Monday, May 03, 2010

Brush with Greatness II

When I wrote Brush with Greatness I in November of 2008, I didn't expect that it would be a year and a half before I would get around to the follow up. But, it took the somewhat recent incident involving comments made by Jerry Jones—while drunk at a bar—to remind me of something that was said to me by a famous person 17 years ago.

In case you missed it, Jones was caught on video by a reporter from a web site called making disparaging remarks about Bill Parcells and Tim Tebow. Some controversy ensued, including discussion about the ethics of the non-mainstream media, but it all died down pretty quickly and became a non-issue.

Anyway, I couldn't care less about anything Jerry Jones has to say, but it reminded me of my own experience from the spring of 1993.

I was living in Fort Myers, Florida—a phenomenon which lasted all of about a year—and was dining with a couple of co-workers. Future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, following his World Series heroics for the Toronto Blue Jays the prior fall, was a recent signee of the Minnesota Twins, who called the southwest Florida town their spring home.

At one point during the meal, I looked across the restaurant and noticed Winfield dining solo. Neither of my co-workers were big baseball fans, but at least one of them agreed that it was definitely him, not that I really needed that affirmation. Of course, I subsequently experienced some indecision regarding what to do. I'm not a big fan of making a huge deal out of such situations, and I also feel that I'm generally quite respectful of celebrities' privacy, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity.

But, before I continue the story of my chance encounter with Dave Winfield, let me give a little background regarding his history with the Yankees and what his career meant to me, as a fan.

Winfield came to the Yankees as one of their first big free agent signings of the '80s, following their ALCS sweep at the hands of the Royals in the first year of that decade. In 1981, his first season with the club, the Yankees reached the World Series and held a two-games-to-none lead over the Dodgers, only to subsequently lose four straight and the Series. Winfield was 1-for-22 in that Fall Classic, following a mediocre performance (9-for-33) in the two prior series during those playoffs, and would never reach the postseason with the Yankees again. For his uninspired performance in this one World Series, he would be dubbed "Mr. May," by none other than Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

I was always a Winfield defender, and to this day, I'm still a big fan of his. In today's statistics-oriented baseball climate, the experience of Alex Rodriguez could be considered evidence that judging a player by such a small sample of work, no matter how important those particular games may have been, is unfair.

Brian, my oldest friend, and fellow childhood Yankees fan, was in the opposite camp than I was. He was one of those fans who would never forgive Winnie for that 1981 postseason, and would continue to criticize him for years to come. Then, in the fall of 1992, in the twilight of his career, Winfield finally reached the World Series again, as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. This time he would come through, despite not enjoying a tremendous postseason, and deliver the game-winning hit in extra innings of the Jays' series-clinching victory.

Following his clutch performance, I would immediately pick up the phone and call Brian. This was prior to the days of caller ID, but Brian knew it was me. So, he had his father answer the phone, in an obvious attempt to set me up, figuring I would launch right into some profanity-laced "I told you so" tirade. Fortunately, I didn't.

The 1993 season would mark Steinbrenner's return to baseball following a two-plus year suspension for hiring a small-time gambler to dig up dirt on Winfield, action believed to be retribution for a lawsuit filed due to Steinbrenner's failure to pay $300,000 he owed the Winfield Foundation. This, of course, was the culmination of an ongoing feud between the boss and his former star player who never successfully replaced Reggie Jackson as Steinbrenner hoped he would.

When Winnie received his check and was getting ready to sign for it, I approached. He offered me some credit for my timing, inferring that it was a somewhat inconspicuous move to ask for an autograph when he already had a pen in hand for a more obvious purpose. In reality, I approached him at that moment simply because I knew it was my last chance.

When I explained to him that I was a fan from his days in New York, while acknowledging that he might not have the fondest memories of those times, he responded: "So, you're getting ready for the fat man to return." I laughed and said thank you as he returned the piece of paper to me that I had asked him to sign.

I remember thinking that he was lucky I wasn't some reporter trying to set him up. But, that was a different time, and sports stars and other celebrities had less reason to be paranoid that any person they spoke to might be someone ready to make a story of anything controversial they said. I'm also pretty certain Winfield was well aware of how harmless I was then, and still am now. In fact, I'm quite positive there will be no ill effect as a result of me quoting him on this 17 years later.

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