Millionaires do not commonly celebrate their 37th birthdays by sleeping on the floor, but here he was, his designer sweater contorted this way and that, his eyes puffy, his cheek carpet-pocked, his hope running low. Here was David Mark Winfield, awakening for the third straight morning at the foot of his mother's bed, hoping to look up and find her still alive.
Cancer never has a benevolent sense of timing, and this was the worst kind of proof. Life was already bad enough for Winfield, what with George Steinbrenner trying to run him out of baseball, his ulcer hurting worse than ever and his charity foundation coming across in the papers like an underworld scam operation. On top of all that, he was trying to deal with a daughter he didn't know, a father he didn't want to know, lawyers in Texas trying to nail him for millions in a common-law marriage suit involving a woman he never even lived with and this Ruth Roper saying unspeakable things about him in the papers.... Still, those were pitches Winfield could handle. Now, though, on his birthday, Oct. 3, 1988, he was about to lose his mother, Arline, the only person he had ever really needed.
His feeling of loneliness was acute. He had felt these pangs before, years ago, back when he was 16. He had flown to Seattle to visit his father, who split from the family when David was three. The old man had sent him a free plane ticket—Frank Winfield tossed bags for Western Airlines—but David dreaded the trip. Why should he go? What did his father know about him? What did his father know about the evolution of him?
Where had his father been when David and his older brother, Stephen, used to rise to those numbing St. Paul snowstorms and get themselves ready for school all alone because their mother had long since gone to work? He could still see her. only 5'2", tromping out into the bitter cold, holding a stick to beat off the dogs on the way to the bus stop. Where had his father been then?
But David went to Seattle, and the first thing his father did was drag him off to a buddy's house and present him like a show dog and say. "This is my son." David wasn't going to be some trophy kid. So thereafter, whenever the old man would mail him a free ticket, David would talk about going to Seattle but instead would fly off to San Francisco or L.A., all by himself, knowing nobody in either place. While most 16-year-olds were pondering the burning question Get Smart or Dick Van Dyke? Winfield was wandering down Lombard Street or Melrose Avenue, 2,000 miles from school, just for the experience of it, just for the seeing of it. All alone. He was living the lesson his mother had instilled in him from the beginning: Have a sense of self.
David had a grand plan: He was going to the big leagues, and he knew what kind of hitter he would be, what sort of fielder, what kind of interview, what sort of teammate. And when the boy became a man and the man became a major league star, he held to the plan. While his teammates on the San Diego Padres or the New York Yankees or the California Angels pondered the burning question Copenhagen or Skoal? Winfield would sit in the clubhouse and fill out Federal Express forms—he actually kept the envelopes in his briefcase—and conduct business right up to batting practice. "Always wanted to live that 3-D life," he says, and he has never failed to do that.
At 15 he was more like 25, and at 25 he was more like 55. Business, art, music, charities, books. He could fill a reporter's notebook and say nothing that would become a baseball headline. He had a rich, smooth voice, like an all-night deejay for an FM jazz show, and he used it slowly and with reason. You could write Russian novels in the pauses Winfield left between questions and answers.
He thought himself a whole man. Not two weeks after the season, he would be in some exotic location—would it be Nepal this year or Guinea? Kenya or Thailand? He can't remember the last time he stayed in one place for three weeks. Why stay in one place? If you sit still, you're not moving forward.
Winfield owned 17 Burger Kings before most guys have 17 phone numbers in their Rolodex. How about that? The guy drafted by Ray Kroc, Mr. McDonald's, ends up King of the Whoppers? The grand plan. The whole man.
But when the plan began to unravel, so did the man. And in 1986, when his mother found that stupid lump in her breast, it seemed that the center would no longer hold.