Time will be kinder to Dave Winfield. One day when there is no shadow of Reggie Jackson, no shadow of George Steinbrenner, no shadow of the Manhattan skyline to dwarf his accomplishments, one day — that day — someone will sit down with Winfield’s career and say, “You know, this guy was a hell of a player.”

One day.

How long since Winfield was the biggest story in baseball — “The $24 Million Man,” the richest contract in the game? Wasn’t it yesterday? Or last week? Last year?

No. It was six years ago. And since then, Winfield has survived the bumpiest franchise in baseball, endured heated confrontations with Steinbrenner, and shouldered with the unfriendly legacy of being “Reggie Jackson’s replacement.” Names such as Gossage, Nettles, and Gamble are long gone. Today, Winfield is one of the Yankees’ elder statesmen. Only Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph have been there longer.

But time won’t buy you as much as glory in New York City, and the Yankees with Winfield are yet to win a World Series. They played in one. They lost it. Winfield was awful for those six games in 1981. And the more than 700 games that have passed since have not erased the smudge.

“In New York, if you’re not No. 1, they can be brutal,” Winfield said Monday as he dressed for a game at Tiger Stadium. “They boo before you even get up. I think people there like me now. But some still come out and yell
‘Reg-gie!’ when I don’t do well. I’m an outlet for their frustrations, I guess. Like kicking the dog.” Meet ‘Mr. Consistent’

Not many would kick him in person. But then, not many fill up 6-feet-6 inches like Winfield. His 34-year-old body is the deluxe model, all muscle; one look and you know why he was drafted by the Padres, the Minnesota Vikings and the Atlanta Hawks out of college.

But take away his imposing presence and his boss will grumble about him, his critics will wish he were someone else. People point to the right fielder’s huge salary and expect the baseball numbers to match the bank account. And that’s a shame, because they are overooking a rare talent, and Winfield’s most admirable trait: consistency.

What batter doesn’t look for it? What pitcher doesn’t dream of it? Consistency is the mortar of baseball, the kind of thing that holds brickhouse teams together. You want numbers? Here are numbers: .275, 26 home runs, 114 RBIs. That was Winfield’s worst full season with the Yankees.

“I’m just doing here what I always knew I could do,” he said, pulling on his pin-striped pants. “But remember, I was doing pretty good before I got here. It was just on a lousy team.”

True. In fact, some consider Winfield’s performance with the 1979 Padres
(.309, 34 HRs, 118 RBIs) one of the best ever, considering how terrible that team was. He has driven in more than 100 runs in each of the last four seasons. His batting average in 13 years has never dipped below .265. Last year — his “down” year — he was second in the league in game- winning RBIs.

Speed. Gold Glove fielding. Rarely injured. Can you deny, when you really examine it, that he’s one of the best in the last decade?

Yet when he stumbles — he is hitting a subpar .242 right now — the shadows gather. Most notably Steinbrenner’s, the man who once tagged him “Mr. May.” Winfield has crossed swords enough with his boss to now consciously avoid conversations (“You don’t see me looking for him,” he said) but that doesn’t make him George-proof. This season, Steinbrenner appointed Guidry and Randolph as Yankees captains. Winfield was left out, despite his consistently good years.

“Hey, it’s fine, it’s fine,” Winfield said, in a way that suggested it was not. “You can lead from the field. That’s what counts anyhow, right?” Wealth raises expectations

When Winfield became a Yankee, he didn’t know that the gold carrot Steinbrenner threw in front of him would forever keep skipping a few inches ahead. True, in many ways, life in pinstripes has been grand. Winfield is famous beyond his imagination (over the winter, a man recognized him on the streets of Katmandu). And he is wealthy beyond any single man’s desires.

But you take and you give back. He was made the richest, and therefore, people figured, he should be the best. Well. Whoever said that? If some fool decided to give Buddy Biancalana $10 million a year, would it make him a league leader?

But the shadows persist. Steinbrenner. That World Series. Even Reggie — who, for all his chest-beating, did help bring two World Championships to New York. The Yankee crowd wants success. Glory over consistency.

“What can I do?” he said. “They pay me well, but they don’t own me. I just make sure nobody takes away my enthusiasm. Then I’m all right.”

He walked through the tunnel, stepped onto the field, and began to loosen up. Time may be kinder to Dave Winfield. But time cannot be rushed.

aseball; column; Dave Winfield; statistic; profile

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