February 20, 2019

A Baseball Hall of Famer highlighted opening day for the North Fort Myers Babe Ruth League on Saturday.

Dave Winfield, who played 22 years in the Major Leagues and amassed more than 3,000 career base hits, spoke to the players and coaches, sharing stories about his playing career (how he played against Willie Mays as a rookie) and took photos with players and their families.

League president Jason Estes said he and his family went to Toronto to see the Blue Jays as the team celebrated its 25th anniversary of back-to-back world championships.

Dave Winfield addressing the crowd at the opening of Babe Ruth baseball in North Fort Myers.

“My son was at the airport charging his phone and talked to Dave for 45 minutes and we were able to connect,” Estes said. “Every group has a variety of mentors to pass on some wisdom to these kids. I think they soak it up and listen coming from a guy like him.”

Winfield told everyone about playing youth baseball in St. Paul, Minn. with his brother and how it was the start of an amazing journey for him.

“Baseball has given me the ability to meet new friends, go all over the country, get a college education, travel the world, meet presidents, make a good living and to have people know 60 years later that I played baseball,” Winfield said.

Winfield gave everyone some advice. He told the coaches they have an opportunity to make an imprint, and the kids will remember their best coaches and the worst.

“Hope that one day the kids come back to you and say ‘Coach, I’m going to college and a have a good job, and a great family.’ You should do that for these kids,” Winfield said.

Winfield advised the young players to play more than one sport to avoid burnout or over-use injuries, and said that the world’s best athletes played other sports. He also told the kids to learn to throw the ball properly and have the coaches teach them proper form to prevent injury, even when playing catch.

For the players and coaches, it was a thrill to see Winfield help ring in the new season.

“It was such a great surprise and it was good to have him,” said James Lefko, head coach of the 8U Rangers. “I like that he asked us to work on the fundamentals. I think it’s a key element that’s overlooked by coaches.”

“This is insane, seeing a pro player and a legend coming to an Opening Day like this. I’m happy he chose to come here,” said Tye Phoenix of the U12 Cardinals. “It’s so important not to get overused because it’s hot out here and playing all year takes a toll on your body.”

Winfield said this was the first such event he had done in years, but he said he thought it was important, especially since he had everyone together at once.

“I have a message for each of them. The coaches to be a better coach and keep the kids engaged, the kids about working on all facets of the game, and the parents for thanking them for putting the kids in something positive,” Winfield said. “North Fort Myers has a great Parks and Rec and a great volunteer system. That’s what makes it go.”

Winfield said he would tell Cal Ripken the next time he saw him that his league is doing well here.

What was his biggest moment?

“Winning the 1992 World Series because we did it for a country, not a city or state. When I was finished after 22 years, I fulfilled my destiny. The life in baseball is what it’s all about,” Winfield said.