What can I say," Al Frohman is saying. "He's my son." Frohman is maybe 5'7" and Jewish, a New Yorker transplanted—nay converted—to Southern California. His alleged offspring stands a little way off on a rise overlooking rich brown valley land north of San Diego. He is 6'6", black and a native of St. Paul, who has embraced and been embraced by his adopted city, San Diego. "It looks good, Al," he calls over to Frohman. "Very good."
"The land runs from the road back there all the way to the water, Dave," says Frohman. "I think it'll work."
Dave Winfield, star outfielder of the San Diego Padres, nods in agreement and rejoins Frohman, who is his representative in numerous enterprises and a father in spirit, if not in fact.
"This idea is too good to let die," Winfield says, arranging his long frame inside his silver Mercedes 450 SEL. "I'm persistent. I'm going to do it, and if I can't do it all at once, I'll do it in portions. But I'll do it."
July 8, 1979
Frohman turns to a stranger. "Dave has a dream," he says confidentially.
Winfield's dream is Superstar Village, a sports and health resort for "all the family at affordable prices," where famous professional athletes from various sports will be experts-in-residence. Prominent physicians and nutritionists will also be on hand to lead the guests along the straight and narrow path to what the prospective founder defines as "optimal health." Winfield envisions a complex situated on some 200 acres of land very much like that which he scouted with Frohman this day. The cost has been estimated at $40 million, money Winfield, with help from Frohman and other associates, would personally raise. It is a dream that may sound like pie in the sky, but so have various other Winfield projects—virtually all of them of a charitable nature—and he has brought each to fruition. Winfield is just now emerging as the superstar on the diamond he has long considered himself to be, but he has been one off it for some time.
For the past three seasons he has provided free tickets for underprivileged childen to the Winfield Pavilion in the rightfield bleachers at San Diego Stadium. By the end of this season some 14,000 youngsters will have gone to ball games through his generosity. Last year Winfield, a bachelor, entertained 15,000 children at a gigantic party before the All-Star Game in San Diego. He will toss an even bigger one the day before this year's game in Seattle, busing his staff of volunteers up from San Diego to help serve the refreshments. Each year he provides $1,000 scholarships to a boy and a girl student-athlete in St. Paul. He is active in alumni affairs at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, and he helps promote projects of the Urban League and the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. And he is planning, under the auspices of the David M. Winfield Foundation for Underprivileged Children, to hold Winfield Pavilion Days for children in New York and Los Angeles. Any money he gets for endorsements or commercials is donated to the foundation to help finance other such philanthropic ventures.
"When I first signed to play major league baseball, I said I would allocate a certain number of dollars to community affairs," Winfield says. "Baseball has been good to me. I want to give something back to draw the various elements of the game—players, fans, owners—together. The image of the pro athlete—greedy, self-serving, interested only in himself—has gotten out of hand. A lot of us are working to dispel that image. We're not all like that."
Maybe not, but not many have gone as far as Winfield has in the bad-image-dispelling league. And lest he be dismissed as a simple do-gooder, a saintly soul with bowed head and lowered voice, it should be noted that there is another Winfield, a brash young man of 27 whose assessment of his own prowess on the ball field borders on braggadocio. "He's a junior Reggie Jackson," says teammate Jerry Turner. Except that he's having a better year than Jackson, or almost anyone else around. Winfield ranks among the National League's top 10 in every important offensive category. His batting average of .330 is fifth in the league. He is sixth in hits with 95, second in runs with 43, seventh in homers with 15 and third in runs batted in with 55. These statistics are even more remarkable when it is considered that Winfield, who now bats third in the Padre order, is normally preceded at the plate by Ozzie Smith, a .181 hitter, and followed by Turner, whose .273 average is the next highest on the team. As a result, Winfield seldom sees a good pitch.
That he should have so many RBIs for a team that rarely has runners in scoring position is a measure of his capacity for making the most of his meager opportunities. Manager Roger Craig moved Winfield from cleanup to third in the order late in May when it was discovered he was leading off innings about 35% of the time. He instantly responded with 26 RBIs in 33 games from the time of the switch through last week. Winfield batted in 97 runs last year and 92 the year before and has his best chance yet of reaching 100 this year. But he rails at the injustice of lesser batsmen benefiting from more productive batting orders. "Butch Hobson can drive in 100 runs batting ninth," he laments. "I can't do it hitting fourth."
That isn't all a player as ambitious as Winfield must endure on a team as perennially unsuccessful as the Padres. He is seldom seen on national television because the Padres rarely appear on The Game of the Week or Monday Night Baseball, so Winfield may be forgiven for blowing his own horn when scarcely anyone else is playing his tune. But even in the days when he was a player of mostly unrealized potential, he felt called upon to caution skeptics that superstardom was just around the corner for him. "I kept telling these guys [his teammates] how good I was," he said in the Padre clubhouse not long ago. "Now they have to read it in the papers to believe me." But even his most outrageous boasts—and they do not seem so outrageous now—have been leavened with humor. Winfield is such a disarmingly handsome, affable, well-intentioned, basically ingenuous man that only a confirmed misanthrope could deny him an occasional sally into self-advertisement.
