Once the World Series grabs you by the throat, it seldom lets go. Gil Hodges found out in 1952 when he went zero for 21 in October. Eddie Murray learned in 1979 when he finished the Series zero for 22.
Now, Dave Winfield of the New York Yankees, a man with a $23 million contract and an opinion of himself to match, is finding out.
This afternoon, when Winfield got a meaningless fifth-inning single to left, it snapped a slump of zero for 16 in this Yankee-Dodger Series and also ended a zero for 22 postseason collapse by the highest paid player in baseball.
Winfield's response -- an odd one, since it can't possibly be genuine -- is to make light of the whole thing as though such a great and confident athlete could never be affected by such a trivial matter.
When Winfield got his hit today, he motioned a half-dozen times to various disbelieving Dodgers and umpires to throw him the ball, please, so he could keep it as a sort of sarcastic big-joke-on-myself souvenir. Finally, the ball was tossed to him and Winfield relayed it to the Yankee dugout.
After this game, a man could hardly have been more ill at ease, more false while trying to appear utterly cool, than Winfield who, among athletes, is supremely concerned with preserving face. "I'm not the story. There's no story here," he said, as though the highest paid player in history having three RBI in 55 postseason at bats were not news in the playpen of sport.
"No, I didn't save the ball," Winfield said. "Some guys were kidding me before that at bat about batting .000, so I said, 'When I get a hit, I'll ask for the ball.' So, when I did get a hit, I asked for it. I was just trying to lighten things up a little."
A wise thought. However, there is no World Series precedent for things ever to "lighten up a little." They always get heavier.
On Saturday, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner said, "Winfield is oh for 20, but we can't bench everybody even if we'd like to."
Winfield's response was hardly in accord with his usual icy facade. "I don't know and I don't care what George said. If you don't think I'm trying, then replace me. I'm gonna be here next year no matter what George says, so let him talk.
"When you aren't hitting, they say you're playing bad, that you're pressing. Well, if I relaxed any more, I'd be falling asleep."
No athlete prospers in a cocoon of illusion. Winfield is pressing, no question. The characteristic hitch in his swing -- a trademark as well as a flaw -- is now so pronounced that Charlie Lau, the team's hitting coach, has entered the picture.
"This isn't the time to work on a player's basic mechanics, like Dave's hitch," Lau said. "He's always had it to one degree or another. We're trying to adjust his footwork so that he can get his swing started earlier."
In other words, the exaggerated hitch isn't going away soon. Major batting cage surgery is out of the question in mid-Series. So, a little jury-rigging, and a little prayer, is in order.