He had always been philanthropic, so when Major League Baseball officials asked Dave Winfield to speak to young players at a symposium near the end of his career in the mid-1990s, he jumped at the opportunity as if it were a hanging curveball. For three days, the Hall of Fame slugger imparted his wisdom, not only about baseball, but about life and the importance of giving back.
“It was a lot of fun,” recalled Winfield, who will speak at the Ben Giambrone Compeer Sports Luncheon on Nov. 14 at the Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center.
“The thing I remember most is that there was this one young man who kept following me around and asking me a ton of questions, not only about my preparation as a player, but also about what went into setting up my charitable foundation. For three straight days, it was like this kid was stalking me, but in a good way.”
A few years later, after that “kid” had established himself as one of baseball’s biggest stars, he personally thanked Winfield. The young man’s name? Derek Jeter.
“It blew me away,” Winfield said via phone from his California home. “He told me he had idolized me when I played for the New York Yankees and that one day he wanted to grow up and be like me, not only as a player, but as a role model. I’ve been blessed to receive a lot of awards and accolades in my life, but to know someone with the character and integrity of Derek Jeter felt that way about me ranks near the top.”
Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with a gala in New York City where he took time to pay homage to the man who had inspired him. The legendary Yankees shortstop is among the scores of athletes who have formed charitable foundations. In fact, one of the most positive developments in modern-day sports is that nearly every prominent athlete is involved in an organization that gives back.
And Winfield deserves a doff of the cap for spawning this trend, which he started not long after he graduated from the University of Minnesota campus to the San Diego Padres outfield in 1973. That was the year he established a college scholarship program for minority students in his hometown of St. Paul, Minn. “It was a pretty modest endeavor at first, but it eventually took off and it’s still going strong,” he said. “We’ve afforded more than 300 students the opportunity to go to college and improve their lives.”
With the Padres, Winfield also started buying blocks of tickets to each home game so poor families could attend. The bleachers where they sat came to be known as Winfield’s Pavilion. Over time, he did more than just distribute tickets. He also set up health clinics and staged anti-drug and computer literacy programs at the ballpark. And the 12-time MLB All-Star continued to organize and fund similar ballpark programs during his seasons with the Yankees, California Angels, Toronto Blue Jays, Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians.
In 1977, he became the first professional athlete to launch a charitable foundation, and that immediately inspired other prominent athletes, including tennis stars Arthur Ashe and Martina Navratilova, to follow suit.
Winfield credits the close-knit neighborhood of his youth for inspiring him to give back. His parents divorced when he was three, but he and his brother never lacked for nurturing mentors from a deep pool of caring relatives, neighbors, teachers and coaches. “My success is on the shoulders of many,” he said. “I’ve tried never to forget that.”
Thanks to them and his God-given talents, Winfield blossomed into an amazing all-around athlete. He was blessed with great size—he stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 220 pounds in his prime. And he was swift and agile. At Minnesota, he excelled in two sports, guiding the Golden Gophers to a Big Ten basketball championship and the College World Series, where he earned most valuable player honors as a pitcher.
After graduating, Winfield was drafted by four teams in three different sports: MLB’s Padres; the National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Hawks; the American Basketball Association’s Utah Stars, and the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings. Being selected in the 16th round by his hometown Vikings baffled many because he hadn’t played a down of football since his sophomore year of high school, but the Vikings were intrigued by his size and athleticism. “They thought I might have made a pretty good tight end,” Winfield said. “They saw me as a big target for quarterback Fran Tarkenton.”
When the Padres told Winfield they wanted him to be an everyday player, that sealed the deal. He would hit baseballs rather than jumpers; catch fly balls rather than passes. “I think,” he said, chuckling, “I made the right decision.”
I’ll say. During his 22 seasons, he smacked 3,110 hits and 465 home runs and drove in 1,833 runs. He also won seven Gold Gloves. It was not uncommon to see him scale a wall and reach up to rob a hitter of a homer. His only regret is that he never got a chance to do mop-up duty on the mound. “I kept bugging my managers wherever I went to let me pitch, but they said they were afraid I would get hurt,” he said. “I’d tell them that I could get hurt crashing into a wall or being hit by a pitch, but they were afraid to take a chance.”
Winfield, who turned 65 last month, remains involved in baseball as an assistant to Tony Clark, the director of the players union. But much of his time is spent running his foundation and making speeches like the one he’ll deliver at the Compeer luncheon. He’s good at inspiring people. Just ask Derek Jeter, who decided to follow his lead, on and off the diamond.
Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.
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