Big Ten Icons: Dave Winfield

Dave Winfield had never played a down of college football at the University of Minnesota, but the Minnesota Vikings thought they knew an athlete when they saw one. They drafted Winfield in 1973, envisioning a pass-catching, stretch-the-field tight end. They also knew that signing Winfield might involve outbidding the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and the Utah Stars of the rival ABA, who had seen enough of him on the basketball court to believe Winfield had a future at forward in the pro game. Winfield was a complementary player for the Gophers’ 1972 Big Ten champions, but Bill Musselman, his coach at Minnesota, called him “the best 6-6 rebounder I’ve ever had.”

After a check of birth records, though, the Vikings, the Hawks and the Stars might not have bothered. David Mark Winfield was born on Oct. 3, 1951, the day Bobby Thomson won the National League pennant for the New York Giants with a famously dramatic home run known as “the Shot Heard ’round the World.” Dave Winfield had baseball in his blood. He was pretty good at it, too, playing 23 major league seasons and winding up in the Hall of Fame after an All-America career at Minnesota.

And there were no minor league stops along the way — Winfield went right from the Minnesota campus to the San Diego Padres, who chose him with their first-round  pick in the 1973 amateur draft as he was leading the Gophers to a third-place finish in the College World Series and earning the MVP award as a pitcher/outfielder.

“I chose baseball because, to me, baseball is the best game of all,” Winfield said.

And yet … “The first time I got my baseball glove, I put it on the wrong hand.”

The error was immediately corrected, probably by Bill Peterson, a supervisor at St. Paul’s Oxford Playground, where Dave and his older brother Steve spent most of their time after their parents split up when they were youngsters. Peterson befriended the Winfield brothers and steered their energy into sports.

“He was a coach, but he was also a friend and a father figure at times,” Winfield said.

You’d never know it looking at the athletic specimen he became, but Winfield was a late bloomer physically and didn’t try out for varsity baseball or basketball until his junior year at St. Paul Central High School. His agility and coordination survived a growth spurt, and he was being recruited in both sports by his senior year, but Winfield chose Minnesota because he wanted to stay close to home and play baseball for Gophers coach Dick Siebert.

Winfield went 8-3 pitching and batted .259 as a sophomore, but was limited to 20 innings on the mound and 10 at-bats as a junior, slowed by injuries. At Musselman’s invitation, he joined the Gophers basketball team and was the starting small forward on a team that went 18-7 overall and won the Big Ten with an 11-3 mark, but is best remembered for an ugly brawl with Ohio State that led to ejections, suspensions and conference sanctions.

Winfield’s senior year was like something out of a Chip Hilton book. In basketball, he averaged 10.5 points and 6.1 rebounds and hit 51 percent of his shots as the Gophers went 21-5 and played in the NIT. In baseball, he was simply one of the top players in the country, combining Babe Ruth-like pitching and hitting skills: a 9-1 record with a 2.74 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 82 innings, and a .385 batting average with eight homers and 33 RBIs. He led the Gophers (31-16-2 overall) to the Big Ten title (14-4) and a third-place finish in the College World Series, where he was once again Ruthian, allowing four runs in 17 1/3 innings with 29 strikeouts in two starts and going 7-for-15 at the plate with a homer and two RBIs.

After signing him to a hefty bonus contract, the Padres brought him to San Diego, figuring a little major league exposure would heighten his desire to get to the big leagues for good. Instead, Winfield got to the big leagues and never left, hitting .277 with three homers and 12 RBIs in 56 games as a rookie.

He would only get better, establishing himself as one of the most productive, consistent and classy players in baseball over the next 22 seasons. Winfield would finish with a .282 batting average, 3,110 hits, 465 home runs and 1,883 RBIs. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001, his first year on the ballot. He moved on to the Yankees after playing for the Padres and never surrendered his dignity during a George Steinbrenner vendetta that was as illogical as it was petty.

Winfield also played for the Angels, Twins, Blue Jays and Indians before retiring in 1995. He appeared in 12 All-Star Games and won seven Gold Gloves for fielding excellence. He collected his 3,000th hit as a member of his hometown Twins in 1993, and he helped the Blue Jays to the 1992 World Series title by driving in the winning run with a double in the 11th inning of Game 6.

He’s also a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame and was the No. 2 vote-getter behind Will Clark on a College World Series Legends team chosen in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium.

Winfield’s impact extends beyond the playing field. While playing for the Padres, he established the David M. Winfield Foundation, the first athlete-sponsored charity of its kind in that it went beyond sports activities to provide academic support, wellness counseling, life-skills lessons and financial aid to thousands of deserving youngsters.

Winfield has been extensively involved in charity work throughout his career. He’s also the author of two best-selling books and is in demand as a motivational speaker. In his “spare time” he’s a baseball analyst for ESPN and a vice president/board member of the Padres.

At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Dave Winfield cast an imposing shadow as an athlete. He has left a footprint to match, in all walks of life.

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