TORONTO — “Touch me!” Dave Winfield was saying, his eyes bulging, his voice rising like a TV evangelist’s. “Touch me now! Feel my strength! Absorb it!”
OK. I admit. I was tempted. This was Tuesday night, Winfield had just helped win a World Series game with a beautiful bunt, and someone had asked whether he were dedicating this series to “the old guys.”
“Old guys?” Winfield said.
“Yeah. People over 40, like us.”
At first, Winfield laughed, maybe because he doesn’t think of himself as old, maybe because being in the same category as a sports writer, under any circumstance, was unnerving. But then he grabbed the guy’s hand and did his
“Touch me!” thing, passing on the vibes, and the other reporters eyed their colleague enviously, because, hey, what happens if he wakes up tomorrow and can hit .300?
Don’t hold your breath. The first thing to realize about Dave Winfield — who, at 41, is by far the oldest player in this World Series — is that he is a very rare model. A ’63 Corvette. A Steinway grand. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, “the very athletic are different from you and me.” And Winfield, even as a kid, was always in the gifted program when it came to sports.
Hey. This is a guy who was drafted by two pro baseball teams, two pro basketball teams, and the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL — and he didn’t even play football! He didn’t play college basketball, either, until the coach spotted him during intramurals — on a team called “The Soulful Strutters” — and immediately gave him a spot on the Minnesota Gophers. Winfield helped lead them to a Big Ten title.
Too bad the swim coach never saw Dave take a bath. He’d probably have a gold medal in the freestyle by now. Happiness is his secret
The point is Winfield is unique — tall, graceful, built to last. So we should not be surprised — as many people are — that this man, who has always acted older than his years, is now playing younger.
“That bunt,” he was saying Tuesday night, “you know, I could have beaten it out if I laid it down the left side. . . . “
He probably could have. Winfield is like a tire that never loses its tread. He may be the best story of this Fall Classic, because he is stretching himself into his third decade of baseball, and is still doing what he did as a rookie. He was hitting .300 in this series coming into Wednesday night. He knocked in 108 runs this season. How remarkable is all this? Winfield is working for a manager, Cito Gaston, who used to play alongside him in the Padres’ outfield. How remarkable? Winfield is on a team that didn’t exist when he broke into the majors.
There are biologists who would like to slide Winfield’s cells under a microscope. But the secret of his success may come down to a very simple diagnosis:
The man is happy.
“I appreciated the game when I was younger,” Winfield was saying before Game 4 Wednesday night, “but, man, when you play 20 years, you got all these bumps and scratches, and you finally get a postseason with a great team and fans that appreciate you . . . well, that’s top-of-the-list.”
Top-of-the-list. A-Number-1. King of the Hill. . . . Wait a minute. That’s
“New York, New York.” And that’s all in the past, along with George (Get Me Some Dirt On Winfield) Steinbrenner. That surely makes Winfield happy. The lawsuits are behind him, and the tabloid press, and the California Angels, who gave up on him last year, and the San Diego Padres, who could never take advantage of him in his youth.
Winfield, like a good shopper, has tried it all, both coasts, 15 managers, 31 stadiums. He is finally back to the climate in which he grew up, cold, hard winters that make him feel like a kid.
And play like one, apparently. A positive influence on Blue Jays
Call it a reciprocal relationship. The Blue Jays have always had a good team on paper, but never crashed the big room until relative old-timers such as Winfield and Jack Morris arrived. And Winfield, for all he has accomplished — Gold Gloves, All-Star Games, multimillion-dollar contracts
— still hungers for one blessed postseason. His last crack was not long after Ronald Reagan took office: the 1981 World Series. Winfield went 1-for-22, the Yankees lost in six, and Steinbrenner called him “Mr. May.”
That was then. Winfield says he doesn’t need to be the hero now, just a participant. His bunt in Game 3 was evidence. And seeing him motor from first to third Wednesday night made you wonder what year it was.
Winfield is fun to watch in Toronto, the way he jokes with his youthful teammates, the way he digs in against pitchers young enough to be his sons. He is one win away from his dream — a World Series ring. Does life get sweeter as you get older?
“You know, nothing would make me happier,” Winfield said, “than years from now, looking at a photo of the first team from Canada to ever win a World Series, and seeing myself in the back row.”
He laughed. “Of course, I’d be towering over some of these short guys.”
That’s OK. They’d probably be rubbing up against him for luck.