Dave Winfield, 65, is one of sports’ true gentlemen, as fans of the Padres, Yankees, Angels, Blue Jays, Twins and Indians can attest. The 6’6”, 220-pound outfielder brought a sweet swing, great glove and positive attitude to every team he played for over 22 MLB seasons. We caught up with Winfield, and he was a class act, as always.
You went straight from the University of Minnesota to the major leagues, without playing minor league baseball. Do you think more guys could do that or are you an outlier?
I was an outlier, quite honestly. But it’s not just that simple for those who don’t understand. I came along at a time that if I’m drafted in three sports; this is why everybody I tell explore your options in life, be versatile. I was a pitcher and I was a hitter, but also when I was drafted in three sports, you know the NFL by the (Minnesota) Vikings, NBA by the Atlanta Hawks and (ABA’s) Utah Stars and then (MLB’s San Diego) Padres. I said, “Well, if I choose baseball, I have to go directly to the major leagues.” So they didn’t really stutter, they just said, “We want this guy, let’s give him a chance and if he doesn’t cut the mustard, let’s send him to Triple-A down in Hawaii.” Once they gave me a chance, threw me in the water, it’s sink or swim — and I’m going to swim.
Was it your call to be an everyday player, rather than a pitcher?
I asked the Padres, “What would you like me to do?” They said, “We want you to play every day.” And it’s interesting, my first three years at the University of Minnesota, the coach didn’t let me play every day, only the last year. So, coaches don’t always know best. It worked out, I was 50/50 as a pitcher and a hitter, so who knows if I would’ve been a predecessor of like a guy like a J.R. Richard or Randy Johnson. I was throwing hard, but I couldn’t have pitched for 22 years.
Speaking of managers, you played for Yogi Berra. Any Yogi-isms you remember?
First of all, I loved that guy. How can you not? This is the all-time. Bill Russell was like a Yogi Berra in terms of winning it all, winning all the time. Yogi won, he was a New York icon and for him to be a manager, I’m not going to say he was the greatest strategist or analyst of baseball, but to be able to play for a guy like that, and to have his sense of humor. You know, all those things are true about him. Just a quick joke about him; he came out of a spring training, he’s got us lined up on the base line and he wants us to run sprints, as we had practiced. He said, “Okay, everybody on the base line. I want you to pair off in threes.” He was a great golfer and people saw he was a left-handed batter when he played, but when he golfed they saw him hit the ball right-handed and so after the competition they say, “Yogi, what is this? You hit left-handed and you golf right-handed, what is it?” He said, “It’s easy, I’m amphibious.”
Looking back, what are your thoughts on your public feuds with George Steinbrenner?
You know what? I’m going to write my second autobiography within a couple of years and you’ll be able to read it then. But seriously, he’s no longer with us and he made it very difficult, especially for a guy who was doing the right thing. I wasn’t a knucklehead doing something wrong. The things he would throw at me, I would come back, I just wasn’t going to stand for it. I was going to stand up for the right thing. Just because he was the owner and had 100 times more money or whatever, I stood up for what was right, so he had a battle on his hands, but the people of New York, I’ll just say they really, really liked me. I got my uniform dirty, played hard, had fun, gave back in the community, was a leader, didn’t do drugs and on and on. If it wasn’t enough for that one guy, I still stood up for what was right.
Why did you go into the Hall of Fame as a Padre, rather than a Yankee?
I played 22 years. I played maybe 60-plus games more as a Yankee than as a Padre. But as I look back… Who drafted me? Who took a shot with me? Who gave me the chance to play and go directly into the major leagues, never go to the minor leagues? It was San Diego. I went to the dance with those who brought me up, who gave me the chance. That’s the way it worked, and it took six teams to really make me, or become a Hall of Famer. There was seven-plus years with the Padres, almost nine with the Yankees. There was one year I missed with injury. But then it took going to the Angels, Blue Jays, Twins and Cleveland Indians. So all those teams I have some affiliation with. I made that choice and all is good. I don’t regret it.
Talk about your 1992 World Series championship season in Toronto…
The most fun I had during any one year in baseball. I always came prepared, always came ready. But very rarely are you teamed up with guys who can go all the way and I was with a team, the Toronto Blue Jays — you know, Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar, I could go on and on. We had a team, we had fun, we traveled, we dressed and we spanked the opposition. To be a part of a team that when we won, it wasn’t about winning for a city, or a state, but an entire country. And I kiddingly say, when it comes to Canada, I don’t need a passport, they just say, “Come on over!”
Did you ever pull any clubhouse pranks?
Yeah, but I can’t tell you! We used to have a lot of fun, whether it’s in the locker room, on the field. Now in this age of social media, where they capture it, then it becomes viral, and there’s no escaping it throughout the rest of your life. Then you can never run for president! People ask me what do I miss most, I think it’s probably the camaraderie of my friends and all of that. And, of course, the paycheck.
What advice would you give young athletes?
The evolution of sports and the culture of America now, everybody — from the kids, the families, the schools, all these coaches and trainers — everybody wants to funnel a kid into one sport. I can say that it is a recipe for burning a kid out and maybe not exposing a kid to what they’re going to be best at or good at, because they’ve never tried it. And then if you play one sport, you sometimes overwork the muscles just for that one sport. I just see too many people, not only they’ve never played a sport for fun, they never played in the backyard, they never played it where everything wasn’t on the line and people are pushing them and it’s trained, practiced. And then the kid never had fun and they always come back, “Dad, I don’t want to do this anymore, I’m burned out.” They say, “Man, why didn’t they tell me that three years ago, I could have saved my $20,000 of travel.” So, multiple sports are the best way. Grooming them and funneling them into one sport is not good.
What is an average day in the life of Dave Winfield?
I travel the country. I’m teamed up with the Capital One Cup (honoring excellence in college athletics), and so to be able to talk about what’s going on and help continue to support young, upcoming athletes, institutions of higher learning, that’s a great thing. But I also have twins who are in college, as well. They’re finishing their junior year at the University of Pennsylvania and just to see them continue to grow as young people, thinking about their contributions to the world; I’m a blessed individual. I work for the Player’s Association and I work with all the young athletes in baseball and giving them guidance on their life and their career. I still take vacations. You might see me on a ski slope in the offseason. I’m doing good. I feel great. And it’s a good time in life.