Two hours after facing Oakland A's pitcher Miguel Jimenez, who is 24 years old, Dave Winfield sat in the Minnesota Twins' locker room and described the time he nervously fielded a single by Willie Mays, who is now 62. He talked about the night Willie McCovey, now 55, was walked intentionally to get to Winfield, who then hit a grand slam. "I wouldn't walk anyone to get to me," Winfield said, laughing. Then he recalled the time he hit a monstrous homer off Bob Gibson, now 57. "Next time up, he knocked me down," Winfield said.
"I've spanned decades and eras," said Winfield, who is now 41. "I saw Pete Rose do his thing. I've seen a lot of phenomenal players—and my career is far from over."
What a career it has been. Last Thursday, Winfield, the Twins' hometown hero, grounded a single to leftfield off Oakland's Dennis Eckersley to make himself the 19th player in major league history to get 3,000 hits. Add in 453 homers, 1,780 RBIs, eight 100-RBI seasons (only one fewer than McCovey and Willie Stargell combined), 220 stolen bases and seven Gold Gloves, and you have a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer. His former boss, George Steinbrenner, called him Mr. May after a 1-for-22 showing for the New York Yankees in the 1981 World Series, but a case could now be made for Winfield's having been a better all-around player than Mr. October, Reggie Jackson.
"It will be interesting to see what, when I'm done, people will perceive that I did best offensively," Winfield said. "To me, the biggest thing is the hits. No matter how you look at it, that's a lot of hits."
He got hits off 681 pitchers, from Aase to Zamora. He got hits off Abbott and Castillo, Montgomery and Ward, Willis and Reed, Nolan and Ryan, Rainey and Clear, Mason and Dixon, Perry and Mason, