Standing amid a swarm of reporters last week, 6'6" Dave Winfield looked like Gulliver in Lilliput. He felt as burdened as Gulliver, too. "I could not sufficiently wonder at the intrepidity of these diminutive mortals who durst venture to mount and walk upon my body." That was Gulliver talking. "Sometimes I've got to cut you off. I've got to hit. I've got to field. I've got to throw. I've got to think." That was Winfield talking.
On Dec. 15, the former San Diego rightfielder became the Yankee leftfielder in a historic switch of leagues, positions and income brackets. With cost-of-living escalators, Winfield's 10-year contract could bring him $23 million. Even without them, he is assured of at least $15 million, making his deal the biggest in the history of sport and his performance the object of intense scrutiny. People are calling him the $20 Million Man and demanding that he earn every penny of that amount.
It didn't matter that over the last four years he averaged .292, 26 homers, 99 runs batted in and 159 games, had won two Gold Gloves and had batted .364 in his four All-Star appearances; coming into the season he hadn't been cutting it as a Yankee. In spring training, a pressing Winfield had batted .212, with 10 strikeouts, no homers and only nine RBIs in 85 at bats. So last Thursday 55,123 fans, the largest Opening Day crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium, and about 250 media people, the most at a Stadium lid-lifter since the place was reopened in 1976, studied his every move. It was as if the whole state of Missouri had descended on the Bronx with one idea in mind: Show me.
Winfield did. While the Yankees were beating Texas 10-3, he had two singles and two walks in five at bats and showed his moxie by dumping Shortstop Mario Mendoza with a nifty hook slide.
April 20, 1981
Although the public might not have forgiven a poor early performance, history would have. Virtually every heralded player who has joined the Yankees in recent years started off poorly. Pitcher Catfish Hunter, the first millionaire free agent, had an 0-3 record and a 7.27 earned-run average after his first four starts in 1975. Two years later Right-fielder Reggie Jackson, the prize pick of the first re-entry draft, hit .194 in his first eight games. In 1978 Reliever Goose Gossage, another free agent brought in to outrank the popular bullpen ace. Sparky Lyle, allowed three homers in his first four outings, three of them losses, and didn't pick up a save during April. And in 1980 Catcher Rick Cerone, obtained in a trade with Toronto to replace the late Thurman Munson, batted .150 in his first five games.
"There was a lot of pressure I wasn't used to," recalls Cerone. "The media coverage was one source of it, and my coming from nearby, in New Jersey, was another. I was expected to answer questions, make appearances and run around doing things for friends. And I made things worse by pressing too much."
"That was it, pressing, trying to do things you aren't capable of," says Gossage. "Everybody loved Sparky, and I was taking work away from him. When I lost a bunch of games right off, people were mad as hell. I finally hit rock bottom the day I threw away two batted balls in Toronto. I didn't want anything hit to me by then. I felt like I was in a straitjacket. The mechanical man. Afterward, I sat staring at my locker with a beer in my hand. Reggie and Catfish came over and told me not to worry, that they'd been through it, too."
But the pressure on Winfield is even heavier because of the size of his contract. "People didn't expect of me what they expect of Dave," says Cerone. "I was supposed to catch and throw, and if I hit, fine. The pressure on Dave is unreal. I read in the papers that he's being paid $8,500 a game, and that he'd better hit homers for that. Someone else said that because Dave's being paid three times as much as Reggie he'd better hit three times as well. That's impossible. How's he supposed to hit 120 homers?"
In Florida. Winfield seemed to be trying to live up to such unreasonable expectations. Swinging at bad pitches, he left 26 men in scoring position, the most for any Yankee. "I told him to relax and play his own game," says First Baseman Bob Watson, Winfield's best friend on the team, "but your mental side is one thing and your human another." Opening Day was a chance to start anew. "He just has to experience it and get through it," said New York's rookie manager. Gene Michael. Gossage was more explicit. "I just hope." he said, "that Dave gets off to a good start."
And he did. When Winfield walked on five pitches in the first inning, he made a believer out of Texas Catcher Jim Sundberg, "Today we had to throw him strikes," said Sundberg, whose team faced the Yankees five times in spring training. "He was much more selective than in Florida."
Winfield flied out to center in the third, but in the fifth he passed another significant test. Most pitchers try to jam him with inside fastballs because, like many big men, he has trouble getting around on them. But when Jon Matlack got one in on Winfield's fists, Winfield inside-outed the pitch to rightfield for a single. On the advice of New York's esteemed batting coach, Charley Lau, Winfield has moved back from the plate, the better to extend his arms on inside pitches.
Soon after the hit, Winfield drew applause again. Advancing to second on a Watson grounder, he took his customarily gargantuan "nine strides and a slide," and plowed into Mendoza, breaking up the double play.
Winfield got his second hit in the seventh when he anticipated a changeup from former University of Minnesota teammate Steve Comer and slapped the ball into center. But, once again, it was what Winfield did after the hit that illustrated what a fine all-round player he can be.
When Watson singled up the middle. Winfield moved effortlessly—automatically, really—to third. Tony Kubek, the old Yankee shortstop, said, "You get to the Hall of Fame on hitting and pitching statistics, which are variables, but it's the constants that win games. Running without using a coach, fielding, throwing. Winfield's great at constants. Sometimes he'll take an extra out away from the other team with his fielding, by holding a man to a single and setting up a double play, and sometimes he'll give the Yankees an extra out by taking second with that quick start he gets out of the batter's box. Remember, this guy was drafted by four pro leagues in three sports. He's worth every penny."
