It is two hours before game time in the Toronto SkyDome, and Winfield's protégé, Blue Jay rookie outfielder Derek Bell, has just hit seven of 17 batting practice pitches over the fence. On his next turn Bell is allotted only one swing. "Watch this one," Bell whispers to a visitor. He jumps into the cage and smashes a ball onto the second deck, past a surprised security guard and into a previously virginal tunnel. Bell whoops and hollers.
"Hey, what time is it?" shouts Winfield. Suddenly, all the Jays are hollering, "Yo, what time is it?" It's the standard baseball put-down for anybody who brags about a batting practice dinger. What time is it? Not even game time yet. Bell slinks away with a grin. "He'll learn, he'll learn," says Winfield with a laugh.
It has been a long time since Winfield has been this happy. At age 40, he's batting cleanup—and hitting better than .300—for the first-place Blue Jays. He likes the team. He likes the town. Things are good again for Dave Winfield.
So far in his baseball career Winfield has been through 19 seasons, 15 managers, 31 stadiums, two Griffeys, three Alomars, about 60,000 batting practice cuts, 2,600 games, 1,300 bats, 10,000 at bats, a few hundred thanks-for-stopping-by-the-booth travel alarm clocks, 12 All-Star teams, one National League team, three American League teams and an uncountable number of phenoms slated to fill his shoes. Drafted in three sports by five pro teams, he went straight into the major leagues without a single bus ride in the minors. He got a hit in each of his first six games as a major leaguer, but he did not make the Topps Major League Rookie All-Star Team in 1973. Here's who did: Rich Coggins (retired, '76), Jerry Terrell ('80), Gary Thomasson ('80), Randy Jones ('82), Steve Rogers ('85), Davey Lopes ('86), Dan Driessen ('87), Johnny Grubb ('87), Gary Matthews ('87) and Bob Boone ('90). R.I.P.
Today Winfield's chin is stubbled gray, his midsection a little Michelined and his step throttled one notch down, but next to Michael Keaton's, his big, black bat is the most feared in the land. As of Sunday he was seventh in the American League in batting, with a .304 average, and had 11 homers and 37 RBIs. He has more career RBIs than Al Kaline, Rogers Hornsby. Willie McCovey or Willie Stargell had. He has more than 400 home runs, which is all the more impressive when you consider that he has hit them with a swing that cuts downward. "If he had just a little rise in his swing path," says Gene Tenace, a Toronto coach and an old San Diego teammate, "he'd have 600 home runs."
Winfield has been around so long he can remember when kids came up to ask him for his autograph just to keep it. At 39 he became the oldest man to hit for the cycle. If he continues on his current wood-smoking pace, he will become the first 41-year-old to hit 30 home runs and the first player in his 40's to knock in 100 runs. He still has that royalty to him, that unmistakable grace and fluidity. He has won seven Gold Gloves. At an age when most guys take a commercial and a half to get from the fridge to the couch, Winfield still has a move from first to third that can bring tears to the eye of a track coach. Winfield tripping over a sprinkler head is still classier than 90% of the guys in the league on a home run trot. He leads all active players in home runs and RBIs, and every day, somewhere, somebody else is shrugging his shoulders and conceding that Winfield should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Naturally the least surprised to find Winfield on top is Winfield. Nobody is more aware of his remarkable talents than he is. He is the sort of man who thinks that if he had not been born, the world would want to know why. While Winfield was playing for San Diego, from 1973 through '80, somebody asked him about toiling year in and year out for a losing team. "If the Padres go places, I will be a main reason," he said. "But if they falter, I'll still shine."
In responding to Al Campanis's infamous black buoyancy remark of 1987, Winfield said, "I don't swim that well myself, but I look good at the beach." He is asked about his longevity, and he says, "For the last few years people have seen me and acted surprised that I'm still playing. Still playing? I'm kicking butt."
Much of America's current self-esteem crisis could be overcome just with Winfield's excess. Nobody knows better than Winfield that he is handsome, buffed, richly appointed with all the options, well read, well spoken and well paid. Nobody knows better than Winfield how appreciative he is of fine art, fine photography, fine jazz, fine clothes and fine design. He does not watch TV; he watches PBS. He does not read potboiler fiction; he reads serious biography. He does not buy paintings; he buys the art gallery.
He is not one to have friends over. Indeed, when you're this interesting, how much company do you need? He would rather stay home and do the impossible—improve himself. That 3-D life. He subscribes to Business Week, Architectural Digest, Muscle and Fitness. He has Louis Rukeyser's Business Almanac on his nightstand. He has three homes: houses in California and New Jersey, an apartment in Toronto. He can whip up a nice veal piccata and select the perfect wine and just the right jazz to go with it. Vidal Sassoon is his good friend. On planes, while his teammates are pondering the burning issue hearts or gin rummy? Winfield is putting a highlight pen to In Search of Excellence.