Usually you have to die to be made a saint. In the case of David M. Winfield, baseball may skip the formalities and canonize him right now.
"Go ahead," said Dorothy Bowen, a volunteer at the David M. Winfield Foundation in San Diego, "make him a saint."
"That's, uh, nice to hear," said the articulate Winfield," but . . ."
"I'm quite sure he doesn't want to move up to that level," his older brother, Stephen, said, laughing.
Dave Winfield, a man of good works on and off the baseball field, was selected by 10 teams in the 1980 baseball reentry draft, all of whom fervently believed he could be their savior. Sometime, likely before Christmas, sources say, one of three teams, the New York Yankees, the New York Mets or the Atlanta Braves, will make Winfield the highest-paid player in the major leagues, and perhaps in all of team sports.
Dick Moss, Winfield's attorney, who negotiated Nolan Ryan's $1 million-a-year contract with the Houston Astros, said, "I talked to Nolan the other night and said, 'I'm afraid your record is not going to survive the winter.'"
"Hmmm," said Winfield, "I thought that was Abdul-Jabber."
Winfield will not discuss his new earning potential, or where he expects to be cashing his checks, except to say, "The money will be there," which is a lot more than most of us can say.
Harry Dalton, the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, who did not select Winfield in the draft, said, "Knowing that Ryan is getting in excess of $1 million a year, I've got to assume Winfield will get in excess of $1.5 million."
Who is this 29-year-old right fielder for whom the U.S. Treasury may start minting a new denomination?
"I am an enigma," he said. "No one understands who I am. No one knows who I am because of where I've been."
San Diego: Winfield's purgatory became a kind of hell last season. Ballard Smith, the president of the Padres, made Winfield's salary negotiations public, including demands for $13 million over 10 years, which Winfield maintained was only a negotiating proposal. Winfield, who always had been the guy in the white hat in San Diego because of his charitable activities on behalf of needy children, believed that the Padres were trying to turn him into a villain and turn the town against him.
"If I didn't have people around who cared, I don't think I could have survived," he said. "I'd have gone off and done something crazy."
He batted .276, with 20 home runs (his career average) and 87 RBI, eight points and nine RBI lower than his career averages. Hardly superstar stats.
Two years ago, Winfield batted .308, with 34 home runs and 114 RBI. It is for that potential that everyone is bidding. The question for Winfield as well as for the teams competing for his services is: which player is he?
"somewhere between this year and two years ago," said Frank Cashen, the general manager of the Mets, "is the true measure of the ballplayer."
Dalton said, "He is in the top rank of the players in the major leagues. He has not yet satisfied everyone with consistently star performance. He claims that in the San Diego lineup he was isolated and worked on and wasn't allowed to blossom. There is some merit in that. But we still haven't seen him take the tools and be the player everyone expected him to be."
Al Frohman, Winfield's agent, said, "If you knew Dave Winfield, he'd say right now, 'Am I good? Am I great? Am I mediocre? I don't know.'"
"I'd like to find that out," said Winfield.
Ever since he graduated from the University of Minnesota and was drafted by teams in the NBA and NFL, as well as the major leagues, Winfield has been something of an athletic prodigy. Now, he is looking for a forum, as Cashen put it, in which to show he has more than just potential. The week he signed with San Diego in 1973, he pitched against Southern California, striking out 15 (including Fred Lynn and Roy Smalley three times each), allowing one hit before being relieved in the top of the ninth, leading 7-0. He watched from left field a USC scored eight runs. "My team went home and I went to the pros," he said.
Now, eight years and one fourth-place finish later, he says, "I can do what is necessary to win. I have the skills. If I have to pitch, I can pitch. Because of the environment I was in, I haven't been able to demonstrate it . . . When you are contributing to nothing, you get a feeling of hopelessness. You don't get your maximum production."
Or exposure, which is what Winfield and his foundation will get. One of the terms his next team must meet is a commitment to support foundation programs, such as the Winfield Pavilion Days, when any child is given a free meal and a ticket to the game, and optimal free medical exams to children outside the stadium.
Winfield, who as raised by his mother, Arline, after his father left home, has become a surrogate father to thousands of children. Is there a connection?
"I don't know," he said. "There was a playground a half a block away. There were coaches and mentors who are part of my past who helped me stay out of trouble. I just thought it was commonplace but I see it isn't."
A professional athlete with an "ideological commitment" to helping others seems just too good to be true. Winfield is generally considered a class guy, a sensitive guy, a guy who returns phone calls .
Not only that, one baseball executive said, "He doesn't smoke. He doesn't drink and he doesn't chase."
"He always takes time for kids," Bowen said. "There was one little boy this summer who was dying of cancer. Dave brought him down to the dugout and introduced him to every player. He said, 'Come meet my main man, Byron.' He made it a point that he got his last wish."
Winfield's saintly image may be his biggest problem, for there always are those who are anxious to see a saint martyred. His brother says reporters are asking whether the foundation isn't just a tax dodge. Others have criticized the letters he sent to 17 teams before the draft -- five picked him anyway -- saying he wasn't interested in playing for them, as arrogant; saying, Stephen said, "'Who is he? . . . Don't we have enough poor kids here?' It really burns me up."
In 1978, Pete Rose named eight teams he would consider signing with and was not criticized for it, Stephen pointed out.
There can be a fine line between exposure and overexposure, especially if you make a lot of money and don't produce -- just ask Dave Parker, or Reggie Jackson. "It kind of scares me a little because of the possible expectations on him," Stephen said. "I understand the reality of New York. I'm more nervous than he is . . . But if has an average season, I don't know what to expect."
Right now Winfield says he is "enjoying the opportunity to accomplish what I want to accomplish, not what I'm relegated to. I feel it's the reward for all I as dragged through in 1980. If anyone can handle that, they deserve the end result. The pressure was unnecessary, and ugly as the situation was that surrounded me, if I can survive that . . ."
Last season was not the first test of Winfield's mettle. He became the starting forward on the 1973 Minnesota basketball team when two players were suspended for inciting a riot with Ohio State on the way to the NCAA championship. Bill Musselman, now coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers, remembers Winfield coming to his office in tears after the incident.
"I don't know if I was crying," Winfield said, "But we had some emotional times. It was very rough after that altercation. We got a lot of bad press. tI had come out of intramural ball three weeks before into a reserve role in the Big Ten. All of a sudden, I was a Big Ten starter. It was a tremendous responsibility. I was on a baseball scholarship. The things I had to go through were unnecessary. I knew I didn't have to do it. But, I said, 'I want to play.'"
Winfield is not one to shirk responsibility. He is, say the men who are courting him, a serious young man, not the average athlete. That perception is very important to Winfield, his brother says, pointing out that on the Dave Winfield Student-Athlete plaque, "he is wearing a suit, not his uniform . . . He's very conscious of that other image. That blows a lot of people's minds."
Including some of the Padres, said one San Diego sportswriter, "who find him aloof, that there is an 'I come first' aspect to him."
Steve Bisheff, a columnist at another paper, said, "He's very careful about his public image and in that way, he's not unlike a politician. But I believe in what he's doing and I think he is sincere and believes in it."
Winfield said, "As athletes we are a source of inspiration and motivation for a lot of people, old and young, all colors. When it comes down to it, I recognize and accept the responsibility. But I don't think you should put one person on a pedestal. All I'm doing is being myself."