'No.' Inevitably, I won most of the battles."
Dawson averaged 137 starts in right field in his six seasons with the Cubs. Wife Vanessa often made 11 o'clock runs to get another bag of ice for her husband's sore knees. He's had two knee replacement surgeries so far on the right one, and is preparing for a third.
Fierro knows all the details. Athletic trainers and players develop a unique relationship, especially when they have to spend as much time together as Fierro and Dawson did.
"What's more special to me is that it's been what, 12, 14 years, and we still keep in regular contact," Fierro said. "That's a friend. That transcends the game. When you look at his career, he treated the trainers in his career the same way. They were always special to him."
When Fierro heard that Dawson had finally been elected into the Hall of Fame, he was close to tears.
"I don't know if I can describe [the feeling]," he said. "It's not just our relationship, it's the person that he is. I don't think there's a person he's ever crossed paths with who could ever say a bad word about him or a negative thing about him, because he's always a positive person.
"My happiness is punctuated by the memories and thoughts of everything he had to go through to play. I had a big smile on my face [when I heard the news] and said, 'OK, this was worth it.' It's not that we didn't know already [that he was a Hall of Famer]. I was happy they finally recognized him for what he put into the game.
"There's no better person at the time or even now because he's still an ambassador for the game," he said. "There's no better person who I can think of in the game and nobody I know of who put as much into the game on a daily basis. It was his passion for the game."
Dawson is one of those rare combinations of a good person and good athlete.
It didn't take long for Fierro to circle July 25 on his calendar. That's when Dawson will be formally inducted into Cooperstown. Besides working at the clinic, Fierro also is an athletic trainer for Team USA's baseball team and works with the NHL Phoenix Coyotes.
He tried to reach Dawson on Wednesday.
"I called the house and left a message," Fierro said, chuckling. "I said, 'This is message No. 673.'"
Knowing Dawson as he does, Fierro can expect a call soon.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.