Winfield's seventh-inning single initiated a five-run outburst that put the game out of Texas' reach. In the eighth. Winfield worked Reliever Charlie Hough for a walk on a 3-2 pitch.
Having broken with the recent Yankee past with his Opening Day performance, Winfield can now look forward to conforming to history as the season unfolds. His predecessors recovered quickly from their poor starts. Hunter was 23-14 at the end of his first year in New York. Jackson hit .286, with 32 homers and 110 RBIs, and was the Most Valuable Player in the 1977 World Series. Gossage had a 2.01 ERA and a league-leading 27 saves. And Cerone had by far his best offensive stats—.277, 14 homers, 85 RBIs.
Since purchasing the Yankees in 1973, George Steinbrenner had signed eight million-dollar free agents before Winfield. Of that group—Hunter, Jackson, Gossage, Watson and pitchers Don Gullett, Rawly Eastwick, Tommy John and Rudy May—only Eastwick did poorly. The others didn't just have good first years, they had excellent ones. That's a record that deviates wildly from the experience most teams have had with free agents: 19 of the 43 players who have gotten contracts worth $1 million or more had off years in their first seasons with their new clubs.
Could it be that New York is an easy place to break in? "There's a lot of pressure here, but it's the kind of pressure that good athletes respond well to," says Cerone. "We have good years because the Yankees get quality players, and they get quality players because they have so many full-time scouts [about 25] and spend about $4 million a year on player development," adds Gossage. May has another explanation. "The reason we do well," he says, "is that we've got a good team. I'm a mediocre player on a mediocre team, a good player on a good team."
Winfield will undoubtedly benefit from playing on a good team. After his auspicious debut, he was surrounded by numerous reporters, but so were the winning pitcher, John, Shortstop Bucky Dent, who had a three-run homer, and Pinch Hitter Bobby Murcer, who belted a grand slam.
The Opening Day fans greeted Winfield with few boos and generally mild applause. Those closest to him in the left-field stands had mixed feelings. Four teen-age Harlemites presented what seemed to be representative opinions. "I heard he doesn't hit that good," said Robert Green. "They could've got two players for the price of one—Sutton for $3.5 million and Lynn for $3 million." Chimed in John Espinosa, "He's a Yankee, so I'll cheer for him, but I want him to prove he's worth the money." Manny Velez didn't think Winfield would be worth it. And Noel Rodriguez couldn't wait to move back to a seat in the rightfield bleachers when Jackson recovers from an injury that has him on the disabled list until this weekend. Other fans were more optimistic. Charlie Stetz, a Long Islander, thought Winfield would give the Yankees some needed righthanded hitting. But no matter how they felt about Winfield, they weren't ignoring him. "He's George Steinbrenner's pocketbook in action," said George Meredith, a Connecticut advertising copywriter.
"The fans here are terrific," said Winfield. "They live and breathe baseball, and they came out today despite the fact the weather was lousy. I'm willing to work hard and pay my dues. Hey, what I'm going through here is nothing compared to what I went through last year in San Diego. The first day I went out on the field, I got booed. As far as they were concerned, I was going to fail seven out of 10 times, not succeed three out of 10.
"But that's all behind me. So is spring training. That's only important if you're trying to make the team or get a contract. Everything's ahead. There'll be good days and bad days, but mostly good."
True to his word, Winfield had a good day Saturday as the Yankees won again, 5-1. He had one single, was robbed of another and made more points with the fans by easily stealing second on a head-first slide. (He lost a point or two with Michael, though, who chastised him for running on his own with power-hitter Oscar Gamble up.)
Because Winfield's power is to right center and left center, he probably won't hit many homers in Yankee Stadium. The Yankees don't expect him to, nor by all appearances do they need him to. "This is the best New York team I've been on," said Gossage.
Winfield has another major media event ahead. That will come when Jackson, who has been out with a torn tendon in his right calf, returns. Winfield is too smart to have made any of Jackson's early mistakes. He hasn't proclaimed himself the straw that stirs the drink. But Jackson says the atmosphere Winfield has entered is also different. "The club is used to high-salaried free agents now," he said between treatments at the Yankees' Fort Lauderdale spring training base last week. "The guys are more willing to accept a new man."
Jackson and Winfield have little in common. Jackson lives in Manhattan, longs for the spotlight and issues headline-making quotes. Winfield lives in Fort Lee, N.J., gives compliant if somewhat nervous interviews and says little that will qualify for Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Asked why he is succeeding in April when he failed in March, he said, "I was ready when the bell rang."
What Jackson and Winfield do share is an interest in a favorable image. And like Jackson, Winfield defies easy labeling. On Opening Day he wore boots and a cowboy hat. The day before he had arrived for practice in a business suit, fresh from a meeting of his charitable organization, the David M. Winfield Foundation. Reporters caught him stashing dollar bills inside his socks. This is the 29-year-old millionaire breezing into Gotham? "I don't always stuff dollars into my socks," he said, a little testily.
Winfield was more comfortable discussing baseball. "Call it incentive," he said. "I've had success on the diamond and at the bargaining table. Now I want it as part of a team. You don't get respect until you play for a winner. If we get through the year all right and my play is acceptable, I'll let you call me a Yankee." If it's not, he'll be called plenty of other things.