Dave Winfield began his big league career as a prodigy, and at his peak Winfield was the face of the game.
Twenty-one years ago this week, Winfield moved into his final phase – veteran leader of a World Championship team – when he signed a free agent contract with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Winfield, already well on his way to a spot in the Hall of Fame, signed on with the Jays on Dec. 19, 1991 – joining a club that had won the American League East title in two of the previous three seasons but failed to advance to the World Series. At 40 years old, Winfield was transitioning to a role as a designated hitter – having played only 115 of his 150 games in the outfield with the Angels in 1991.
But Winfield showed his bat was still potent, hitting 28 homers and driving in 86 runs for California that season.
Winfield broke into the major leagues in 1973, going straight from the University of Minnesota to a big league diamond after being taken by the Padres with the fourth overall pick in the 1973 MLB Draft. By 1974, the 6-foot-6 Winfield – who was also taken in the 1973 NBA, ABA and NFL drafts – was San Diego’s starting right fielder, hitting 20 homers and driving in 75 runs in 145 games.
Winfield was named to his first All-Star Game in 1977 en route to 25 home runs and 92 RBI, then evolved into arguably the best all-around player in baseball by 1979 – hitting 34 home runs and driving in a National League-best 118 runs while winning the first of seven Gold Glove Awards he would earn throughout his career.
Winfield became a free agent following the 1980 season and quickly found a home with the Yankees, signing a massive 10-year, $23 million contract that set a new industry standard and landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Winfield helped the Yankees win the American League pennant in 1981, then settled into his role as one of the game’s most complete players for the next decade. From 1982-88, Winfield posted six 20-plus home run seasons and five 100-RBI campaigns, earning a berth in the All-Star Game each year.
Winfield missed the entire 1989 season with a back injury, then was traded to the Angels early in the 1990 season following a dispute with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
The Blue Jays signed Winfield to a one-year, $2.3 million contract for the 1992 season, and Winfield responded with 26 homers and 108 RBI as Toronto’s primary designated hitter. More importantly, Winfield helped turn a Jays team seemingly always on the cusp of winning into a winner.
In Game 6 of the World Series against the Braves, Winfield’s two-run, two-out double in the top of the 11th inning off Charlie Leibrandt powered Toronto to a 4-3 win that clinched the Jays’ first Fall Classic title and gave Winfield his first World Series ring.
Winfield returned to Minnesota to play for his hometown Twins in 1993 and 1994, then finished his career with a short stint with the Indians in 1995. In 22 big league seasons, Winfield totaled 3,110 hits, 465 home runs and 1,833 RBI along with 12 All-Star Game selections.
“We all look up to him,” said Twins teammate Brian Harper. “As big a star as he is, he’s pretty humble.”
Winfield was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001 in his first year of eligibility.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum