Ah, baseball in the Bronx. It's comforting to know that some things in this crazy world never change. As the New York Yankees wrapped up dress rehearsals and took their sideshow north for the opening of the 1988 campaign, all your favorite characters were already in midseason form. At center stage was the Boss. George Steinbrenner. and his $1.9 million nemesis, Dave Winfield. Willie Randolph was thrust reluctantly into the spotlight, too. Billy Martin chirped in with a brief lecture about ethics in literature, and Don Mattingly joined the chorus, crying foul. Howard Cosell gave an unforgettable performance, posing as a journalist. All this, plus a supporting cast of dozens, from Mr. October to Hitler and Mussolini to the late Roy Cohn.
Yes, sports fans, another season of mudslinging and enmity is here, with probable arbitration ahead. And you thought arbitration was a winter game. Not in the twin bigs—leagues and Apple—where the fun, fun, fun goes on all year.
It started with the publication of Winfield's autobiography, Winfield: A Player's Life, which in reality is the latest chapter in a continuing 7½-year feud between the owner and the outfielder. The hostilities date back to the day after Winfield signed with the Yankees on Dec. 15, 1980. That's when Steinbrenner reportedly realized he had miscalculated a cost-of-living clause in Winfield's 10-year, multimillion dollar contract. Other highlights of their acrimonious past:
October 1981—Steinbrenner gets upset when Winfield makes a joke out of his World Series slump by asking for the ball after a harmless single, his only hit in 22 at bats.
May 1982—The David M. Winfield Foundation files a lawsuit against Steinbrenner to collect back payments that the Boss must, by the terms of the player's contract with the team, contribute annually to the charitable organization. They settle for in excess of $100,000.
July 1982—Steinbrenner says Winfield "isn't a winner, the way Reggie Jackson was. Winfield can't carry a team."
October 1983—The Winfield Foundation files a second lawsuit against Steinbrenner to collect more back payments—this time settling for more than $300,000.
September 1985—During a critical loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, Steinbrenner asks reporters, "Does anyone know where I can find Reggie Jackson? I let Mr. October get away, and I got Mr. May, Dave Winfield. He gets his numbers when it doesn't count." Earlier that night Winfield had driven in his 100th run of the season to become the first Yankee to get at least 100 RBIs in four consecutive years since Yogi Berra did so from 1953 to '56. Winfield reached 100 again in '86 and settled for 97 in '87.
December 1987—Steinbrenner offers Winfield to the Detroit Tigers for Kirk Gibson. The Tigers decline.
On the whole, Winfield's book is mild enough. Oh, there are references to Steinbrenner's "chubby" face, to reporters following him around "like so many ducklings waddling behind the mother duck" and to Steinbrenner's lawyer, Roy Cohn, "Senator Joe McCarthy's man in the fifties," who, as Winfield also points out, was eventually disbarred in New York. There are also a few accounts of sexual escapades involving unnamed teammates that—coming 18 years after publication of Ball Four, former Yankee Jim Bouton's revelatory book on life in the big leagues—seem fairly tame.
"My book's not an attack on baseball," says Winfield. "It's about a young man growing up in baseball, someone who was MVP pitcher in the College World Series, who was drafted in three professional sports, who has been a player rep, who has taken a positive stand on drugs, who's respected, who's honest, who's done a lot for the community, and who would like, maybe someday, to stay in baseball. It's about me, not him."
On page 24 is a remark Randolph supposedly made when Winfield joined the Yankees. "You can be a 'good' Yankee, and a well-respected one," Winfield writes, paraphrasing Randolph. "...but as a black man, you're never going to be a 'true' Yankee."
These days anyone who wants to be a 'true' Yankee should have his head examined. But this was the passage Steinbrenner chose to assault. He questioned Randolph about the statement, and Randolph denied saying it. Steinbrenner urged him to tell that to the press. "He didn't put any pressure on me," says Randolph now. When approached by reporters on March 25. Randolph termed Winfield's passage "a lie."
Steinbrenner had his front man. It goes without saying that he needed a front man, for Steinbrenner is hardly one to be accusing others of dishonesty. On March 27, Steinbrenner held an impromptu press conference—his first of the spring—in which he said, in part, "Willie Randolph, as team captain, said Dave Winfield lied in the book. That really says it all as far as I'm concerned." But it didn't really say it all. Steinbrenner also said, "I think we're beginning to see the unraveling of what has been a very carefully plotted p.r. campaign concerning Dave Winfield over the years." Steinbrenner then referred to Sandra Renfro as Winfield's "common-law wife," and mentioned their "child out of wedlock."
In December it became public that Winfield had an illegitimate five-year-old daughter named Lauren Shanel. He wrote about her in his autobiography, and this year she is named in the Yankees media guide. Lauren's mother, Renfro, has filed a divorce suit against Winfield alleging that she was his common-law wife. Not exactly earth-shattering news in the entertainment world.
