On this date in 1973, the Padres drafted Dave Winfield with the fourth overall pick and sent him directly to the majors … for good
By JEFF SANDERS JUNE 5, 2020 7:10 AM
Perhaps no draftee has ever had as much leverage as Dave Winfield when the Padres made the University of Minnesota two-way star the fourth overall pick in Major League Baseball’s amateur draft on this date — June 5 — in 1973.
The Atlanta Hawks had already selected him in the fifth round of the NBA’s draft and the Utah Stars of the ABA also made him a fifth-round pick.
Even the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings had drafted Winfield in the 17th round that January on a flier.
Chief among his requests of the Padres?
“I wanted to, first of all, go right to the major leagues,” the 68-year-old Winfield recalled this week. “And secondly, if I pitched, I wanted to hit. We had to discuss that. You can’t make anybody do anything they don’t want to do, but I had an option to play basketball.”
Lots of options, really.
He was the MVP of the College World Series as a pitcher. His bat was raw but powerful when coach Dick Siebert allowed him to hit again that year. He was also a power forward on the basketball team’s Big Ten championship team in 1972 and a heck of a projectable athlete as far as his hometown Vikings were concerned even if he hadn’t played football since youth leagues.
“I thought that was cool,” Winfield said. “It was just an acknowledgement of just being a good athlete. I could run. I could jump. I had good, strong hands. They wanted me as a tight end, so I would have been catching Fran Tarkenton passes.
“I was proud and honored.”
Padres scout Donnie Williams certainly understood all of the options sitting in front of Winfield as one of four players ever to be drafted in three sports. A fast-track to the majors wasn’t a hard sell, either. Neither was Williams’ conviction that Winfield — with a 6-foot-6 frame and 37-inch arms — could solve the inevitable hitch tied to any big man’s swing.
Padres President Buzzie Bavasi had brought Williams over from the Dodgers when he left Los Angeles to put together a big-league operation in San Diego, and Bavasi was a baseball man who trusted his guys.
“He respected my judgment,” the 82-year-old Williams recalled this week from his home in Paragould, Ark. “We sat in a room together for probably an hour. I told him, Buzzie, this kid is going to struggle maybe two or three weeks, but he’ll kick that hitch and be a good big-league hitter. I don’t think he needs to go to the minors.”
And so he didn’t.
A week after starring for Minnesota in the College World Series, Winfield became the eighth player during the draft era to shoot straight to the big leagues.
Manager Don Zimmer penciled the 21-year-old in as his starter in left field and his No. 7 hitter, wedged between third baseman Dave Roberts and second baseman Rich Morales.
He bounced out in his first three big-league at-bats against Astros pitcher Jerry Reuss. Then he singled off the third baseman’s glove in his fourth at-bat, the start of a six-game hitting streak to start a much-hyped career.
He and Cito Gaston, who managed Winfield two decades later in Toronto, still laugh about all the press that preceded Winfield’s arrival in San Diego.
The hype, of course, didn’t mean anything once Winfield’s plane touched down in Southern California. One day Winfield was striking out 14 batters in the College World Series. The next he was bunking up with Dwain Anderson, hitching rides to the stadium and coloring his white cleats black to match the Padres’ uniforms.
“I put it all immediately behind me,” Winfield said. “It was come early, stay late, keep your mouth shut and make some friends. I had so much to learn. I knew it was a sink-or-swim situation because they didn’t have to keep me (in the majors) after that first year.”
The Padres, of course, picked their spots while testing the young Winfield. He homered in his third big-league game — off Ken Forsch — but often had a day off or two between starts. He was a natural in left field, but the bat that took a backseat to his arm in college had quite a bit of catching up to do.
One day a Bob Gibson poster was up on Winfield’s wall in Minnesota. The next the Hall-of-Fame hurler was standing on the mound above him. The concept of Phil Niekro’s knuckler and Mike Marshall’s screwball were altogether foreign.
“I didn’t know the strike zone,” Winfield said. “I didn’t know what pitchers were trying to do to me. I didn’t know the pitchers. There were plenty of guys throwing pitches I had never even seen before.”
Winfield hit .277/.331/.383 with three homers in 56 games that rookie year. He finally dipped into his nearly-six-figure signing bonus to buy a silver-and-maroon-roofed Pontiac Grand Prix to celebrate his 22nd birthday after the season and then readied himself to continue his baseball education that winter in Mexico.
The crash course lasted all of a month as Winfield took sick and labored on the field.
Winfield struggled so much that he found himself asking, “Can I still play?”
He answered by working out “like a fiend” upon returning to the States to ensure the Padres could not send him to Double-A Alexandria or Triple-A Hawaii the next year. The Padres, too, were committed enough to fitting Winfield into their plans that they even tried him out a shortstop a handful of games that spring.
Winfield ultimately made the team as an outfielder and homered 20 times that first full year in the majors. He became an All-Star three years later and was invited to that game four years in a row as a Padre before he signed a 10-year, $23 million deal with the New York Yankees.
His Hall-of-Fame credentials fell into place after that as Winfield collected his 3,000th hit while playing for his hometown Twins and pushed his homer total to 465, 36th all-time. All told, Winfield appeared in 12 All-Star Games, won seven Gold Gloves and won a World Series with Gatson’s Blue Jays in 1992. He was inducted into Cooperstown 2001 as a Padre — “the team that brought you to the dance,” Winfield said — with exactly zero games in the minors.
That honor remained intact even tearing his rotator cuff in his last year in the majors with the Cleveland Indians in 1995.
The Indians, of course, asked if Winfield wanted to rehab that injury in the minors.
“Nope,” Winfield said with a laugh. “I was completely aware.”