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.
Controversy is another link in the chain. Even before the ink dried on Winfield’s contract, his relationship with George Steinbrenner was contentious. The two strong willed men waged many a media battle during the 1980s, but what went on behind the scenes eventually came to define the relationship. A legal dispute over a $3 million pledge Steinbrenner made to the Dave Winfield Foundation not only stained the reputation of both men, but eventually led to the former’s lifetime ban.
Although life in the Bronx was rarely comfortable for Winfield, he had it easy compared to Rodriguez. Granted, much of the turmoil during Arod’s tenure was brought upon himself, but even before the revelations about his PED use, every move he made was subject to scrutiny. Whether it was late night poker games, allegations of being a slum lord, or simply sunning himself on a rock, Arod’s private life was a constant source of ridicule.
What’s more, the controversy each player faced wasn’t limited to off the field. With extra scrutiny came disproportionate blame, so it wasn’t uncommon for each player to be singled out on the field for the collective failures of the team. Most notably, Dave Winfield found himself at the 1986 All Star Game explaining why he was starting for the American League, but coming off the bench for the Yankees. In a similar vein, Arod would have to answer questions in the postseason about various demotions while other equally culpable players escaped scrutiny.
Dave Winfield’s Yankee career came to an end abruptly. After missing the 1989 season due to injury, Winfield struggled at the beginning of the 1990 campaign. Questions abounded about whether he would recover, and some suggested that the Yankees might be better off without the constant distraction caused by his acrimonious relationship with the Boss. The rumors of a pending deal were eventually confirmed when Winfield was jettisoned to the Angels. Fittingly, Winfield played his last game for the Yankees in May. Even more appropriately, it turned out that the Yankees, and not Winfield’s career, was the sinking ship. Two years later, Winfield finally won his ring in Toronto, while the Bronx Bombers ended up in last place.
The end of Arod’s career has diverged a bit from Winfield’s. Most significantly, Arod was able to exercise his postseason demons in the Bronx, when he almost single-handedly carried the Yankees to a championship in 2009. Also, his admission to using PEDs, not once but twice, along with the circus surrounding his year-long suspension were indignities Winfield did not bring upon himself. However, the lines seem to be converging once again. Like Winfield in 1990, Rodriguez’ struggles this year have led to calls for his dismissal. Just as then, it’s really the entire Yankees’ ship that is taking on water, but once again, it’s the embattled super star that could be the first one thrown overboard.
The arc of Arod’s and Winfield’s Yankee careers have been similar, but perhaps the strongest link is actually the weakest. Whether overshadowed by more popular teammates or overwhelmed by unrealistic expectations, Winfield and Rodriguez were never (and have never been) fully appreciated by Yankee fans or the organization itself. They weren’t scions of franchise glory. Neither was born into the legacy of Yankee greatness, nor, perhaps, ideally suited to play the role. And yet, Arod and Winfield earned their pinstripes…and did so the hard way. That’s why it’s a shame that Dave Winfield doesn’t hold a bigger place in franchise lore, not to mention the hearts of Yankee fans. And why it will be equally unfortunate if Rodriguez follows Winfield’s path in this one last regard.