"I have a daughter out there and I support her," says Winfield, angered that Steinbrenner would make an issue of it. "It was an attempt to slam me, to be slanderous. You see the kind of tactics we're dealing with here."
Early last week Steinbrenner ordered Martin to make a statement criticizing Winfield. "I stand by George Steinbrenner 100 percent," said Martin. "I have no respect for a guy who writes a book and talks about his teammates and their parties...but the book won't affect how I play Winfield. As manager, I'll do what's best for the team. I'd play Hitler or Mussolini if they were good players."
Meanwhile, Steinbrenner had told general manager Lou Piniella to try to trade Winfield, and rumors began swirling—Winfield for George Bell, Winfield for Fred Lynn. According to the terms of his contract, each year Winfield must submit a list of seven teams to which he would allow himself to be traded. This season he listed the six other clubs in the American League East plus the Seattle Mariners. But Winfield and his lawyer, Jeffrey Klein, believe that his status as a "10-and-five player" (10 years in the majors and five with the same team) takes precedence over his contract. A 10-and-five player ordinarily may veto any trade, and Winfield says he has that right.
"Our lawyers disagree," says a Yankees spokesman. "It might even be considered fraudulent if Winfield submitted those seven teams to us knowing that the list was invalid." For his part, Winfield says, "I'm not going anywhere." Should the Yankees strike a deal for Winfield, an arbitrator will probably end up ruling on its legality.
Last Friday the New York Daily News ran a story by Cosell in which the TV-announcer-turned-columnist, citing unnamed sources and without any comment from Winfield or indication that he had tried to reach the ballplayer, claimed that the Yankees were preparing a suit against Winfield and the Winfield Foundation. The club would supposedly accuse the foundation of "misappropriation and misuse of funds." Cosell said the Yanks are seeking to "put into evidence" FBI affidavits from five people who stated that someone close to Winfield wrote "false death-threat letters on Winfield's life" after the 1981 World Series. According to Cosell's sources—the story is generally suspected to have been spoon-fed to him by Steinbrenner, with whom he socializes—possible misuse of funds is being investigated by the Manhattan district attorney. Cosell also wrote that Mattingly was the latest Yankee to complain to Steinbrenner about Winfield's book.
Whoa now! Let's examine some of this. A spokesman for the FBI told Newsday that it "knew nothing about this whole thing and that it would not be involved in something like this anyway." A spokeswoman in the Manhattan district attorney's office told the newspaper "there is no investigation at all."
Mattingly denied having spoken with Steinbrenner about Winfield's book. "I was talking to [Yankees vice-president] Bob Quinn about something else," said Mattingly, "and mentioned to him that I thought the timing of the book was bad. I also said I didn't think it would hurt the club." Asked if he resented the way he was being used in the controversy, Mattingly said, "Yes, I do. I think it's wrong."
As for how the barrage of accusations was affecting life at the Winfield Foundation, Eric Swenson, a paid consultant at the charity, said, "Those of us at this office are too inspired by the work that goes on here to lose any sleep over all this." The foundation, which funds educational and antidrug campaigns in a dozen states, is based in Fort Lee, N.J. "Steinbrenner's had auditors and lawyers combing our books for years." Swenson continued. "It's a case of blind hatred. He's trying to bring down David any way he can."
Winfield's response to Cosell's article and the possibility that Steinbrenner was behind it? "If you can't trade him, slime him," he said.
Why, one wonders, does he put up with it? Why not ask to be traded out of the Bronx Zoo so that he might enjoy his last few years in baseball? (Winfield is 36 and says he would like to play five more years.)
A few reasons. First, Winfield believes that is exactly what Steinbrenner is hoping to accomplish with his latest offensive. After this season the Yankees have an option to buy out the last two years of Winfield's contract at half price. If they exercise it, Winfield gets $1.9 million and becomes a free agent; the Yanks get nothing. If Winfield agrees to a trade, the Yanks get a player in return and Steinbrenner is spared from having to pay Winfield to go elsewhere.
Second, Winfield likes New York. He has a popular Tex-Mex restaurant in Manhattan called the Border Cafe, as well as assorted other business relationships. He also thinks the fans and media in New York have treated him fairly. For the most part they have sided with him during Steinbrenner's intermittent attacks. "Why run?" says Winfield, a proud man who will not be bullied. "Then you'd start seeing stories in the papers about how Winfield did this and Winfield did that without me here to defend myself."
Finally, there is this little business of a championship. "He's pumped up about this team," says Klein. "His unfulfilled mission is to win a World Series."
Indeed, the Yankees—and this has been overlooked amid all the lovely verbiage—went 22-10 this spring and are confident that this is their year. Heck, Mattingly has guaranteed a pennant. And no Yankee believes that the team is better without Winfield. "He's a great player, and we need him," says reliever Dave Righetti. "If they trade him to another team in the American League, I'll really be mad."
"What irks me is we've got really good chemistry on this team," says Winfield. "I still have ability. And, I think, respect. We can talk later about these other issues. The mission in my mind is to win."