A series by Joel Sherman chronicles how the Yankees’ fiasco of 1990 laid the groundwork for a dynasty.
The room was a step up from a broom closet. The visiting manager’s office at the Kingdome was hastily turned into a forum for a press conference.
The Yankees brought in general manager Pete Peterson and manager Bucky Dent. Dave Winfield invited himself.
The Yankees were not wise enough to prevent it.
“I’m going to have the last word on this,” Winfield remembers about May 11, 1990, the day the Yankees kinda, sorta traded him. “I forced my way in there.”
Peterson and Dent would do the talking that day for the Yankees. But after a decade in the organization’s employ, Winfield knew there was an offstage puppeteer pulling the strings.
So Peterson announced Winfield had been traded to the Angels for pitcher Mike Witt. Winfield countered, “I’m not going anywhere; I’ll make the choice when and where and how I go.”
Thus, began a bizarre, testy, confrontational press conference in which Peterson and Winfield dueled mainly about whether a clause in his contract that permitted the Yankees to trade him to the Angels outweighed his 10-and-5 rights (10 years in the majors, five with one team) that granted any player the right to veto or approve a trade.
Winfield was just a few months into the final season of his 10-year contract with the Yankees. Over the decade — from literally the outset — the puppeteer had grown to hate Winfield. To insult him. To derisively nickname him. To sue him.
The obsession had now led George Steinbrenner to kinda, sorta trade Winfield. But the obsession would have much greater implications than determining which contractual clause was dominant when it came to a trade. By the end of the 1990 season, Steinbrenner would be banned for life from running the Yankees because he simply could not stop trying to destroy Dave Winfield.
Winfield was the big free agent of the 1980-81 offseason. Under the old free-agent re-entry draft — designed to limit how many teams with which a player could negotiate — both the Mets and Yankees made Winfield their first choice (and pitcher Don Sutton their second).
The Mets averaged 97 losses from 1977-80, a period in which the Yanks averaged 98 wins and captured two titles. Mets GM Frank Cashen was trying to speed up a rebuild and was helped in the Winfield negotiations by the team’s still relatively new president, Fred Wilpon, who in January 1980 had bought a small percentage of the team.
Winfield, though, had been on Padres teams from 1973-80 that never finished higher than fourth in the six-team NL West. He wanted a bigger city, which the Mets could offer, but also a strong lineup and a proven winner, which the Mets could not. As a way to entice Winfield, the Mets tried to land Fred Lynn in a trade with Boston for Tim Leary, Mookie Wilson and Neil Allen. They tried to sign a few prime free agents. And they tried money — at his introductory press conference Winfield said the Mets and the Braves, with their maverick owner Ted Turner, had offered more in guaranteed money.
“Obviously, we wanted Dave Winfield very badly but I have no misgivings, we gave it our best shot,” Wilpon said at the time.
The Mets instead ended up signing Rusty Staub, nearing his 37th birthday, to play right field for then-manager Joe Torre, hoping he could bridge the gap until top prospect Darryl Strawberry arrived.
Winfield picked the Yankees. He had trepidation about Steinbrenner’s publicly critical style. But Steinbrenner had a seductive way when he wanted something. And he wanted Winfield — and no way was he going to let him become a Met nor lose to Turner, his swashbuckling Southern rival.
Reggie Jackson was about to enter his walk year and Steinbrenner craved the next model. Reggie was going to play at 35 in 1981, and, though he had hit 41 homers and finished second in the AL MVP voting in 1980, Jackson did not deliver a World Series win, which was all that mattered to Steinbrenner.
Winfield was 29, a good enough athlete to be drafted by the Vikings in the NFL plus teams in both the ABA (Utah Stars) and NBA (Atlanta Hawks). He lacked Jackson’s charisma, but at 6-foot-6 had an all-around game superior to Reggie’s.
“If I went someplace else I’d be the king, but the king of what?” Winfield said at the time. “I want to be with a team that wins, a team that can get to the World Series. I want people to recognize my talent.”
Steinbrenner played to all of that, understood how to satisfy a star’s ego. The press conference was on Dec. 15, 1980, at Jimmy Weston’s, the restaurant/jazz club on East 54th Street. Jackson was there, and so was Dick Howser, who had been fired/quit as manager after one 100-win season because Steinbrenner was so merciless all year, but especially after the Yankees lost to the Royals in the 1980 ALCS. The new manager also was there, having stepped down as GM to accept the position. That was Gene Michael.
And if that were not a reminder of who the true Boss was — not the seducer — he already had turned the page on Winfield. Steinbrenner dominated the press conference with talk of trading Ron Guidry and Ruppert Jones to the Red Sox for Lynn to play center between Jackson and Winfield. He had wanted a pitcher thrown in, Dennis Eckersley, but that was a non-starter for Boston, which was willing to talk Bob Stanley or Mike Torrez. A super outfield — not the super outfielder — was now Steinbrenner’s priority, enough to turn Winfield into a co-star on his big day.
It was about to get much worse in the following days when Steinbrenner would learn that he and his lawyers did not understand the cost-of-living kickers in Winfield’s pact that would likely turn what already was an MLB record 10-year, $15 million accord up toward $23 million.
Presciently at the press conference, Jackson had cautioned Winfield about life with George by stating, “It can be Disneyland or it can be hell.”
A year later, Jackson was in Disneyland playing for the Angels. Winfield would follow a decade later.
Humiliated by not understanding the contract, Steinbrenner began a hate affair with Winfield that would last the extent of the pact. The contract spat is how Winfield’s first season began. It ended with him infamously going 1-for-22 in a six-game World Series loss to the Dodgers. In between, Winfield says these days Steinbrenner began not making payments to the David Winfield Foundation for Children that were part of the contract.
