I must admit that I never warmed up to Dave Winfield as a Yankee. Initially, I was excited when the Yankees signed him as a free agent during the winter of 1980-81. With an aging core of position players, the Yankees desperately needed a relatively young and athletic outfielder like Winfield. They also lacked thump from the right side of the plate; with Winfield now available to complement Reggie Jackson in the middle of the batting order, the Yankees appeared to have a thunderous righty-lefty combination.
Almost immediately, the New York media tried to sour the fan base on Winfield. I remember Mike Lupica, a poison pen if there ever was one, lamenting that the Yankees had spent millions of dollars on a “singles hitter” like Winfield. Admittedly, Winfield hit only 13 home runs in his first summer as a Yankee, the strike-shortened campaign of 1981. At times, Winfield looked more like a line-driver hitter than a pure power hitter. I think Winfield would have hit more home runs if not for the fact that he hit the ball so hard, with such incredible overspin. When Winfield connected with a pitch firmly, he hit searing line drives that tended to reach the outfield and then dip. For some reason, his swing lacked the lift of a classic power hitter.
Still, Lupica’s assessment of “singles hitter” was borderline ludicrous. Winfield had just come off a 20-homer season in San Diego. In 1982, his second season in the Bronx, Winfield would hit 37 home runs. By the time his career ended in 1995, he would compile 465 home runs and a lifetime slugging percentage of .475. Singles hitter, my eye. Perhaps Mr. Lupica would like to revise that description.
I’m not sure why I paid so much attention to Lupica, and all the other naysayers in the New York media who tried to belittle Winfield’s ability. Of course, I was all of 16 years old at the time, an impressionable teenager who took the words of older baseball experts too closely to heart. Still, their words seemed to carry more resonance in the fall of 1981, after Winfield endured a brutal World Series, gathering one hit in a disappointing six-game loss to the Dodgers. George Steinbrenner certainly bought into the perception, dubbing Winfield “Mr. May.”
With the seeds of postseason futility sown, I began to view Winfield as something of a disappointment as a hitter, and a failure in the clutch. First off, I was frustrated by Winfield’s log-cutting approach to hitting. Starting with a discernible hitch, he took a ridiculously large swing, unfurling his long arms toward the ball in such an exaggerated way, almost like a cartoon character in an old Bugs Bunny clip. (One frame of that gargantuan swing can be seen on his 1985 Topps card, which is probably the best of all the Winfield cards.) Too many times, his bat ended up hurtling down the third base line, threatening the livelihood of the poor third base coach, or the fans watching from the box seats near the dugout. The bat-throwing underscored the criticism of his hitting in the clutch. Unlike Jackson, Winfield rarely seemed to deliver that late-inning, game-turning blow that could transform a Yankee loss into an unlikely win. To this day, I have trouble remembering any landmark home runs, or even extra-base hits, that Winfield delivered for the Yankees.
Just for fun, I decided to take a look at the “clutch” statistics for Winfield’s career. With two outs and runners in scoring position, he batted a mediocre .255 with a pedestrian .431 slugging percentage. In late and close situations, he hit a bit better, .266 with a slugging percentage of .444. In tie games, his numbers improved to .271 and .455. All in all, the numbers show Winfield to be a mediocre player in the clutch, not as good as his usual performance, a little better than what I might have thought, and hardly Herculean.
Beyond his playing ability, Winfield could raise eyebrows through his demeanor. Trying too hard to sound cool and hip, he came across as arrogant in interviews. Cocky and confident, he walked with an exaggerated strut that looked like a Hollywood caricature. When a Yankee beat writer asked him to attend a charity event, Winfield agreed, but only after coming up with enough demands to make a diva proud. If anything, Winfield was out of touch with the common man.
None of this means that Winfield damaged the Yankees. On balance, he helped the franchise, albeit during the frustrating decade of the 1980s. He was durable, almost always playing 140 or more games a season. He was consistent, four times slugging .500 or better in pinstripes, and six times reaching the 100-RBI mark. Clutch or not, the man always played hard, running out every ground ball with a World Series passion, taking out middle infielders on double play balls, and chasing full bore after every fly ball that he could reach in left and right field.
When Winfield came up for Hall of Fame election, I did not hesitate to offer my own imaginary vote. I would have immediately put a check next to his name on the ballot. The man put up Hall of Fame numbers, and did so for a long time, his big league career lasting 22 seasons. He was a gifted and hard-working five-tool athlete who hit with power, stole bases, and played a wonderful right field.
He might have been a little hard to root for on a personal level, but if Winfield were in his prime today, I’d gladly add him to the Yankees’ starting lineup. David Mark Winfield could play right field for a winning team any day of the week.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.