Winfield counting when it counts

MIKE LITTWIN

September 25, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

When 40-year-old Dave Winfield crushed a two-run homer to left in the first inning last night to become the oldest player to drive in as many as 100 runs, it was just the latest in a long series of magical moments in his remarkable career.

Other highlights:

* Winfield once knocked down a sea gull with a thrown ball at old Exhibition Stadium, turning tens of thousands of Torontonians into Greenpeace activists.

* After going 0-for-his-first-16 in his only World Series, he called for the ball -- stopping the game -- after his first hit. Later, Winfield, who finished the Series 1-for-22, said he was just kidding.

* George Steinbrenner called him Mr. May. He didn't even smile.

* Winfield once knew Howard Spira, who knew George Steinbrenner, and you know who had the last laugh.

Remarkably, that's about it. Not exactly a human highlight film.

Winfield is justly famous. He was famous right away, getting drafted by teams from three professional sports. He has gone on to have a wonderful, statistic-filled career, placing in the top 20 or 30 in most of the important categories. He's a good guy (Spira notwithstanding). He's going to the Hall of Fame.

And yet, before this season began, what they were saying about Winfield was that he was going to end his career with 3,000 hits -- none of which would matter.

You see, for all Winfield's accomplishments, he is in danger of being remembered only for moments that were peripheral to the game.

Maybe that's about to change.

Here's a statistic for you: When Toronto clinches the East Division title, it will mark the first time in Winfield's career, dating to 1973, that he is playing for a team that finishes the season in first place.

"I've never even been in a pennant race," Winfield said last night. "Maybe I'm due to have some fun."

Back in '81, when the Yankees got to the World Series, it was the strike year with the split season. The Yankees won the first half.

"It wasn't a legitimate win," Winfield said. "It wasn't the real thing."

This is real.

This is '90s reality.

At age 40, Winfield hit 28 homers and drove in 86 runs for the California Angels, who didn't want him anymore. He was too old and too costly for a team that wasn't going anywhere.

The Blue Jays wanted another bat in their lineup. Winfield wanted a ring.

Winfield wanted a season that would matter.

He wanted another shot at a postseason in which he might get more than one hit.

And $2.3 million later, a marriage was made.

"That's why I came to Toronto," he said. "I thought they had a chance to do some things, and we have."

He's having fun doing it, too. Winfield is the Blue Jays' designated hitter and he's the designated team cheerleader and he's having more fun than anyone deserves who didn't have to spend half his career around George Steinbrenner.

"I'm glad to do it that way," Winfield said of the 100th RBI. "I'm glad to do it with a home run. I'm glad to do it in a pennant chase when everybody's excited about it. I'm glad to pass people on the all-time list. I'm glad to be the oldest guy ever to drive in 100 runs. And let me just keep on going -- just like that Energizer battery, just keep going and going and going."

He keeps going. And yes, it mattered. The homer got the Blue Jays off to a 2- 0 lead that grew to 7-0 by the second inning, when Winfield crushed a two-run double. The Orioles, everyone must realize by now, are history. Winfield helped put them there.

And when they showed the home run on TV in the clubhouse last night, Winfield excused himself from the reporters crowding around him to watch. He wanted to see it again.

"I hit it good," he said.

"If it hadn't been for the wind [blowing in], it would have been mammoth."

Winfield crushed the ball against Ben McDonald, every home run hitter's best friend. He watched it the first time, too. He stood as it flew over the wall, for the 432nd homer of his career. He has 1,715 RBI, passing Reggie Jackson for 15th place on the all-time list.

It was quite a night.

"I'm kind of glad to get it over with," he said. "Last year, when I was going for 400 homers, I was stuck on 399 for a 1-for-27."

So, it's done. And, for once, it's done when it matters. You can't really have a great career without great moments. At age 40, and turning 41 next month, Winfield figures he has waited long enough.

"The timing," he said, "couldn't have been better."

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