If anyone were ever immune to worry and nagging self-doubt, it would have been Dave Winfield in the 1980s.
His thickly muscled 6-foot-6-inch frame and natural grace as an athlete helped make him the only person in history to be drafted out of college in three sports and four leagues, then allowed him to skip over the minor leagues entirely once he settled on baseball. He was at the top of his career as one of the best outfielders in Major League Baseball.
An early beneficiary of the free agency era, he was also one of the first American athletes to earn eight figures, starring for the most famous team in the country, the New York Yankees.
And yet — at his appearance Wednesday at the Ben R. Giambrone/Compeer Rochester Sports Luncheon, Winfield showed two pictures in succession. One was George Steinbrenner, the longtime Yankees owner and a notoriously difficult man to work for. His antagonism for Winfield was well known, culminating when he hired a Mafia-connected gambler to dig up embarrassing information on his star player.
The other was Winfield sitting in the dugout at Yankee Stadium, looking like the weight of the world was resting on his shoulders.
“We’re talking about workplace stress — (Steinbrenner) brought it every day,” Winfield recalled. “We’re talking about mental health and stress — everybody goes through these periods. I won’t call it depression, it was nothing clinical. It was just like, ‘Why is all this happening, year after year?’
“Never wish you were someone else. You never know what baggage they’re carrying.”
The annual luncheon highlights Compeer Rochester’s work in supporting people with mental illness through peer-to-peer relationships. Winfield, the 65-year-old baseball Hall of Famer, was a pioneer among philanthropically-minded athletes and has focused on health and education.
Even he, though, said it is only in the last several years he has gained a real understanding of the damage mental illness does in people’s lives.
“Growing up, if someone just wasn’t exactly right, you’d just say, ‘Forget about (him),’ ” he said. “Now, it’s becoming more apparent. … I look at the world through an entirely different lens.”
Dave Winfield, Rochester Red Wing?
Winfield was a rarity — a player who never played a single game in minor league baseball. If circumstances had been different, though, he might have spent some time in a Red Wings uniform.
Before he enrolled in college, Winfield was selected straight out of high school by the Baltimore Orioles as the 884th player taken in the 1969 MLB draft.
“They said, ‘Have we got a deal for you!’ We’ll give you $500 and a bus ride to Bluefield, West Virginia,’ ” he recalled. “So they made it easy for me to say I was going to the University of Minnesota.”
At that time, the Orioles were the Red Wings’ parent club, meaning that if Winfield had bitten on $500 offer, he likely would have played in Rochester on his way up the ladder.
Even still, he did cross paths with Rochester legend Joe Altobelli, the manager of the early 1970s powerhouse Red Wings teams. Altobelli coached for the Yankees when Winfield was there in 1981 and 1982.
Altobelli also managed Winfield on the 1984 American League All-Star team, one of Winfield’s 12 consecutive All-Star selections. The two got to speak briefly before Wednesday’s luncheon.
“He was a great guy, a very good coach and a gentleman, and a winner, too,” Winfield said. “I was so happy to see him.”