Winfield Has the Numbers, but Can’t Shake Negative Image


The trial of Dave Winfield continues daily with evidence being presented in his behalf, but with little testimony from the defendant. “Some things are better left unsaid,” Winfield says. “Abstinence can be eloquence.”

He is a man who has so much to say--far more than he has said in his four seasons with the Yankees. And given his stature as a player and his worldwide experiences off the field, Winfield has more to share than most people. But he suspects that not everyone wants to hear him. He probably is right. He measures what he hears at Yankee Stadium and concludes he is not a popular figure, at least not so popular with the fans as a player of his caliber ought to be. “And if they don’t like ya,” Winfield says, “they don’t want to hear ya.”

That Winfield is not more popular with the Yankees is a somewhat puzzling development at first glance. He is such an extraordinary athlete whose baseball skills are above average in every phase of the game. Phil Niekro, who has played against and with Winfield in two leagues since 1973, says matter-of-factly, “Everyone knows he’s the most dominating player in baseball.”

And Winfield plays hard; he sweats. He is one of those ballplayers who considers a dirty uniform a badge of honor.

And yet his image as a player is soiled, perhaps permanently. “Labels. Everyone in this game gets labeled,” Don Baylor says. “If they thought you were a bad outfielder in high school, you can make a catch like Ron Swoboda did in the 1969 World Series, but you’re still a bad outfielder.


“I’m not sure what his label is. I know it’s not a good one. It’s not positive. But Winny has to live with it. He can’t change it.” So he doesn’t try.

“Once the perception is there,” Winfield says, “anything you say and do is affected by that perception. The perception doesn’t change. If I hit 80 home runs, that wouldn’t change how people think of me because they already had their ideas. They’d probably change their idea about someone hitting 80 home runs, because I did it. They’d probably think it was easy to do or that I cheated. You know, ‘Check the bat.’

“It’s that way when I talk. If I say something very intelligent or profound, they don’t think it is, because it’s me talking. If someone they liked said it--if they said the same words--then they’d be jumping up and down. ‘Yeah, yeah. You’re right. Good idea.’ With me, it’s ‘Consider the source.’ I can’t win, so I don’t even play.”

That sort of thinking was partially responsible for Winfield’s decision to flee the Yankees’ clubhuse on the final day of last season after Don Mattingly had prevailed in the season-long competition for the American League batting title. “I didn’t need to hear it,” he says. “How I lost it (the batting title). That’s what it was going be. How I lost it. I gave Donny my congratulations in the dugout. I wasn’t obliged to congratulate him in public.”

The public perception of David M. Winfield began to form well before Winfield came to the Yankees. As a member of the then-anonymous San Diego Padres, he was a star of great magnitude in an unrecognized galaxy. His skills were such that when the Yankees were courting him as a free agent, George Steinbrenner twice raised his offer to Winfield when no other club had made an offer in the interim. Steinbrenner had to have him for his charm bracelet.

The only disparaging remarks made about Winfield came after the 1980 season, his final season with the Padres, when players suggested he hadn’t played as recklessly as he had in previous seasons. They accused him of protecting himself because a fortune was at stake.

Despite signing a precedent-setting contract, Winfield, who will be 34 on Oct. 3, was well-received by the New York baseball community. He remains mostly well-received by his teammates. The eight-year contract he signed--with its cost-of-living increases and a first-year salary of $1.4 million--should earn Winfield at least $16 million before it expires after the 1988 season. The deal didn’t startle the public or promote jealousy. The Yankees had learned to live with luxury, and the fans had become accustomed to Steinbrenner’s willingess to pay.

Winfield knew enough not to encroach on Reggie Jackson’s territory, he had no trouble with Steinbrenner, and Billy Martin was in Oakland. “The first season was a snap,” Winfield said.

The post-season wasn’t. He batted .350 in the intradivision playoffs, .154 in the league playoffs and .045 in the World Series. The image began to tarnish. That winter, Steinbrenner chose to describe the best player on his team as “not a winner.” He said it more than once, and Winfield heard it and responded to it more than 500 times. The smear campaign, one of Steinbrenner’s favorite weapons, had been launched.

The owner might have started his attack to prod Winfield to playing at an even higher level. Steinbrenner still believes an agitated player is most productive. Some suggest Steinbrenner had noble motives at first but that his intentions changed for some reason, and then he tried to provoke Winfield, to force him to ask out of New York.

“All I know is that he’s asked me a few times if I would accept a trade,” Winfield says. “He says other clubs ask about me. But I know where it comes from.”

Over the next three seasons, Steinbrenner would withhold contributions he was legally obligated to make to the Winfield Foundation, forcing employee to sue employer. Steinbrenner offered criticism and implied the foundation was not so well-intentioned. He chided Winfield whenever possible.

“He poisoned the public against Winny,” says one Yankee familiar with Winfield’s thinking. “He said damaging things in the newspapers so many times that after a while it was like they were facts. ‘Dave Winfield is not a winner. Dave Winfield is not winner.’ He’s got so much power, and he used it all to discredit Dave as a player and a person. That’s why he’s not popular with he public. George created it.”

Last season, Steinbrenner supported Mattingly in the pennant race and wondered how Yogi Berra could identify Winfield as the team’s most valuable player. He was so quick to criticize Winfield that people around the Yankees and baseball began to see Winfield as an underdog. “Underdog? Me?” Winfield said. “No. Pedigree. He can mess with my papers, but he knows I’m real.”

“He beat on Winny on and off the field,” Baylor says.

But Winfield conceded nothing. “I’ve fought as hard as anyone here. Harder than even Reggie. I got it to the point where there’s no more back and forth between us. I don’t talk much about the man.”

A truce has been called this season. And it is part of the reason Winfield limits his public comment. There is an understanding now. “Neither one says anything about the other,” Winfield says. “It’s better this way. What’s his name again?”

Still, the damage has been done, and the public’s perception of Winfield remains negative--despite his ability, despite his production.

Despite all that, he still is perceived as “not a winner.” The failure in the World Series and subsequent failure to produce in the Yankees’ supposed showdown series with the Orioles in September 1983 have reinforced Steinbrenner’s original label.

Winfield has little to say about the two instances. “I didn’t lose the World Series for us,” he says. And he’s right. “And if we had won, nobody would say anything. That series in ’83? C’mon. They’re going to judge me by four or five games? We weren’t going to win the thing anyway. Besides, if I didn’t have a good year until that series, we would have been 15 games further back.”

Still, there is the thought in his mind that another World Series could be in the offing, not as a chance for redemption, “but I would like to make those numbers a little better,” he says.

“But if I don’t do it, I don’t do it. No matter what I do, after I get out (retire), no one will be able to say that I wasn’t a good player,” Winfield says. “And maybe in a couple of years, when I’m up to about 2,000 hits, they’ll start to notice the numbers and say, ‘He is a good player. He’s been good for a long time.’ That’d be enough. That’s all I’m going to get. I don’t think they’re going to say they like me.”