“There were more things than the contract [cost-of-living elements] and the World Series,” Winfield said. “Plenty of people told me for years, you don’t have to take this, you can play elsewhere. I wasn’t going to allow him to get away with the things he was doing. We could have been businessmen and negotiated our way around this and made it better for all. That wasn’t his nature. It was awful. It was awful.”
From 1982-88, Winfield was a durable star, averaging 150 games a year, 106 RBIs and a 135 OPS-plus. But the pitching-weak Yanks never made the playoffs and Steinbrenner targeted Winfield, whose refusal to bend to The Boss’ will only heightened Steinbrenner’s animus and fervor to destroy him. He nicknamed Winfield “Mr. May,” was party to a sue/countersue relationship and tried multiple times to trade Winfield, for example, to Toronto for Jesse Barfield, to Detroit for Kirk Gibson, to Houston for Kevin Bass. In April 1988, the Yankees talked seriously to Baltimore about a Winfield-for-Lynn deal. By then, Winfield had his 10-and-5 rights and informed the Yanks no way.
Before the 1989 season, Winfield was diagnosed with a herniated disk, needed back surgery and missed the season. To compensate, the Yankees traded for two corner outfielders (Barfield and Mel Hall) and a DH (Steve Balboni), all of whom were still with the team when spring training 1990 opened after a 32-day owners’ lockout of the players. So was Winfield, healthy and entering the final season of his contract, but suddenly with potential impediments to his playing time on the roster.
“At the time I shared with those who worked with me that over the last 10 years that they had done everything in their power to diminish, demean and hurt me,” Winfield recalls. “They did it through the media, lawsuits, changes in the lineup where I was hitting. It was never nice. Now, we were in the last year of a contract. I thought desperation could set in. I told everyone to be on the lookout. I thought they would do stuff to mess with me.”
On March 25, 1990 — five days after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired from the NBA — the first story appeared that the Yankees were discussing a Winfield-for-Witt trade. Steinbrenner vowed Witt would never pitch for the Yankees because he lacked the temperament to do so.
Rusty after a missed year, Winfield went 1-for-29 in spring. He no longer was the starting right fielder. He was the DH. Then, in the same early May week in which Jose Altuve was born, Winfield, in the midst of a 0-for-23 stretch, was reduced further to being the DH versus lefty starters only and learned the Yankees had submitted three outfielders for the All-Star ballot: Barfield, Hall and Roberto Kelly. Peterson said it was his decision, that Barfield and Kelly were no-brainers, so it came down to Hall versus Winfield. Winfield, an All-Star every year from 1977-88, recognized the historic/popularity absurdity of Hall versus Winfield. He also sensed it was not Peterson but the behind-the-scenes puppeteer trying to humiliate him. He told reporters, “It is ridiculous. Whoever made this decision should be fired.”
Three days later, Steinbrenner tried to fire Winfield from the Yankees.
Winfield was taking batting practice May 11 at the Kingdome when he was called into a meeting with Dent and Peterson and told he had been traded for Witt, whose temperament was suddenly OK to play for the Yankees. Winfield informed the executives the trade couldn’t happen without his approval, Peterson said it could and the duo carried their debate into a press conference in front of reporters.
“It was a matter of who was going to blink first, and when I didn’t blink with all they were doing to me, they tried to pull off a trade without talking to me first,” Winfield remembered. “I didn’t give in for nine years before that, I wasn’t going to in the last year.”
Dent insisted he was the motivation behind the trade because he was concerned Winfield, as a part-time DH, would become poisonous to the clubhouse. But Dent had no power base. He would be out of his job in less than a month.
Jeff Idelson, in his first full year as the Yankees’ media relations director and the future president of the Hall of Fame, remembers the hasty nature of the trade since he had to write the details on the back of a fax cover sheet, have Peterson sign it and fax it to the league for approval. When Winfield eventually made it to Cooperstown, Idelson promised to find the paper and give it to him.
In real time, there was a stalemate. Winfield left the Kingdome and MLB and the union began a fight over whether Winfield’s seven-team list to which he could contractually be traded, which included the Angels, superseded the collectively bargained for all 10-and-5 rights. It never got to arbitration. Five days into the standoff, Angels owner Gene Autry came in with a three-year, $9.1 million extension. Approaching his 39th birthday with no contract for 1991, Winfield finally accepted a divorce from Steinbrenner. He then rather quickly dispelled the Yankee theories he no longer could play the field nor hit consistently, emerging as the cleanup-hitting right fielder of the Angels and producing 19 homers and 72 RBIs in 111 games.
On May 14, before Winfield had agreed to the trade, Steinbrenner met with him to tell the slugger that if Winfield won the arbitration case he would be welcomed back to the Yankees. It was a strange olive branch explained at the time by those who knew The Boss as his way to try to curry favor with Winfield. After all, then-commissioner Fay Vincent had an ongoing investigation into Steinbrenner’s $40,000 payment to self-described gambler Howie Spira for negative information about Winfield, and perhaps a few good words from Winfield could help. Even after a decade of discord, Steinbrenner did not know what Winfield was made of.
On July 5, Vincent ruled Steinbrenner’s meeting with Winfield constituted tampering and the commissioner fined the Yankees $25,000 and forced them to pay $200,000 to the Angels. That announcement came after Steinbrenner had testified for 7 ¹/₂ hours before Vincent, offering myriad explanations for his payment to Spira.
The puppeteer was now fully exposed to the one person he could not fire. The one person who could fire him. His hatred and obsession with Winfield had finally brought him to this moment.
George Steinbrenner had just a few more weeks on the job.
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