Dave Winfield, bent in a silly crouch that made him look like a 6-foot-6 praying mantis, bunted a few off the Iron Mike, just to practice picking up the flight of the baseball after a winter in which he had done nothing more strenuous than pick up $25 million.
"Ready," he said, preparing to take his first swing as a New York Yankee.
The pitching machine buzzed in a decent fast ball low and away, just as, though it knew the book on this career .284 hitter with the immortal potential and the mortal stats.
Winfield swung and missed, just as he usually has at good pitches in good spots. "Dangerous, but can be pitched to," say the scouts. "Big swing. Tends to be impatient."
Next, the machine fired at the same spot, low and away, but moved the ball tantalizingly out of the strike zone. Winfield swung and missed by a foot.
By now, dozens of Yankees fans had discovered a walway perhaps 10 feet above Winfield's head as he took his cuts in this crummy mesh-net batting cage under the stands. They tittered among themselves. For this you get paid $1.5 million a year? With cost-of-living increases? For 10 years? They could contain themselves no longer. Come on, man, this guy's had two swings. He's not producing. Why are "we" paying him all this money?
Before the next pitch, a grating bleacher voice hissed a message to Winfield: "That's two strikes. You only get one more."
"Hey, Dave," said Graig Nettles, "welcome to New York."
Seldom has a baseball player reported to a new team with so much hope and fear compressed into the same psyche as Dave Winfield did today. Apprehension, anxiety, spontaneous delight, a desire to explode into motion, all seemed to fight for supremacy in his face and gestures.
At one moment, he would break into a huge grin, or dash after a ball in the outfield to make a gazelle-like scoop, or run around the bases with a skipping, exuberant quality like some huge rookie too full of energy. At other times, his face was full of worry at how his new mates would react to him or how the horde of reporters, who outnumbered the 50 Yankees here, might stampede the whole proceeding while following him everywhere as though he were a Pied Piper.
More than any other player in baseball, Winfield is a man on display, a man under fierce scrutiny. And for many good reasons.
Winfield has been playing baseball for 22 years, eight in the majors. He'll be 30 by World Series time.After that long, most players are known, completely tagged and all together docketed. By then, you don't change much.Even the pitching machines, it seems, known how to work you.
Winfield desperately wants to see it differently. Odd as it appears, Winfield is the free agent superstar who has no idea how good a baseball player he is. He has reached his prime, yet has no answers to the most fundamental questions about his ability, temperament or courage. Other men have signed vast contracts for the money; Winfield has signed so he can learn the truth about himself.
Winfield is perhaps the best athlete in America. And he knows it. This 6-6, 220-pound statue with broad shoulders, invisible waist and hips, long legs, speed and acceleration, is the only man every drafted by the NFL, NBA and the majors.
This is the fellow who, at age 21, was constantly told that he had to make a terribly difficult choice: should he break the records of Hank Aaron, Elgin Baylor or Charley Taylor? Should he be a fly-chaser, a forward or a flanker?
Now, approaching 30, Winfield is a four-time All-Star, a two-time Golden Glover, who is sort of great, yet sort of not. He has won only one major hitting title -- the '79 NL RBI crown (118). In seven full seasons, he has only once surpassed such basic plateaus as 100 runs, 25 homers, 100 RBI, 80 walks, 25 steals. The nasty numbers say he averages 22 homers, 88 RBI and a .284 average per year. Last season, the figs ewre 20, 87 and .276. Good. Far from great.
Everything Winfield says and does bears this rich uncertainty about what he truly is. "You smell like what you're planted in," says Winfield, meaning that in his years in San Diego the aroma around him was awful. "We'd be out of the pennant race before the All-Star game. In eight years, I never . . . not once . . . played in a game that you could honestly call 'significant.'"
Winfield was warmly greeeted today, especially by the previous Yankee free agents. "When I pitch, we'll find out how well you go back on a ball," joked Tommy John. "I lead the league in 425-foot fly outs to Death Valley. I once gave up 1,700 feet of fly balls in one game to Gorman Thomas. And he went zero for four."
Winfield worries more about the public acceptance of him than his mates' favor. "All this strike talk creates had vibrations," said Winfield. "My salary (the biggest by far in baseball history) is easy to focus on. The public is sick of hearing about money, money, money. I hope they don't see me as a symbol instead of a person."
Most of the supposed hardships Winfield will face are mirages. And he knows it. The discomfort of the spotlight? "Fame, I can handle," he says. The envy of his teammates? "Nobody in that locker room is broke," he laughs. Reggie Jackson's ego? "Hey, he's a nice guy. We'll get along fine."
"Is there anything you've ever tried that has really been hard for you?" Winfield is asked. He can't think of anything. It never occurs to him that the answer might be "baseball." It's always been so easy for him to be pretty good. Now, he thinks it will be just as easy to be great. Only a matter of transplanting. Better fertilizer.