When Dave Winfield was in the process of recovering from back surgery two years ago, he began to hear whispers that his baseball career was finished. And, as he watched the 1989 season flash by without him, Winfield made a promise to those who doubted him.
"I was determined not to fade into oblivion," Winfield recalled last night at Memorial Stadium. "I didn't want to end my career like that, in New York."
Winfield takes apparent pleasure in knowing that his former boss and chief tormentor over 10 years, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, is the one who has exited baseball's stage, banished from the game by commissioner Fay Vincent.
But what the 39-year-old right fielder is even happier about is his resurgence as a productive, everyday player for the California Angels.
"I'm doing what I felt I could do," said Winfield. "I never thought I was finished, as one person in New York wanted people to believe."
A recent 6-for-55 slump has been the only blot on a marvelous season, which included the first three-home run game (April 13 against the Minnesota Twins) and the first hitting for the cycle (June 24 against the Kansas City Royals) in Winfield's 18-year career.
Winfield seemingly broke out of that two-week drought with three hits in Tuesday night's 5-4 victory over the Orioles (he went 1-for-4 last night). Among those hits was his team-high 19th homer. He also leads the Angels in RBI (60) and in triples (four).
"He showed it last year," said Angels manager Doug Rader. "After virtually playing no baseball for more than a year, and starting last year being platooned in New York, he started to improve as the year went on. And he came to spring training this year in better shape than last year."
Winfield certainly came into this season with a mind cleansed of his tumultuous decade with the Yankees. During that time, he found himself constantly ridiculed by Steinbrenner, who labeled Winfield "Mr. May" for what the now-exiled owner perceived as late-season fades by his high-priced star.
Just as Winfield had trouble describing his New York state of mind during the last couple of years with the Yankees, and shortly after his trade to Anaheim for pitcher Mike Witt early last season, he was open and honest while talking about it last night.
"You've got to fight all the time," said Winfield, who despite the distractions put up some pretty impressive numbers as a Yankee. "It was like, 'Dave, there's a press conference, or there's a deposition to give' [for Winfield's legal battle with Steinbrenner over the player's foundation]. I would say, 'Hey, there's a game to play. There's a 90-mph slider coming at me.' "
These days, there is little heat on Winfield, even as the Angels slide from first to fifth to near-oblivion in the American League West. Winfield's .267 average is downright astronomical compared with those of Dave Parker (.226) and Lance Parrish (.226).
In fact, there seems to be only admiration for Winfield. For the way he fought off Steinbrenner's tirades and lawsuits. For the way he overcame a serious, and potentially career-threatening, back injury. For the way he continues to move past legends and other Hall of Famers on the all-time list for home runs and RBI.
"I've always known that he was a great player, but what's impressed me is the way he applies himself at this stage of his career," said Parker, who turned 40 earlier this year and ranks second to Winfield among active players in career RBI. "He has a lot of mental toughness after what he went through in New York."
Winfield's 397 home runs puts him 24th all-time, two behind former Detroit Tigers star Al Kaline. With 1,576 RBI, he ranks 21st, seven behind Kaline and two behind the legendary Rogers Hornsby. Last night was his 2,486th game, which means that only 33 players in history have appeared in more.
But the subject of whether he will end up in Cooperstown is not one Winfield chooses to discuss. For one simple reason: he hopes to play an additional five years, which means that his first possible nomination remains at least a decade away.
"I'm still an everyday player, a good everyday player," said Winfield, who has missed only eight of California's 92 games this season. "I'll stay 39 for however long I feel it."
Winfield, who turns 40 on Oct. 3, said that the easier lifestyle in Southern California has facilitated his comeback, and that he isn't burdened with the pressures he felt in New York. Not that all his memories of the Yankees are bad.
"It went quickly, but it was like an eternity," he said. "The best of times and the worst of times."
The same could be said about the last two weeks for Winfield and the Angels. But then you could look at the bright side: he's still playing, and Steinbrenner is nowhere to be heard.