By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Dave Winfield, who went straight from the University of Minnesota to the major leagues, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, his first year of eligibility.
Most of UVa’s players will never make it to the majors, let alone be enshrined at Cooperstown. But the Cavaliers’ veterans share a special bond with Winfield: They too have played in the College World Series.
Virginia’s first trip to Omaha, Neb., came last season. Winfield played in the CWS in 1973, his senior year at Minnesota.
“It’s just something we’ll always remember,” Winfield said by phone from California.
Likewise, CWS historians will never forget the 6-6, 220-pound Winfield’s feats in Omaha. He played outfield in the majors, but in college he was strictly a pitcher until his senior year, when his coaches started him in the outfield when he wasn’t on the mound.
In Minnesota’s CWS opener, Winfield struck out 14 batters in a 1-0 win over Oklahoma. In the semifinals against three-time defending champion Southern California, he fanned 15.
The Gophers didn’t win the title — USC retained its crown — but Winfield was named the tournament’s MVP.
Former Orioles second baseman Rich Dauer was a USC infielder when he faced Winfield in Omaha.
“When Dave let go of the ball, it was three feet in front of your face, and it seemed like it was going 110 miles an hour,” Dauer told ESPN.com.
“In my whole career, even facing the big boys in the majors, I have never seen anything like [him].”
Winfield will touch on his experience in Omaha and other topics Friday night at John Paul Jones Arena. He’s the guest speaker at the eighth annual Step Up to the Plate event, the main fundraiser for the UVa baseball program. (Tickets are still available. For information, click here.)
Winfield’s predecessors in that role include Cal Ripken Jr., Terry Francona, Tony LaRussa and Brooks Robinson.
“I’m as excited about Dave Winfield as I have been about anybody who’s been in here to talk,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “Not only is he a legend in the game of baseball, but nobody in the game has higher character than Dave Winfield. He’s what you want your players to be.”
Winfield, 58, also will talk privately with Virginia’s players. Previous speakers at Step Up to the Plate, O’Connor noted, haven’t always had a strong connection to college sports.
Winfield is different, even if most fans associate him with a storied major-league career in which he was a 12-time All-Star and a seven-time Gold Glove Award winner.
At Minnesota, Winfield starred in baseball and basketball. In 1973, the San Diego Padres picked him fourth overall in the major-league draft, but that wasn’t his only option. He was also drafted by the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, the ABA’s Utah Stars and the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.
“The fact that he played college baseball and played in the College World Series is another reason why he’s great here,” O’Connor said. “It’s like the perfect fit for us. I’ve dreamed of having Dave Winfield here, and we were finally able to get it done.”
Winfield, an executive vice president/senior advisor with the Padres, also is an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight show. He’s an author, too, and has written several books on baseball.
He’s never has been to Charlottesville, “but I hear a lot about it, read a lot about it,” said Winfield, who lives in Los Angeles.
He’s familiar with Ryan Zimmerman and Mark Reynolds, alumni of O’Connor’s program, and he caught part of ESPN2’s recent broadcast of the UVa-Maryland women’s basketball game.
“Did the young lady break the record?” Winfield asked, referring to Monica Wright, who indeed became the Wahoos’ all-time leading scorer that night.
Growing up in St. Paul, Minn., Winfield dreamed of playing professional baseball. But college, especially the University of Minnesota, where he had family ties, also appealed to him.
The Orioles made his decision easy. In 1969, they selected Winfield in the 40th round.
“They said, ‘We got a deal for you,'” Winfield recalled. “It would have been a little money and a trip to Bluefield, West Virginia, [versus] a college scholarship and a chance to advance my education.
“So the four years were very good for me at Minnesota. Of course, I ended up being a first-round draft pick. But I grew as a young man, getting an education, traveling the country and the world. It was an exceptional experience for me. And then we went to the College World Series.”
The climate in the Twin Cities notwithstanding, Winfield’s alma mater has a rich tradition in baseball. Minnesota won CWS titles in 1956, 1960 and 1964. The Gophers occasionally practiced indoors when Winfield was in school, but they played their home games outside, weather permitting.
“We had a field house where we would do a lot of infield work, do some hitting,” he said. “But it’s nowhere close to being outside. It just isn’t.
“When we finally came outside, we would go usually to Texas for spring break and play Texas, Texas A&M, a variety of schools. It would seem like we’d be so far behind for the first three or four games, because everyone else had played maybe 15, 20 games, and we were trying to just catch up. But it would seem to even out after awhile.
“But now that I live out West, where it’s warm and people play baseball almost all year-round, you really look at how the people in the southern belt of the United States have a huge advantage over the kids that play where it’s cold.”
Winfield, who’s a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame, played for six teams in the majors: the Padres, the Yankees, the Angels, the Blue Jays, the Twins and the Indians.
In 22 seasons, he had 3,110 hits, including 465 home runs, and 1,833 RBI. Perhaps his most memorable hit came in the decisive Game 6 of the 1992 World Series.
In the top of the 11th, Winfield’s two-run double gave Toronto a 4-2 lead over Atlanta. The game ended 4-3, and the Blue Jays were world champions.
“The good parts of baseball I always take with me, and that’s why I hope to continue to be a good ambassador for the game,” Winfield said. “I promote it all the time, and I coach the young kids still.
“The life lessons I learned with baseball, the people that I’ve met, the places in the world that I’ve gone, I wouldn’t trade this life for anything. It’s the best.”
To think he might have worn shoulder pads instead. Despite the fact that Winfield didn’t play football in high school or college, his hometown team selected him in the 17th round of the 1973 NFL draft.
“The Vikings said, ‘Fran Tarkenton needs a tight end,’ and that’s what they wanted me to do. I said, ‘Nah,'” Winfield recalled with a laugh.
“I always say, the smart people, they play baseball. In football, you’ve got an ambulance waiting for you every game.”
Clearly, Winfield’s passion for baseball hasn’t faded since his retirement in 1995. The crowd at Step Up to the Plate will learn that first-hand.
“I enjoy being around it, teaching it and carrying the message,” Winfield said. “So that’s why I look forward to coming and meeting everybody there and having a good time on Friday.”