Philadelphia Daily News - December 17, 1980

Winfield:  Migraine Headache No. 12 Million

 

By Bill Conlin

 

The fences behind the power alleys in Yankee Stadium are a $10 cab ride from home plate. Left-center is so deep that Ma Bell has assigned the Yankee bullpen phone a different area code.

 

Mickey Mantle casually underlined the problems a right-handed power hitter faces when he plays 81 games a season, in the lopsided Bronx monolith. Mantle was presenting an award to Joe DiMaggio last week at the National Association banquet in Dallas which identified the Yankee Clipper as baseball's greatest living player. During a rambling but charming introductory speech, Mantle mentioned that the year he broke in as a rookie he saw DiMaggio hit 40 balls that were caught more than 450 feet from home plate in Yankee Stadium.

 

Which brings us to Dave Winfield, a player who does hot deserve to be mentioned in the same breath, the same sentence or even the same paragraph with DiMaggio or Mantle. Comparing Winfield's modest accomplishments with DiMaggio's lifetime .325 average or Mantle's 536 career home runs is like comparing a bottle of Boone's Strawberry Hill with two magnums of Laffite Rothschild Bordeaux.

 

BUT THESE ARE the times in which we live and it should come as no surprise that a man of our times, George Steinbrenner, has seen fit once again to urinate on the Yankee Stadium monuments.

 

That Steinbrenner has bestowed the most awesome contract in athletic history on Winfield, an athlete who proved in San Diego that a myth is even better than a mile, personifies the arrogance of the man.

 

If money buys happiness, then Winfield just bought 12 million excellent reasons why he should sleep the sleep of the just. It says here, however, that what Dave Winfield just bought is 12 million migraine headaches.

 

He is 6-6 and looks strong enough to tear Manhattan telephone directories in half. The fans will see this enormous brute of a man, an athlete who makes Reggie Jackson look like a 90-pound weakling, and they will expect him to start orbiting home runs to the ballpark's distant reaches. They will expect him to provide $1.5 million a season worth of thrills. But it won't happen. It won't happen because if you hired a team of architects to design a stadium aimed at keeping Winfield from becoming a home run hitter, what they would come up with is a configuration like Yankee Stadium's.

 

Didn't Steinbrenner send out scouts, for crying out loud? Didn't anybody tell him that all Winfield's over-rated power is in the left- and right-center alleys? Did anybody bother to tell George that although Winfield averaged a less-than-spectacular 18 homers a year in eight San Diego seasons, his lifetime average is just .285 and he has averaged just 78 RBI?

 

THE HARD EVIDENCE at hand did nothing to stop Winfield from summing up his hitting style like this: "I'm not a home run hitter. I try to hit the ball hard for average."

 

Can't you hear Mike Schmidt, the home run hitter, and George Brett, the average hitter, throwing up?

 

What Steinbrenner has done, of course, is to escalate the salary madness one more frightening step, push his game closer to rampant fiscal irresponsibility. He's taken a good ballplayer with the financial leverage provided by free agency and propelled his salary hundreds of thousands of dollars past that of much better players.

 

Do you think Mike Schmidt and Dave Landfield, his agent, will sit there for two more years making at least $800,000 a year less than what Winfield will be making? Ruly Carpenter is in the position of the guy in the oil filter ad on TV, where the car owner's choice is between a $15 filter change or a $500 overhaul.

 

If you were Mike Schmidt, that's exactly what you'd be telling the Phillies: "You can pay me now, or you can pay me later." And what will the going rate be in 1982, $2 million? Or more?

 

UNDERSTAND, THIS IS not a personal rap at Winfield, a high-type young man. He's broken no laws, twisted no arms. Here he was, a pretty good 29-year-old ballplayer emancipated by the hand the owners dealt themselves when they were playing poker with Marvin Miller and could have come out of the 1976 basic agreement negotiations with a modified reserve clause.

 

And even Steinbrenner, a real-life personification of J.R. Ewing, is playing the game the way the rules have been written. Hey, he's got the money and he's willing to spend it to win pennants. What the hell has Calvin Griffith spent lately? And if he helps pull the whole spit-and-tissue-paper structure down, there are 25 other owners to share the blame. And three of Steinbrenner's lodge brothers were panting at Winfield's door, eager as George to send the Brinks truck around.

 

Just as disquieting as the salary one-upsmanship involved are the competitive innuendoes.

 

"1 enjoyed the time I spent in San Diego, but now I am anxious to see how I perform with the motivation of playing for a championship contender," Winfield said at his New York coronation.

 

What the hell's that supposed to mean, that Winfield dogged it with the Padres? That he gave it less than his best because he played with a team that was usually out of the race by Mother's Day? If the Yankees, playing in a very tough division, should somehow drop out of the race one of these seasons, will Dave fold up his skills and announce that he's not motivated any more?

 

ERNIE BANKS WAS the National League's MVP in 1958 and '59. The Cubs finished fifth both seasons. Steve Carlton, pitching lor a team that lost 97 games in 1972, was 27-10 and won the Cy Young award. Winfield’s own teammate. Randy Jones, was the 1976 Cy Young Award winner for a Padres team thai lost 87 games. Just imagine what those guys would have done with a little motivation.

 

The Mets, the biggest short-term losers in all this, have spent the time since Winfield's signing sifting through the Inter, like down-and-outers shuffling through a deserted race track grand stand looking for a discarded winning ticket. The team that a few days ago was talking Winfield and trying to back him up with Fred Lynn, wound up slipping a truckload vf damaged goods through the back door of Shea Stadium.

 

Yesterday, they gave free agent Rusty Staub, an old, established bat without a position to play, $I million for three years. Monday, they acquired Randy Jones, a man with a rebuilt kit arm who is coming off a 5-13 season.

 

The knee-jerk moves had all the impact on Mets fans that a guy completing a 500-mile flight would have had on America the day that Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris.

 

I hope Dave Winfield enjoys the money, spends it in good health and happiness. He could have gone to Ted Turner's bandbox, surrounded himself with an offensive cast superior to that of the Yankees, hit 45 homers and become a legitimate star.

 

But no, he went to a town where Reggie, Reggie, Reggie is king and the fans mug their young before they devour them.

 

 

George Steinbrenner has given us a new definition of pressure. Pressure will be playing in Yankee Stadium, in the same outfield as Reggie Jackson, and trying to live up to the statistical demands created in the public's mind by a $1.5 million-a-year salary.