Series hope rings eternal for Blue Jays' Winfield After 20 years, his wait goes on


TORONTO -- When he started his professional career, it's doubtful if Dave Winfield thought it would take so long to get where he is today.

He had his choice of three sports. He was drafted five times by teams in four different leagues before settling on baseball as his chosen profession. He was drafted as a pitcher out of high school by the Orioles, but opted for the University of Minnesota.

He was drafted by the NFL Vikings as a tight end, the Atlanta Hawks and Utah Jazz as a combination power/finesse forward (his description). He passed up those offers and instead went directly to the big leagues as a outfielder with the San Diego Padres, hitting .277 as a rookie in 1973.

This is his 20th season. He is 134 hits shy of the magical 3,000 mark and leads all active players with 432 home runs.

But what he doesn't have, and wasn't able to claim in Game 5 last night, was a World Series championship ring. A win by the Toronto Blue Jays over the Atlanta Braves would be the highlight of a Hall of Fame career that has given scant evidence of winding down.

The irony is that, even if he accomplishes the one goal that has eluded him, there is no guarantee that Winfield will be invited back next season. At 41, in the age of arbitration and free agency, there are no such guarantees in baseball.

On the surface at least, Winfield has kept the distractions to a minimum during this postseason. The last time he got this far (1981) he went 22 straight at-bats without a base hit and the Yankees lost the World Series to the Dodgers in six games -- after winning the first two.

With the Blue Jays one win away from the big prize, Winfield has put that experience behind him -- and kept whatever recollections he had to himself. "I'm under control," he said. "I'm not too distracted, and I'm not too excited."

Avoiding total distraction or excitement during the World Series, of course, is impossible. Keeping it under control is almost mandatory in order to succeed.

"Everybody wants to get the big hit, and be the big hero," admitted Winfield. "But if I get a couple of infield hits -- or whatever -- as long as it helps, that's OK. I don't look at it as though I need to be the hero.

"You play 20 years, you work hard, you have ice bags on your knees, you take aspirin for your pain," said Winfield. "When you finally get a chance [in the World Series] it's the top of the list."

In the first four games, Winfield had only three singles in 13 at-bats (.231), but he played a significant role in Toronto's 3-2 win in Game 3. It's not a basic part of his game, but Winfield seemed to extract an amount of pleasure -- and take pride in -- executing a sacrifice bunt to put the winning run at third base in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Not many fourth-place hitters can, or are asked, to bunt. In the last 10 years, Winfield has put down a sacrifice bunt seven times. "I'm an RBI guy," he said, "but I consider myself a complete player -- and that [bunting] is part of the game.

"It's an example of how this team can do the little things necessary to win -- whatever it takes," said Winfield.

He even claimed not to be surprised when manager Cito Gaston asked him to do something he'd done on the average of less than once a year for the last decade.

"He said, 'We need a bunt,' and I said, 'Yes sir,' " related Winfield. The discussion wasn't quite that simple, but the gist of the message was clear.

Winfield was a multi-sport star before companies starting paying endorsement fees equal to his combined salary for his first 10 years.

"I could've done it before Bo [Jackson] and Deion [Sanders] were in grade school," he quipped.

Instead, he put all of his tools into baseball. And 20 years later, on his second attempt, he is one win away from the ring that has prodded him through every step of his career.

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