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Standing amid a swarm of reporters last week, 6'6" Dave Winfield looked like Gulliver in Lilliput. He felt as burdened as Gulliver, too. "I could not sufficiently wonder at the intrepidity of these diminutive mortals who durst venture to mount and walk upon my body." That was Gulliver talking. "Sometimes I've got to cut you off. I've got to hit. I've got to field. I've got to throw. I've got to think." That was Winfield talking.
On Dec. 15, the former San Diego rightfielder became the Yankee leftfielder in a historic switch of leagues, positions and income brackets. With cost-of-living escalators, Winfield's 10-year contract could bring him $23 million. Even without them, he is assured of at least $15 million, making his deal the biggest in the history of sport and his performance the object of intense scrutiny. People are calling him the $20 Million Man and demanding that he earn every penny of that amount.
It didn't matter that over the last four years he averaged .292, 26 homers, 99 runs batted in and 159 games, had won two Gold Gloves and had batted .364 in his four All-Star appearances; coming into the season he hadn't been cutting it as a Yankee. In spring training, a pressing Winfield had batted .212, with 10 strikeouts, no homers and only nine RBIs in 85 at bats. So last Thursday 55,123 fans, the largest Opening Day crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium, and about 250 media people, the most at a Stadium lid-lifter since the place was reopened in 1976, studied his every move. It was as if the whole state of Missouri had descended on the Bronx with one idea in mind: Show me.
Winfield did. While the Yankees were beating Texas 10-3, he had two singles and two walks in five at bats and showed his moxie by dumping Shortstop Mario Mendoza with a nifty hook slide.
Although the public might not have forgiven a poor early performance, history would have. Virtually every heralded player who has joined the Yankees in recent years started off poorly. Pitcher Catfish Hunter, the first millionaire free agent, had an 0-3 record and a 7.27 earned-run average after his first four starts in 1975. Two years later Right-fielder Reggie Jackson, the prize pick of the first re-entry draft, hit .194 in his first eight games. In 1978 Reliever Goose Gossage, another free agent brought in to outrank the popular bullpen ace. Sparky Lyle, allowed three homers in his first four outings, three of them losses, and didn't pick up a save during April. And in 1980 Catcher Rick Cerone, obtained in a trade with Toronto to replace the late Thurman Munson, batted .150 in his first five games.
"There was a lot of pressure I wasn't used to," recalls Cerone. "The media coverage was one source of it, and my coming from nearby, in New Jersey, was another. I was expected to answer questions, make appearances and run around doing things for friends. And I made things worse by pressing too much."
"That was it, pressing, trying to do things you aren't capable of," says Gossage. "Everybody loved Sparky, and I was taking work away from him. When I lost a bunch of games right off, people were mad as hell. I finally hit rock bottom the day I threw away two batted balls in Toronto. I didn't want anything hit to me by then. I felt like I was in a straitjacket. The mechanical man. Afterward, I sat staring at my locker with a beer in my hand. Reggie and Catfish came over and told me not to worry, that they'd been through it, too."
But the pressure on Winfield is even heavier because of the size of his contract. "People didn't expect of me what they expect of Dave," says Cerone. "I was supposed to catch and throw, and if I hit, fine. The pressure on Dave is unreal. I read in the papers that he's being paid $8,500 a game, and that he'd better hit homers for that. Someone else said that because Dave's being paid three times as much as Reggie he'd better hit three times as well. That's impossible. How's he supposed to hit 120 homers?"
In Florida. Winfield seemed to be trying to live up to such unreasonable expectations. Swinging at bad pitches, he left 26 men in scoring position, the most for any Yankee. "I told him to relax and play his own game," says First Baseman Bob Watson, Winfield's best friend on the team, "but your mental side is one thing and your human another." Opening Day was a chance to start anew. "He just has to experience it and get through it," said New York's rookie manager. Gene Michael. Gossage was more explicit. "I just hope." he said, "that Dave gets off to a good start."
And he did. When Winfield walked on five pitches in the first inning, he made a believer out of Texas Catcher Jim Sundberg, "Today we had to throw him strikes," said Sundberg, whose team faced the Yankees five times in spring training. "He was much more selective than in Florida."