Alex Rodriguez’s ninth inning single in last night’s game did more than just give Yankee fans false hope for a late rally. It also matched the career hit total of Dave Winfield, another Yankee legend whose many accomplishments in pinstripes have been surpassed by a lack of appreciation for them.
The historical ties that bind Rodriquez and Winfield are much stronger than the temporary tethering of a shared ranking on the all-time hit list. Though seldom compared, there are other strong links between the two players, and the resultant chain of events reveals many interesting, and unfortunate, parallels.
Winfield and Arod came to the Bronx (Winfield directly, and Arod via Texas) as superstars, but the spotlight intensified because of the historic nature of the contracts they signed. Record setting in terms of both length and compensation, the contracts would come to define both players almost as much as the performances that had merited them.
As if the expectations created by their salaries weren’t high enough, Arod and Winfield had the added pressure of joining teams that had sustained periods of success before their arrival. Winfield’s Yankees had just won 100 games in 1980, and were only a few seasons removed from consecutive championships. The team Arod joined had won six consecutive division titles, four championships and six pennants. In other words, neither could be the straw that stirred the drink. They could only stir it bad.
Winfield and Arod were good soldiers when they first donned the pinstripes. Despite being superior defenders at their incumbent positions, each ceded ground to the existing Yankee legend who occupied their space. These magnanimous gestures, however, didn’t free Winfield and Arod from unfair comparisons. For Winfield, Reggie Jackson became the immediate benchmark against which his performance would be measured. Looking over Arod’s shoulder was Derek Jeter. And, that was just during the regular season. In the postseason, Winfield’s bar was set by Mr. October, but, you could have forgiven Arod if he wasn’t impressed by that challenge. He had to keep up with Mr. November.
Has anybody seen Reggie Jackson? I need Mr. October. All I have is a Mr. May, Dave Winfield.” – George Steinbrenner, quoted September 1985
Unfortunately for Winfield and Arod, their immediate postseason performance, or lack thereof, would mark them with a scarlet letter. Despite very successful regular seasons in 1981 and 2004, respectively, not to mention big contributions during the early postseason rounds, Winfield and Arod struggled during the biggest moments of their respective October baptisms. Winfield’s stain was going 1-22 in the 1981 World Series. Arod’s crime was a meager 1-12 in the final three games of a historic collapse in the 2004 ALCS. Winfield would eventually become derisively known as Mr. May, while Arod would forever be dogged with the unfair reputation of not being clutch. The transition from superstars to scapegoats was quick, but the stigma lasted much longer, as Winfield and Arod would continue to endure unfair criticism and disproportionate blame throughout their careers. Continue Reading »