Winfield embraces title with smile, lots of hugs


ATLANTA -- He didn't want to stay in the interview room. Not after waiting 20 years for this moment. Not when his first World Series extra-base hit had decided it. Not with the delirious celebration taking place in the Toronto clubhouse next door.

Dave Winfield took a few questions, then returned to the bedlam. A half-dozen Blue Jays were staging a mock tribal dance and imitating the Atlanta war cry. Assorted wives and relatives were pouring in, chanting, "We stopped . . . The Chop!"

Winfield hugged Tom Henke.

"We bent, but we didn't break!" he shouted at the reliever who blew his first save in exactly three months, only to be redeemed by Winfield's two-run double and the Blue Jays' 4-3 victory in 11 innings.

He hugged David Cone.

"The New Yorkers!" he cried, embracing the former Met.

He hugged bench coach Gene Tenace.

"Let me get that rub, baby!" he said, reaching for Tenace's balding head.

He was smiling, laughing, exulting at last. His journey started with San Diego in 1973, back when Cito Gaston was his teammate, not his manager. How fitting that on a night the nation turned back its clocks, this 41-year-old made time stand still.

The images from this game will burn forever -- the game-tying single by Otis Nixon with the Blue Jays one strike away, the heroic relief work of winning pitcher Jimmy Key on two days' rest, the Braves finally expiring on Nixon's bunt with the tying run at third.

But the most vivid memory will be of Winfield, the future Hall of Famer ridiculed by George Steinbrenner as "Mr. May." He missed the entire 1989 season after back surgery. He became a free agent after California spurned him last winter. He endured so much, wanting only to win a World Series.

"I didn't have to be a hero -- we had so many guys contributing," Winfield said. "But as long as I had that one little hit, that one little extra-base hit, I'm pleased. One stinking hit. In my biggest game. My best day in baseball."

To recap:

Two outs, top of the 11th, men on first and second. Winfield vs. left-hander Charlie Leibrandt. Another miracle Braves comeback accomplished. One more to be attempted. And here came the Leibrandt changeup on 3-2, fatter than Winfield imagined.

He had told himself, "No body movement, just flick the hands." At that point he was 4-for-21 in the Series, a meaningful RBI single in Game 2, a critical sacrifice in Game 3. Not the 1-for-22 disaster of 1981. But not exactly Mr. October.

"I said a couple of extra prayers going up there," Winfield said later, flashing that big smile. "Normally, I rely on my own stuff. But I had to look above for some inspiration, some luck. Nothing was falling. I had no luck. Buzzard's luck."

ABut this time, Winfield hit Leibrandt's pitch down the third-base line, and Terry Pendleton couldn't reach it. "A ground ball," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox grumbled. A ground ball that skipped over the bullpen mound and brought the Blue Jays out of their dugout as two runs scored.

It was Winfield's first extra-base hit in 44 Series at-bats. It was the first RBI hit of the night by a Blue Jay with men in scoring position. And it was cruel deja vu for Leibrandt, who also lost Game 6 of last year's World Series in the 11th inning.

Jeff Reardon was warmed up, but Cox wasn't about to lose the Series with a reliever who already had given up two game-winning hits. Leibrandt held right-handed hitters to a respectable .268 average this season. Then again, Winfield was 16-for-54 (.296) off him lifetime with four home runs.

The funny thing is, Gaston had considered removing Winfield from right field in the seventh. Winfield, the Blue Jays' regular DH, had played only 26 games in the outfield all season. But when Gaston asked, "How are the legs?" Winfield said he was fine.

The next inning he proved it, making a diving catch on a sinking liner by Ron Gant. Gaston stuck with his original defense -- first baseman Joe Carter later admitted to Bill Buckner nightmares -- and the gamble paid off when the heart of his order was intact for the 11th.

In the wild aftermath, Winfield said the maligned Gaston deserved "a two-, three- or four-year extension." Dripping with sweat, he paraded through the clubhouse, clutching a bottle of champagne, stopping to answer reporters' questions.

"He's probably in shock," said Tonya, Winfield's wife of four years. "I know he's just ecstatic. I know it's the greatest moment of his career. He's just got to be on Cloud Nine. It's going to take a minute or two for it to sink in."

And the future?

Winfield joked, "I've only got four or five more years to go," then shadow-boxed to demonstrate his youthful vigor. "I have a feeling you might see me around, but we'll see," he said. "I can't even think straight now."

The Blue Jays reportedly will decline to offer him salary arbitration and risk losing him as a free agent. It's a sound business decision -- Winfield (108 RBI) might double his $2.3 million salary in arbitration -- and the Blue Jays no doubt will try to re-sign him at a more reasonable price.

Winfield didn't seem concerned.

He hugged his wife.

He hugged his teammates.

He hugged his general manager.

"Thanks a lot," he told GM Pat Gillick.

"Hey," Gillick replied. "Thank you."

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