Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tonight on YES

Almost to a fault, the Yankees celebrate their history more than any other organization in MLB, if not all of sports. But they do so with good reason, no other sports franchise has as much history to celebrate. One of the best ways that the Yankees celebrate their past is through the Yankeeography series on YES. And tonight, they debut a new Yankeeography that I am very much looking forward to.

As I imagine most of you were, I was raised to be a Yankee fan. I have a picture of Mickey Mantle holding me as a baby. I have a picture of me as a toddler just a few years later, standing next Joe DiMaggio; the Yankee Clipper being either too old or dignified to pick me up. I can recall dressing myself as young child in a "Billy's Back" t-shirt, celebrating Billy Martin's return as Yankees manager for the 1983 season.

But my favorite Yankee as a youngster was Dave Winfield. I'm not entirely sure why. Before I really started following the Yankees, and probably shortly before he took me to my first game, I remember asking my father who the players were on the Yankees. He rattled off some names, most likely Don Mattingly and Ron Guidry and Dave Righetti and Willie Randolph, and maybe even Rickey Henderson. But the name I latched onto was Dave Winfield. Or as my little 3 or 4 year old ears heard it "Wind Field". It was easy to remember; they were words that I knew. Of the many souveniers I weaseled out of my father at that first game, one was a large Dave Winfield button that I must still have kicking around somewhere.

By the time I began following baseball in earnest in 1988, Winfield's Yankee career was closing out. I won't spoil the Yankeeography for you, but let's just say things had gone south between Winnie and Big Stein. Winfield still had one of his best seasons that year, turning in the top OBP of his career, second best OPS, OPS+, and AVG of his career and his third best SLG at the age of 36. He would finish 4th in the AL MVP voting, but a back injury suffered late in the season required surgery and cost him the entirety of the 1989 season.

He would return briefly at the start of the disastrous 1990 season, but too much bad blood existed between Steinbrenner and him. The crowded Yankee outfield provided the perfect excuse to send him to the Angels for the immortal Mike Witt. Winfield would remain productive for another 4 seasons and finally win a World Series with the 1992 Blue Jays. Mike Witt would start 27 games over 4 seasons for the Yankees, post a 4.91 ERA, and earn more than $7.5M for it. He was Carl Pavano before Carl Pavano was.

During the 1980s the Yankees had the winningest record in baseball and had but one pennant to show for it, despite having rosters featuring Winfield, Mattingly, Henderson, Guidry, Righetti, and Randolph. They consistently had good teams, but never great teams, and the instability and insanity of the Front Office couldn't have helped matters at all. Still in his eight full seasons in pinstripes, Winfield hit .291/.357/.497 (135 OPS+) with 203 HRs, many of them screaming line drives that just cleared the fences. He made 8 All-Star teams, won 5 Gold Gloves, 5 Silver Sluggers, and had 4 top ten MVP finishes.

Winfield was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in January 2001. He had spent nearly equal time with the Padres and Yankees and rumor had it he was going to enter the Hall as a Yankee. Fueling the fire, during Spring Training Glenallen Hill switched from Winfield's #31, which he had worn the year before, to #25, causing speculation that Winfield's number would be retired as part of the process. Instead, Winfield took a sweetheart deal from the Padres, much like the one the Yankees had given Reggie Jackson eight years earlier, and became the first man enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a San Diego Padre.

Winfield has been welcomed back into the Yankee family more in recent years, appearing at Old Timers' Days, the closing of the old Yankee Stadium, and the opening of the new one. The team probably wishes they had him along in Cleveland a few weeks ago to help take care of the seagull problem as well. I'm looking forward to checking this one out tonight, but with it scheduled to air following a Yankee-Sox game it probably won't be on until about midnight.


  1. Winfield was a great player. You wonder if he'd started his career 10-12 years later, if he'd have hit 550-600 homers. He was a thoroughbred athlete for sure. Matt's story of his childhood obsession with Winfield brings back some memories (I'm his uncle...). At some point in the early 90s, I believe, Matt, Matt's dad, and I went to Cooperstown, and Uncle and Dad were appalled that Matt selected a Toronto Blue Jays item of memorabilia...I guess something to do with his Winfield fetish. But the other thing about Winfield: Matt's dad tells a story of attending a Yankee game and seeing Winfield hit a line drive that struck the deep left center field wall at YS. It looked, from the stands, like a frozen rope, dead line drive. Such were the kind of hits we remember from Winfield. My memory of him is a game in 1985 when he was patrolling left field. I was sitting in the left field seats, middle level. Brian Downing led off the game for the Angels and hit a base hit down the left field line. As Winfield ran to scoop the ball up, we could see Downing round first to try for a double. Winfield turned to throw, and as he released the ball, my eyes, his back, and second base were aligned in a perfect straight line. The ball looked like a shrinking pea as it zipped on a dead line right into Willie Randolph's glove, positioned a foot or so above the ground, easily in time to nail Downing. Downing, the Clark Kent of baseball, beginning his career as a skinny, light hitting catcher, and undergoing a metamorphosis mid career to a muscled, heavy hitting OF/DH. First incidence of juicing?

  2. Born in 78 im right there with ya, loved growing up and warching them fall short. The pitching staff was weak.

  3. Joe - I came along 2 years after you. As I mentioned in the post, I really only watched Winfield for one year, but what a year it was for him. The pitching would only get worse and that 1988 season would be followed by four ugly, sub .500 years. Four years isn't a helluva long time, but to an 8-12 year old kid, it seemed like forever.

    Uncle General - As I recall, the HoF trip occurred in 1988, so Winnie was still with the Yanks. The Blue Jay hat was because I was a soon-to-be 8 year old kid that liked the name and the uniform. A Blue Jay hat was a rarity for me - this was before the days when you could just head down to the mall and get a cap of any team you like. I don't recall anyone questioning your purchase of a vintage Brooklyn Dodgers hat on that trip.

    Also, please refrain for calling it a "winfield fetish" - that just sounds weird.

    I tried to find your Brian Downing game, but b-r says Winfield only appeared in LF once between 1984 and 1988. I'll dig a little deeper later.