COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) — Andre Dawson held one of his old bats ever-so-gently as his mind raced back through time.
"It's been kind of overwhelming since Day 1. I never could envision what it would feel like," Dawson said Monday during his pre-induction tour of the Baseball Hall of Fame. "It wows me. I'm sure I'll feel the full effects of it some day."
Dawson's fourth visit to Cooperstown was like no other. One of only three major leaguers to hit 400 homers and steal more than 300 bases (Willie Mays and Barry Bonds are the others), Dawson toured the Hall in preparation for his induction this summer. He was elected on his ninth try in January and is the only player in the class of 2010.
"The Hawk" will be enshrined in Cooperstown on July 25 along with manager Whitey Herzog and umpire Doug Harvey.
"What an experience. I'm thankful to have this opportunity," Dawson said. "For me, today helps me get my feet under me. I feel like I'm on sacred ground. You're talking about the greatest players ever to play the game."
Dawson, now 55, played his first 11 seasons with the Montreal Expos, batting .285 with 225 home runs and 838 RBIs. He won the NL Rookie of the Year award in 1977.
After his stint in Montreal, Dawson played six seasons with the Chicago Cubs, where he won the 1987 NL MVP award after batting .287 with 49 home runs and 137 RBIs. He also played two years each for Boston and Florida before retiring in 1996.
Nicknamed "The Hawk" for his defensive prowess in the outfield, Dawson had 10 or more assists in a season 16 times in his 21-year career from 1976-96, including a career-high 17 in 1978 and 1979, and finished his career with 157 assists.
This day was for reflection, though, and it didn't take long for Dawson to feel at home. Sitting with his wife, Vanessa, in the Grandstand Theater at the start of the tour, he smiled as soon as he heard the raspy voice of Harry Caray belting out "Take Me Out To The Ball Game."
"When I think back, there are so many things that flash through my mind. First of all, how did I ever pull it off? How did I ever get to that status?" said Dawson, who underwent 12 knee surgeries as a player. "Day in and day out, the grind, the constant struggles with success and failure, and then to have it all culminate (in this), that's what I think back on. And I can only say, 'Wow!' I knew I had a special talent. I was blessed to stay on track."
As he strolled through the history of the game, Dawson did a double-take at the small medal Paul Waner won as the 1927 National League most valuable player and looked wistfully at a pair of Stan Musial's kangaroo leather cleats.
"They should never have stopped making those," he said. "Fit your feet like gloves."
A moment later, Dawson paused at a display that included Phillies great Steve Carlton and smiled because his first major league hit came against the Hall of Fame lefty in September 1976.
"I think it was the first pitch," Dawson said. "He was the toughest left-hander I ever faced."
A $40 contract former Pittsburgh Pirates great Roberto Clemente signed with Santurce to play winter ball in the Caribbean in the mid-1950s brought a smile to Dawson's face. So, too, did a homemade red-white-and-blue sign Cubs fans made in an effort to get shortstop Shawon Dunston voted onto the National League squad for the 1990 All-Star game at Wrigley Field: "Vote for Shawon. All-American Boy."
"He was kind of like a little brother, like a gnat," Dawson said of Dunston, who plans to attend Dawson's induction. "He was always around you."
When former Cubs star Ryne Sandberg was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005, he made a plug for Dawson in his speech, saying Dawson "did it the right way" during his career.
The Hawk, just the 203rd former player elected to the Hall of Fame, hasn't forgotten those words.
"It really touched me," Dawson said. "I finally feel a sense of, I've arrived now. It's a great feeling to know that you can get an endorsement from your peers. They're the ones that see you day in and day out."
At the end of the tour, Dawson gazed at the plaques of Mays and Cubs great Ernie Banks, then sat down for a chat not far from where his plaque will hang in the gallery.
"I stepped in this gallery and I really got chills," Dawson said. "People from around the world can actually come in and view it. It's touching. I don't think I really, really felt the true impact of what it is to be a Hall of Famer until I stepped in here today."
Before he departed, Dawson put in a plug of his own for pitcher Bert Blyleven, then reflected on "doing it the right way."
"You control your legacy and you don't really take the game for granted," he said. "My motto in my speech is going to be — if you love the game, the game will love you back. Your legacy in this game is who you are, how you carry yourself. Your character, your integrity, is what people remember you by.
"That's something that was important to me," Dawson added. "Whether a player elected to use performance enhancements or whatever, they did it for a reason. That can come back at some point in time to bat you in the rear end. To me, integrity and character is who you are as a player."