"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Card Corner: Dave Winfield

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.

Categories:  Bronx Banter  Bruce Markusen  Card Corner

Share: Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email %PRINT_TEXT


1 Just Fair   ~  Feb 2, 2011 12:56 pm

I liked Winfield. Can anyone think of someone today who has a similar look? He was so Modamn tall and thin. Man. And even though I did not pay a lick of attention to the 92 Serious, I was happy he played a role in helping the Jays win. Even though his numbers left a lot to be desired. And in my mind's eye he threw a bat into the stands at least every game throughout the mid-80's. : )

2 rbj   ~  Feb 2, 2011 1:11 pm

I liked Winfield too. Never thought he was the problem with the 1980s Yankees. It was all the crappy players on the roster.

I liked Lupica in the 70s & 80s when he was writing for the Daily News. Then I saw him, years later, on the ESPN show The Sports Reporter. What an over-weening self important prick. I can't remember anything he wrote back in the day, was he really bad then, too and I simply didn't notice?

3 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 2, 2011 1:40 pm

I loved Reggie and also Mattingly. At first, I didn't warm up to Winfield because he was the new stud and so NOT Reggie. But eventually, I grew to really love him. That windmill swing, the vicious line drives, watching him run the bases, and mostly, mostly, playing the outfield, especially when he climbed the walls and robbed guys of homers.

4 Jon DeRosa   ~  Feb 2, 2011 2:03 pm

Winfield had some boring Topps cards. But 1983, 1986, and 1987 were also winners. The 87 one captures his height well. The 86 one has a nice shot if his swing finish.

Winfield's Yankeedom coincided with my self-imposed ban on the Yankees, so I never warmed up to him either. Not his fault, just bad timing.

5 Chyll Will   ~  Feb 2, 2011 2:11 pm

I agree with all of you; Winfield was not only my favorite Yankee, but my favorite player in the eighties, and I copied his style when I played ball (even throwing the bat!)

Perhaps the media gave him a hard time because he was, by Bruce's description of the writers, a little, umm, "uppity"?

6 knuckles   ~  Feb 2, 2011 2:28 pm

Winfield, Donnie, and Rickey are still my 3 favorites ever. My neighbor was from Minnesota and his mom had gone to UM with Winfield. After hearing about him being drafted by 4 sports leagues, that was it. He was, to my eyes, the best athlete in the world, ever.
Plus, he killed a seagull in Toronto.

Heyward on the Braves reminds me a little of him, buildwise. Mayberry on the Phils, too, if he puts on a few pounds.

7 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Feb 2, 2011 3:29 pm

I loved Winfield. I even got a personalized recording from him once. My dad worked in the media and Winfield was in the office one day doing something about his foundation and my dad had him call me up to say hi. I wasn't home(!) but he recorded a message for me: "This is Dave Winfield, why don't you come on out and sit in left field and cheer us on, take care."

I was probably 8 or 9 at the time so you can imagine my delight.

Also, what I still love about him to this day is that he hit .340 one year, hitting only 19 home runs, which to me indicates that changing one's approach is not really so hard as it looks to see players today who don't know how to cut down their swing with two strikes.

Winfield proved that talented athletes can, in fact, hit a baseball in more than one way.

8 The 13th   ~  Feb 2, 2011 4:25 pm

I always liked him. I didn't read the papers back then, so all I needed to know was that he was good and he was a Yankee.

The year that Jack Clark was a Yankee, I went to a baseball camp in NJ. Each week, they had someone from the Yankees or Mets come in to give pointers, etc, and the week I went we were supposed to get Al Leiter. On the first day of camp, the director told us that Al Leiter had just been sent back down to the minors so he wasn't going to be coming in. Sighs of disappointment went around the room. Then the director continued... he was able to get for us, as Al Leiter's replacement, Dave Winfield. You can only imagine the surprised jubilation which followed.

I now forget the details of what he talked to us about, but I did change the way I gripped the ball after he showed us how he did it. He also put on a hitting demonstration and almost took the head off of the counselor who was pitching to him. Then, at the end, we each got autographs and a picture in the dugout with him.

[6] He's also right up there with Donnie and Rickey as my favorites from that time.

9 joejoejoe   ~  Feb 2, 2011 5:31 pm

I think my first memory of Dave Winfield is from the 1979 All-Star game. I was ten years old. I was a Yankee fan and rarely saw NL games and didn't know NL players outside the boxscores. I knew Dave Parker of the Pirates was a beast and here was Dave Winfield of the Padres (a joke of a team to me at the time) who was even bigger. And Winfield was playing center field in that game. Seeing such a huge guy cover so much ground made me really happy when the Yankees got him a few years later. Maybe Lupica wasn't impressed by Winfield's stats but I'll always remember him scaling the wall in highlights and denting the blue cushions with line drives because he was hitting the ball so hard. In a lot of ways hitting the wall with a line drive that never goes higher than 30 feet is more impressive than a home run. Winfield was a great player and I was very happy to see him get a ring with Toronto.

10 vockins   ~  Feb 2, 2011 9:07 pm

Not clutch? I'm going to go out on a limb and guess you're not Canadian, Bruce.

11 The Mick536   ~  Feb 3, 2011 4:36 pm

[9] I loved him and still do. He always played hard. Me, too, for the ring with Toronto. Bird killing and all. One hit in the Series and one seagull. Hard to top that stat.

He hated Steiney. "There are only two kinds of moves on the Yankees. The ones made because George is displeased and the ones made because he soon will be." Steiney hated him, worse. As Dave said about the abuse he took from Steiney, "if you can't trade him, slime him."

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver