Dave Winfield got his first taste of the New York Mets over lunch. For the Mets front office team of Nelson Doubleday and Frank Cashen this was all new and, in hindsight, the 1980 Major League Baseball Reentry Draft, marked the organizations first major foray into free agency. For Winfield the visit to the Big Apple was business as usual.
The pleasantries didn’t last very long, maybe not even past the appetizer, before Winfield and his agent cut to the chase. He challenged the Mets to bear fruit: show me you’re serious about building a winning team he told Cashen. It was the same speech he gave Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner days earlier.
The field of potential suitors dwindled quickly after Al Frohman, caterer-turned-sports agent, issued a letter to every Major League Baseball club, on Winfield’s behalf, more or less telling small market teams, don’t bother. Beside the Mets, Yankees and Braves, he showed interest in the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Indians.
“We wanted an open draft,” Frohman told Sports Illustrated in January 1981. “What we were saying in that letter was, if you’re seriously interested, we’ll talk, but if you’re just drafting for publicity and are looking to block out the other clubs that are serious, then forget about it.”
Frohman was a curious man. He stood 5’ 4” 220 pounds. Standing beside Dave Winfield, 6’ 6” 220, they were baseball’s answer to the Odd Couple. Team Winfield spent three hours that day with the Mets, taking stock and outlining his demands:
1) Potential to win
2) Pay equals “market value”
3) Post-career preparation (“a future outside of baseball”)
4) Respect for his accomplishments
5) Develop his skills in a lineup that would allow him full scope
6) The David Winfield Foundation could do its best work
“It’s hard to evaluate what a team has in mind, but I made them aware of my feelings,” Winfield told the New York Times. “I expressed to them that I’ve been in a situation where we haven’t had too much winning, but I’m from the winning mold and I’d like to participate in that again.”
He spent the first nine years of his major league career in San Diego, never finishing higher than fourth place. They lost more than 100 games twice; finished above the .500 mark (1978) once during that time. Winfield, a four-time All Star and two-time Gold Glove outfielder, was tired of losing. At 29 years old, he was healthy and headed into the prime of his career.
Before the 1980 season, Padres president Ballard Smith offered Winfield $13 million over 10 years, with 15% of his earnings donated to the David M. Winfield Foundation, his personal charity to help underprivileged children. Team Winfield said no. The fans and media in San Diego believed Smith wasn’t making an effort to keep Winfield.
Smith proved everyone wrong when he shared the contract proposal with reporters for The San Diego Union Tribune and The Evening Tribune on a team flight to Mexico for a series of spring exhibition games. Smith told the reporters Team Winfield never intended to negotiate with the Padres, adding Frohman had poor interpersonal skills — an “inability to deal with people. They used the media and the fans to fight their negotiating battles. They don’t know how to handle people.”
“I released the proposal to defend myself,” Smith told the media. “I was told by Frohman and Winfield that I had no choice, I had to sign him because the fans were demanding it. Dave had placed himself in a position where he wanted to be the highest-paid player. If you’re there, you better produce. He didn’t. The fans obviously thought his contract demands were unfair, compared with his performance.”
“David wanted to stay in San Diego,” said Frohman. “But without negotiating, they ran to the press. They made David look like the worst ogre in the world. They were using any kind of chicanery to beat him down. Nobody wants to be associated with such a loser.”
Before the end of the 1980 season Smith offered to Winfield a six year deal that would pay $700,000 annually plus incentives. He turned it down. Smith came back with a $1 million offer. Strike two.
Cashen was not motivated by Winfield’s demands. The Mets general manager was going to build a winner, with or without Winfield. “He has a choice,” said Cashen. “He can be added to an already formidable team, or he can come here and help us win. This would be more adventurous and satisfying.”
“One guy said, ‘Give me a top figure and I’ll double it, and I’ll give you the money tonight,’” Frohman told the media. Everyone knew a flamboyant comment of that nature could only have come from Turner, who was determined to outwit, outplay and outsmart both New York teams. While the Mets were busy courting Winfield, the Braves snuck in the back door and signed Claudell Washington to a five-year, $3.5 million deal. The deal caught everyone by surprise.
“I’m going to sign all three (Winfield, Sutton and Washington),” snapped Turner in a confident and cocky tone.
As days passed and confidence began to wane, the Mets called a press conference at Shea Stadium to send a message to fans, the media and Winfield. “Winfield remains our No. 1 target,” said Cashen. The next morning the New York Times published an open letter from Cashen, who used the time and space to share with the media and fans what the front office was doing, and how they would do it.
Meanwhile, the Mets were the only team with a formal offer to Winfield. He was anticipating a ripe offer from Steinbrenner. “Every time Steinbrenner wants to make an offer, Frohman says wait,” one source told New York Times baseball writer Murray Chass.
