CHICAGO -- The icy wind blows across Waveland Avenue and over the left field ivy, wailing toward Andre Dawson as he stands at the plate. He is 35 years old. The lines on his face cut deep. There is one scar over his right cheekbone and another healed gash in the middle of his forehead. He is swinging at pitch after pitch, smoothly, but the wind is not letting the ball go.

Four members of the Cincinnati Reds are standing around the batting cage, watching Dawson work. They are Eric Davis, 27; Billy Hatcher, 29; Herm Winningham, 28; and coach Tony Perez, 48. They all are needling Dawson, but Perez is saying the least. Winningham is hopping from one foot to the other, giggling as one after another of Dawson's shots land short of the wall.

"Old man, you can't leave!" Winningham says. "You can't turn on it!"

The Chicago Cub outfielder's face is a blank. He acts as if he is all alone, swinging in his garage, instead of taking cuts hours before game time at Wrigley Field. But just as Winningham's words leave his mouth, Dawson lashes a line single into left. The next pitch he crushes, lifting it high and long into the left field bleachers, beating the wind, Winningham and Father Time with one swing. He steps out of the cage.

The four Reds stop talking. Then Davis says, softly, "What's up, idol? That's my idol there."

Dawson's expression doesn't change. But when asked about the incident later, he grins. His eyes shine. "They were ribbing me about that because balls were hitting the wall," he says. "So then you have to crank one, and that sort of subsides."

Just one more golden moment in Dawson's sweet, sweet spring.

Only two months removed from a spring training in which critics were questioning whether he'd play again, Dawson's blistering start this season has made him an early favorite to win his second Most Valuable Player Award. He leads the National League with 13 homers, is third in hitting at .346, and his 43 RBI are the second best in baseball.

"I'm just trying to be consistent," Dawson says. "I don't feel like I've been hot; when you're hot you hit everything on the nose and the ball looks like a balloon coming up there. I've been fairly consistent and I don't go up there trying to hit home runs -- I think they come when you least expect them. I try to be ready for mistakes, hanging breaking balls, things like that."

Last October the idea of any pitcher avoiding Dawson would've been laughable. His knees aching and in need of repair, Dawson completed the worst postseason of his career by hitting just .105 with no homers and three RBI in five games against the San Francisco Giants in the NL championship series. The Cubs lost the series, 4-1.

Dawson says the cyst that was removed from his right knee in October hindered him for the final three months of the 1989 season -- he still finished with 21 homers and 77 RBI in 118 games -- and the fall's cool air then caused arthritis to flare up.

"But you can't sit down in those situations because you're in a pennant race," Dawson says. "Then you win your division and you're going to the playoffs. . . . If you can get up out of bed you can walk and you can run."

The considerable damage demands considerable care. Dawson underwent rehabilitation at Doctors' Hospital in Coral Gables, Fla., over the winter, but he still must go through an elaborate ritual to get ready to play every day. He comes to the ballpark 3 1/2 hours before game time to take a whirlpool bath, stretch and take electronic muscle stimulation. Then he tapes both knees.

Dawson's $2.1 million contract ends after this season, and he says he doesn't want to play more than two more years. The money doesn't matter, he says. How he plays doesn't matter. The decision, he says, will be made at the knees.

"It'll be hard to convince my family this is what I want to do, but I do," he says. "Family means a lot to me and I want to spend some time with them. And I don't want this game to wear me out physically. I want to do some things after the game, not let arthritic changes completely take me over."