Winfield puts the Blue Jays back on course Toronto has a love affair with the leader of the flock

September 22, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

Toronto -- The love affair between Dave Winfield and this city's baseball fans didn't begin a few months ago. It didn't start with Winfield's first hit or his first home run as a Toronto Blue Jay.

It began nearly a decade ago, when Winfield played with the New York Yankees. And it all came to pass because of a dead bird.

"It's funny how everything worked out," Winfield recalled Sunday.

How else can you explain a relationship that began when Winfield's practice throw accidentally killed a sea gull before a Blue Jays-Yankees game in 1983?

How else do you explain his popularity growing in the ensuing years, when talk-show callers were demanding that the Blue Jays trade Jesse Barfield to the Yankees for Winfield, whose affection for the city grew shortly after his being charged with cruelty to an animal? (The charges subsequently were dropped.)

"There's some sort of chemistry between me, the club and the city," Winfield said, sitting in the Blue Jays' dugout at SkyDome. "After the 1983 season, I came up here and raised $70,000 for charity. I liked the city, the people. I always thought about playing here."

After spending eight mostly unhappy years and one unhealthy season with the Yankees -- he was on the disabled list all of 1989 after back surgery -- Winfield played the past two seasons with the California Angels. He was unbothered, but also unfulfilled.

A free agent, Winfield wanted to find a city where he could be comfortable and a team that could give him the opportunity to play in his second World Series. The Blue Jays, lacking a cleanup hitter to put behind Joe Carter and an everyday player with leadership qualities, signed Winfield to a one-year contract.

"Dave's always been a guy who looked at playing on a higher level than most," said Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, who has known Winfield since their playing days in San Diego during the early 1970s. "He's a Hall of Fame player. He's a guy who leads by example."

Carter might be a leading MVP hopeful, and veteran pitcher Jack Morris could win 20 games.

But the Blue Jays point to Winfield as the reason they are #F comfortably ahead in the American League East standings going into a three-game series beginning tonight at Camden Yards.

Winfield's numbers are only part of this equation. As important as his 25 home runs, 99 RBI and .294 batting average is the attitude he carries with him in the clubhouse. His confidence and candor have lightened a room once fraught with insecurity.

"There's something about Dave that makes other players want to follow him," said infielder Rance Mulliniks, who has been with the Blue Jays since 1982.

Said Carter: "He's so popular here that he could probably run for prime minister and get that job if he wanted it."

Said Pat Gillick, Blue Jays vice president for baseball operations: "Dave has given us more than we bargained for."

Winfield still would like to be playing in the outfield instead of being used mostly as a designated hitter.

But it seems to be his only concession to age. Winfield, who went straight from the University of Minnesota to the Padres in 1973, will turn 41 on Oct. 3.

"I want to challenge myself," said Winfield, who is having his most productive season since 1988 and is one RBI shy of becoming the first 40-year-old modern-day player to drive in 100 runs.

He also set a club record for RBI last month with 32.

"When I talked to Cito about coming here, he said, 'We have other guys to play the outfield.' That hurt me, but I'll do whatever is best for the team. Once I got over that part, I was fine."

When he was in New York, Winfield's motivation came from his deteriorating relationship with owner George Steinbrenner.

Upset with Winfield's performance in the 1981 World Series -- the owner dubbed him "Mr. May" after his high-priced star got one hit in 22 at-bats -- Steinbrenner spent the next eight years trying to discredit Winfield.

When he was in California, Winfield was energized by a fresh start, a warm friendship with Angels owner Gene Autry and his pursuit for the Hall of Fame.

By the time he left after last season, Winfield had put together Hall of Fame numbers. But he wanted another crack at getting his first World Series ring.

Asked how it played in his decision to sign with the Blue Jays, Winfield said: "That was foremost. When I was in New York, I had to battle for my integrity, my playing time. Once I got to California, all I had to worry about was playing ball. That's the way it is here. There is no hidden agenda."

There may be some irony that a team infamous for its late-season failures, a team that never has reached the World Series in its short but successful history, is looking to a guy who has played in only one postseason in 19 years to lead it to the Series this year.

"I can understand their frustration, and, hopefully, we can do this together," Winfield said.

When Winfield noticed a drop in intensity among his teammates during a stretch last month, he called a meeting. When he felt the typically quiet SkyDome fans weren't properly supporting the team, he challenged them to be noisier.

The results have been obvious. The Blue Jays have won 15 of their past 21 games to help pull away from the Orioles and Milwaukee Brewers. And the fans, who are remarkably similar in number and noise to those at Camden Yards, have tried to become more of a factor.

"You aren't going to get many opportunities to win, to play in a good city for a good organization," said Winfield, who has yet to talk to the Blue Jays' front office about the future. "I've had more fun this year than I've had in years."

And all because of a dead bird.

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