Winfield is healthy role model for Davis, Ripken

Ken Rosenthal

July 25, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

Dave Winfield stole a base the other night. Hit for the cycle earlier this season. Went through a prolonged slump and still is on a 33-homer, 105-RBI pace.

You'd never know the California Angels rightfielder turns 40 in October, never know he missed the entire 1989 season following major back surgery.

Winfield, a likely Hall of Famer, is an example for every major-league player, and an inspiration even for Glenn Davis and Cal Ripken, the Orioles' two biggest stars.

For Davis, his stunning recovery is proof that a player can miss considerable time and still recapture his previous skills.

For Ripken, his sheer longevity is proof that hard work benefits a player not only in the present, but the future as well.

Ripken is only 30, but like Winfield he's a big man who keeps in excellent shape. In fact, Orioles hitting coach Tom McCraw already is drawing parallels between the two.

"He reminds me a little bit of Cal," McCraw said last night. "I saw him steal that base [Tuesday night] and I said, 'Look at this, the guy's stealing bases.'

"I see Junior running everywhere he goes, and I say, 'Man, are you ever going to slow down?' He embarrasses me. I hear him coming, and I start moving a little faster. He just has so much energy.

"It's one big playground for those guys. It's fun watching them."

Of course, it wasn't so much fun for Winfield two years ago, when he had surgery to remove fragments from a herniated disk. His injury bears no resemblance to Davis' rare neck condition, but he had the same doctor (Robert Watkins) and the same uncertainty.

George Steinbrenner, for one, thought Winfield was finished, so the New York Yankees traded him to California for pitcher Mike Witt last May. In a delicious piece of irony, Witt now must undergo season-ending elbow surgery only six months after signing a three-year, $8.5 million contract.

Winfield, meanwhile, is batting .267, and leads the Angels with 19 homers and 60 RBIs. He won the AL Comeback Player of the Year award last season, and now talks of playing five more years. His career average is .286, and he's first among active players with 397 homers and 1,576 RBIs.

Davis isn't nearly that accomplished, and his injury isn't at all similar. Still, he's regarded as one of the game's premier sluggers, and he has missed a total of 150 games the past two seasons, first with a ribcage problem in Houston, now with his neck injury in Baltimore.

Can he come back?

Winfield said yes.

"A lot of it's what's in here," Winfield said, pointing to his heart, "and what's in here," he added, pointing to his head. "I don't know if the guy can physically do it. But if he has no pain, it comes down to mental approach, how much you desire it.

"If you miss a year at any age, it throws your momentum off, your confidence off. It helped that I was an experienced player who had been around a long time. I knew what it took. Glenn has been around what, six years? I'm sure if he's healthy, he'll come back and do well."

Davis, who could return in two to four weeks, saw it the same way. "People can make comments, 'Well, he can come back,' or 'Well, he can't,' " he said. "But you can't judge what's inside a guy. That's where a lot of ballclubs have gone wrong in the past. Look at what this man's doing . . ."

Look carefully, and it's not much different from what he has done during the past 18 years. Ripken, the Orioles' shortstop, shows the same type of consistency. He has started 1,504 consecutive games, but he takes care of himself so well, many believe he will play into his 40s.

Can he do it?

Winfield said yes.

"He knows how to economize -- how to save energy, preserve himself," Winfield said. "He's big and strong. He's not going to play shortstop his whole career. You'll probably see him at third base or first base and as a DH. But a big old guy like that, he can play."

Winfield, like most players, is a huge Ripken fan, preferring him at shortstop even to Ozzie Smith, with whom he played in San Diego. Ripken, in turn, is a big Winfield admirer, citing his sustained excellence as the major reason.

"He's a good one to look at," Ripken said. "I try to learn from all the people who have been able to maintain it, do a terrific job over a long period of time. Carlton Fisk is one. Nolan Ryan also. Winfield, definitely. He's had a fabulous career. And he keeps on chugging."

Perhaps it was fitting that Ripken recorded a rare stolen base of his own in last night's 5-2 victory over California. All players should adhere to the philosophy, "If Winfield can do it, I can too." The injured ones like Glenn Davis, well, they can only hope it is true.

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