Don Sutton signed with the Houston Astros two weeks later. The deal was another strike against the Mets (who offered Sutton $12 million) and the Braves, but not Steinbrenner, who turned the negative into a negotiating tactic.
“We would have liked to have Sutton, but he’s not indispensable,” said The Boss, sending a loud and clear message of his own. “There’s one free agent we’d like to have and that’s Winfield.”
By the first week of December the storyline moved to the Baseball Winter Meetings in Dallas where the Cashen and the Mets quickly became the talk of the town after rumors surfaced that the Mets and Red Sox were discussing a trade that would send Mookie Wilson, Neil Allen and Tim Leary to Boston for Fred Lynn.
“Sure, it’s exciting to think of those two (Lynn and Winfield) in the same outfield,” said Cashen. “But could we pay the ushers?”
Winfield was back in New York at the table with Steinbrenner; lunch on Friday, breakfast on Saturday. Steinbrenner, Winfield and Frohman “straightened out a lot of mental things … things about how Dave and George and Reggie are going to get along,” said Frohman.
Winfield was seriously concerned about Steinbrenner’s explosive temper and his penchant to air dirty laundry through media channels. His worries were justified, even exploited, during his 10-year run with the Yankees.
As the deal for Lynn fell through on the final day of the Winter Meetings, Cashen surrendered, “I think we’re pretty much washed up.” Without Lynn, the Mets lost all hope of signing Winfield.
“I can understand the fans’ frustration,” he added. “And if they want to criticize, I can understand that, too. But we couldn’t have worked any harder … For the fans sake, to rebuild the ballclub, which we promised to do, I feel bad. As for the Winfield situation, I don’t know what the reaction is, it’s not my first consideration. I didn’t think this all could have been done in one trading period anyway.”
Back in Manhattan, Fred Wilpon met with Frohman in a last-ditch effort to secure Winfield, tabling an eight-year, $12 million offer. “Their offer was just an offer,” said Frohman. “I anticipated a good offer, but I was wrong.”
“I don’t know where the Mets are going, but it’s going to be years before they develop,” said Frohman. “Dave Winfield alone isn’t going to do it. They’ll just pitch around him. He doesn’t want to go into a lineup bare again. We didn’t do anything until now so the Mets would have a chance.”
Winfield called his mother, Arline, at her home St. Paul, Minnesota that same night.
“Mom, I’m going to sign with the Yankees,” he told his mother.
“Was it as good a deal as you expected?” his mother asked.
“Better,” he said.
Winfield signed a 10-year, $21-million contract. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner later said Winfield received a one million signing bonus, making him baseball’s highest paid player – for the moment, that is.
“There are three things an athlete dreams of — he wants to be as good as he can, he wants to play in a winning environment and he wants to make money,” said Winfield. “The New York Yankees seemed at this time to be the best for me. If I’m healthy, I’ll do well. My best years are ahead of me.”
Reggie Jackson was in attendance. He offered one piece of advice to Winfield. “It’s the greatest place to play – and the toughest,” he said. “It can be Disneyland or it can be hell.”
The Mets moved on, again, overwhelmed by the Yankees power, money and “mystique,” as Steinbrenner would say that day. In the shadow of Winfield, the Mets signed Rusty Staub, then 37, for his second tour in New York.
“We offered him more money than a baseball player ever was offered before,” said Cashen. “If he feels he got a better offer, God Bless.”
He wanted to find out just how good he is (or was). He found out. The results are negotiable. In nine years in San Diego he batted .284, 154 HR, 626 RBI, .357 OBP and .464 SLG. In nine years as a Yankee he compiled a .290 BA, 205 HR, 818 RBI, .356 OBP and .494 SLG.
The Yankees finished below .500 three times during Winfield’s tenure. They only made the post-season once, in 1981, eventually losing in the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a strike-shortened season.
By 1982, Steinbrenner said Winfield “wasn’t a winner.” In 1985, Steinbrenner asks reporters, “Does anyone know where I can find Reggie Jackson? I let Mr. October get away, and I got Mr. May, Dave Winfield.” In 1986, the Mets won the World Series. In 1987, the notorious Steinbrenner-gate started when The Boss hired George Spira to “dig up dirt” on Winfield, to no avail. In his 1988 biography,Winfield: A Player’s Life, Winfield revealed he filed two lawsuits against Steinbrenner and the Yankees for back payments due to the Winfield Foundation. The Mets were back in the post-season and, by then, Winfield saw Flushing as Nirvana. In 1990, Winfield was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for pitcher Mike Witt.
The Yankees and Winfield were decidedly more hell than Disneyland.