Unlike George Steinbrenner, Dylan Thomas would have appreciated Big Dave Winfield. The poet's most famous admonition was: "Do not go gentle into that good night...rage, rage against the dying of the light." In the first quarter of the 1988 season Winfield, the New York Yankees' towering 36-year-old outfielder, vetoed trades that would have sent him to Detroit, Baltimore, Houston or Toronto, while he hit better than .390.
Last Friday, in the home team's clubhouse under Yankee Stadium, Winfield calmly autographed five copies of the now-famous (or infamous, if viewed from Steinbrenner's perspective) Winfield: A Player's Life as New York braced for a weekend series against the Oakland Athletics, with large implications. The Athletics led the American League West by 7½ games. The Yankees were first in the East, thanks largely to Winfield. Teammates Don Mat-tingly and Jack Clark had been heard from on occasion, but neither had begun to hit with his usual gusto or regularity. Going into the series with Oakland, Winfield was batting .393 (first in the league) with 38 RBIs (first), 32 runs scored (fifth), nine homers (tied for fourth) and a .652 slugging percentage (second). Even while he amassed these luminous stats, Winfield knew the Boss wanted to trade him—for the likes of Houston Astros outfielder Kevin Bass.
By last week the trade talk had abated, but Winfield was still skeptical. "Just because George is quiet probably means he's working on something right now," he said. "He's looking for an option." Winfield and Steinbrenner hadn't even seen each other since the day before the season began. And on that occasion they had only exchanged looks. "But this team can be the best." said Winfield. "I'm part of the machinery. What do I want to go to one of those other teams for? We've got the team right here."
A Yankee employee came by to announce the arrival of Winfield's plaque for being named the American League Player of the Month for April. Winfield smiled and said it would be nice if he could receive the award before a game so the fans could be involved. The Yankee fans have been particularly appreciative of Winfield this season—and not only because he's hitting. The New York crowd gave him a standing O on the occasion of his first at bat, when, of course, he was hitting .000. That was because Steinbrenner had already indicated his intention of getting rid of Winfield, who in his book had quoted teammate Willie Randolph as saying that a black man could never be a "true" Yankee.
May 29, 1988
"Sometimes adversity is a catalyst." says Winfield's mother, Arline. "It can bring out the best in a person. I was there for that ovation. I can't tell you how much it meant."
Right from Opening Day, Winfield has hit, and the Yankees have won. People still keep asking Winfield how much of his ball-bashing is directed at Steinbrenner. "Why dwell on it?" he says. "I play like a true Yankee." At week's end he was 21 homers from No. 362, which would get him past one of the truest Yankees of them all, Joe DiMaggio, for 34th place on the alltime list. "I'm not trying to put myself in any category," says Winfield. "I wish nobody would." But he believes he must stay a Yankee, at least through this season. "We can win it," he says.
"Dave is on a mission," says teammate Claudell Washington.
"He's been phenomenal, but you can't hit .390 just to prove something," says Yankee radio broadcaster Hank Greenwald. "[The Steinbrenner rift] must be eating at him inside, but he lets the game and other things he has going consume him." The other things include an average of three motivational speeches a week to schoolchildren and businesspeople. Since April, Winfield has signed on as a spokesman for several companies. Still, there's no escaping Steinbrenner for long. The employee in charge of the April Player of the Month plaque knows his boss, and thus entertained Winfield's suggestion of an on-field ceremony only briefly. "Dave, we'll be fired," he said.
Winfield didn't flinch. "So what? We'll go get another job."
Winfield isn't playing as if he wants another job. It's difficult enough to hit major league pitching at any time, but how do you do it when the calendar says your skills should be eroding and the team owner says he has little or no use for you? "I came up playing against Mays, Aaron, Bench, McCovey and Billy Williams." says Winfield. "Guys like Garvey, Rose, Stargell, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez were in their prime. I learned everything I could. When I hit now, I use what they taught me. How would Billy have handled that pitch? How did Steve stay on balance? Not only fundamentals and techniques, but their professionalism and attitudes. They never let these kinds of things bother them. Neither will I."
On Friday night, Athletics righthander Bob Welch bothered the Yankees plenty. He had them down 7-1 in the seventh inning when Winfield hit a shot into left centerfield. Dave Parker fielded the ball cleanly on one hop. There was no hesitation in Winfield's gigantic stride as he rounded first. Parker made a superb throw, but Winfield made a perfect slide and was in with a double. Then he tagged up and went to third on a fly ball to Parker, who later said, "I would have taken off my cap to him, but we've got to play them again."
Winfield is 36 going on 21. He has never had so much as a broken bone. He has been on the disabled list just twice in his 2,160-game major league career. He has missed one game this year, after a van carrying eight of his in-laws crashed in Texas. The family of his new wife, Tonya, had been driving from Louisiana to see him play in Arlington, Texas. Tonya's niece, Kristin, died in the accident. She had been one of the flower girls in the Winfields' wedding in February. Winfield took one day off to be with the family, and then went back and resumed his hitting.
Oakland ended up beating New York 11-3 on Friday night. After the game the Yankee clubhouse was quiet as players sought the privacy of the shower or training room. Oakland's Carney Lansford had gone 4 for 4 to replace Winfield as the American League batting leader, .396 to .388. Winfield was the only Yankee star who came out and faced the press. "I can take the heat," he said. "I'm happy. The A's can hit, but let someone else be worried, nervous or awed. I'll be back tomorrow. And I promise this: I'm going to hit everything hard everywhere."
The next day Winfield kept his balance and his discipline when he took a bases-loaded walk to help the Yankees beat the Athletics 3-2. On Sunday, he went hitless for only the third time in 24 home games, but the Yankees won 2-0 on John Candelaria's two-hitter.
Steinbrenner did not convene a press conference to give Winfield a vote of confidence.