Winfield is also capable of honest self-appraisal. "I'm famous for my half-seasons," he has said. Indeed, until last year, his seasons had taken on a certain disappointing predictability: he would start like a house afire and burn out well before the end. In 1975 he hit .280, with nine homers and 43 RBIs in the first half of the season and .255 with six homers and 33 RBIs in the second. In '76 it was .292, 12 and 50 for openers, and .270, 1 and 19 for closers (partially forgivable because he missed much of the last month with a leg injury), and in '77 he was .296, 21 and 70 and then .239, 4 and 22. Only last year did he show any staying power, hitting .302 with 15 homers and 59 RBIs in the first half and .315 with nine and 38 the second. The late-season slumps, Winfield realizes now, were the result of a failure to concentrate and to motivate himself. By July of most seasons, the Padres were well out of contention, so Winfield had little but personal pride to spur him on. Last year the team finished strong, but Winfield insists that his self-motivation was such that even if the Padres had gone into their customary swoon, he would have maintained his pace.
"Two years ago I resolved the technical part of hitting," Winfield says. "Last year I resolved the mental part. You watch a guy like Pete Rose—his concentration lasts from April 1 to Oct. 1 and beyond. He's good all the time. So are Steve Garvey and Dave Parker. They are there constantly. It's a matter of telling yourself that you, too, are there, that you are one of the best. The total concentration is with me now. It's a matter of how bad you want it. I want it. I'd look back on those other years and say I could've done better. Now I know how to hit .300. I've done it. I've become pretty much of a student of the game. I know now it is within me to be one of the best in baseball. People may think this is just another streak, but just wait until the end of the year. I'll never even tail off to .308 [his average last season]."
Winfield has become such a prodigious hitter—even his longest homers seem to be line drives—that his considerable defensive ability is frequently overlooked. But he has excellent range, and his throwing arm, once merely strong, is now one of the most feared. Twice in one game with Pittsburgh in June, his powerful throws from rightfield held Willie Stargell to singles on balls hit down the line and against the fence. After the first, Stargell shook his fist in mock fury at Winfield; after the second, he called time and walked partway into the outfield to complain. Two days later Stargell approached Winfield during batting practice. "Here I am trying to make a living, an oldtimer like me," he told a giggling Winfield, "and you are out there whirling around. I think you should be sent down to the minors to learn a few things."
It's a familiar joke, because Winfield has never played an inning of minor league ball. He was signed by the Padres immediately after the 1973 College World Series in which, pitching and playing the outfield, he was named the Most Valuable Player, though Minnesota was beaten by USC in the final game. "He was the best athlete I'd seen in all my life," says Don Williams, a Padre coach now, but then a scout. "A lot of teams liked him as a pitcher, and I think Dave could have made it either way, but we saw him as an every-day player. He had such raw ability, he could've made it in any professional sport."
In fact, Winfield was drafted by four pro teams in three sports—the Padres, the NFL Minnesota Vikings, the NBA Atlanta Hawks and the ABA Utah Stars. He played neither high school nor college football, but the Vikings, impressed by his speed, size and agility, saw him as a potential receiver. Winfield was a brilliant rebounder and defensive forward on the Golden Gophers' basketball teams that won the Big Ten Championship in his junior year and barely missed the title the next season. But from the time he was in kindergarten in St. Paul, he says, he wanted to become a major league baseball player, an ambition vigorously supported by his mother, Arline, who raised Dave and his older brother, Stephen, pretty much alone after being divorced from their father. "He's got one of the best mothers in the world," says Williams, who is eternally grateful for her advocacy of baseball over the other pro sports Winfield might have elected to play.
It's possible that Winfield became a big-leaguer before his time. Within a week of the College World Series, he was in the outfield for the Padres. He hit safely in his first six games and fooled himself into thinking, "This isn't so bad." But deep down he knew he wasn't ready. "I didn't know anything about the National League," he recalls. "I was seeing pitches I'd never seen before. I was playing in a ball park the size of an airport. I'd get my legs all tangled up in the outfield. I was holding my hands too low on the bat. I was hitching my swing, over-striding, overswinging. I'd been a pitcher. Now I was an outfielder. I was thrown into a sink-or-swim situation. I learned to swim the hard way."
His great size proved to be something of a disadvantage, too, because there were those in the Padre organization who thought of him exclusively as a power hitter. Winfield disagreed. "I decided I was going to be a line-drive hitter, and I consider myself one of the best at it now," he says. "I've learned to hit to all fields."
Much to his annoyance, Winfield was recently thrust into a long-ball-hitting contest with Chicago's mighty Dave Kingman, the league's home run leader, and Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Eddie Mathews. "Some people dropped out so the club asked me to fill in," Winfield said. "What could I do? The trouble is, in this kind of thing, you have to pull the ball, and I want to work on going the other way."
Winfield did just that, hitting balls into the right and centerfield bleachers. He and Kingman each finished the competition with five homers, but Winfield was declared the winner because he had hit one near-miss high off the wall in left-field. The contest may not have been his style, but he established that he could swing for distance with the best. Unfortunately, in that night's loss to the Cubs, he scratched out only one infield single in four at bats. He seemed displeased afterward, shaking his head in a "what-did-I-tell-you" manner. The long-ball contest had not been good for him. "I just want to say that it will be continued—everything, my hitting, my life, my progress, my involvement. It will be continued."
Frohman was waiting outside the clubhouse. He had that conspiratorial look on his sorrowful face. "I'll tell you something," he said in a whisper, while his eyes sought out eavesdroppers. "He's a little down now, but you can count on this: he'll win the batting title." And Frohman smiled the smile of an insider, a proud papa manquè.