The first time Andre Dawson drove a hearse, he turned to the woman in the casket and said, completely serious:
“I’ll do my best to make sure this isn’t bumpy.”
The first time he told Hall-of-Fame baseball friends Tim Raines and Jim Rice he was in the funeral business, they stared at him with what Dawson realizes is a universal blank look and finally said, “You’re doing what?”
The first time he even told his wife, Vanessa, about his interest in buying a funeral home a decade ago, she purposely did nothing at all. Said nothing.
“I ignored him,” she said.
They’re together in the office at Paradise Memorial Funeral Home in the south Miami-Dade community of Richmond Heights that they’ve owned for a decade. She gave a wry smile.
“I then saw the funds getting depleted,” she said.
This is a story of “Six Feet Under” meeting “Sixty Feet Six Inches,” a TV show about a funeral home mashing up with a book about baseball.
Dawson, who spent 21 years in the major leagues playing with the Expos, Cubs, Red Sox and Marlins, does everything except embalm bodies. He comforts families. Ushers at services. Drives the hearse and limousine. Goes to homes and hospitals to collect bodies.
And, when requested, poses for pictures.
“Hawk?” one man said, using Dawson’s nickname, when the Hall-of-Famer appeared at the man’s home one night to collect a deceased family member. “Is that you?”
This turn of careers surprises even Dawson, whose 13-year relationship with the Marlins ended after new owner Derek Jeter took over. Owning a funeral home wasn’t a dream or even a plan as much as the falling of a procession of dominoes.
‘They look at me and stare’
Dawson was one of six partners investing in a north Miami funeral home his brother ran.
That led to him being approached about buying this Richmond Heights funeral home when it went up for sale.
He talked with the pastors and leaders and saw it was a community service more than anything.
“I was brought in to secure financing,” saidDawson, 63.
The state inspected the funeral home and found violations. It also had prior violations Dawson didn’t know about. Faced with this, he tried to sell it.
“I thought people were nickel-and-diming me, so I said I’ll keep it and run it myself,” he said.
Eight months later, with a new name and refurbished building, Paradise Memorial opened.
“I try to stay in the background,” Dawson said. “I don’t want to be out front. I never named the funeral home. How crazy that would be? I answer a lot of questions, as it is, when people find out what I do.
“I think they have an issue with, not the dead in a sense, but how at times it can feel a little morbid. They look at me and stare. They just stare at me. I hand them my business card.”
This is the first time in 13 seasons Dawson isn’t a presence at Marlins games, counseling players, helping coaches and generally being a veteran sounding board. New owner Jeter fired Dawson, Tony Perez, Jack McKeon and Jeff Conine from those ambassador roles.
He doesn’t watch Marlins games. He makes appearances for the Chicago Cubs now. But he keeps up with Marlins players, current and former. He still texts Giancarlo Stanton on occasion, as he did a few weeks ago with Stanton in a slump.
He still keeps a picture of late pitcher Jose Fernandez on his phone as, “my keepsake. I loved Jose. Loved his vigor, his energy, his competitiveness.” And he thought the Marlins should have been, “a little more hands-on with him. I’m talking on the field. Between his games.
“I’m not the one to make that call. But it starts early, if you don’t want it to get out of hand. Have him tone down things — even things like chasing fly balls. Let him know, ‘We want you to take care of yourself.’ Reel him in. ‘We want you for 162 games, not 16 starts.’ It was sensitive.
“No one wanted to do it because who he was.”
‘I’m both feet in’
He stood up after an interview in the viewing room of his funeral home and flexed his bad left knee, the one replaced with complications 12 years ago. He’s had seven surgeries on both knees. But there’s a funeral to plan, and business to be done.
His wife, two uncles and son are part of his hand-picked, church-based team. “I always thought this was an extension of the church” he said.
“God placed me here for a reason,” Dawson said. “If you had told me a while back I’d be doing this, I’d say, ‘Not gonna happen.” I’m both feet in now. It’s been a learning experience for me.
“One thing about people dying, people getting married — it divides families. I try not to be a psychologist. I try to just help them through the process. I see people come back weeks after (the service) and I tell them, that’s one wound that doesn’t completely heal. You can put a Band-Aid over it, but you’re always going to have your moments.”
His moment typically comes when he’s at a baseball function, or just signing a fan’s autograph request and the question comes: “What are you doing now?”
“I take a deep breath, pause and say, ‘I own a funeral home. No, I don’t do any embalming, I own the funeral home.’ And then I know what’s coming.”
He hands them his new life’s business card from six feet under.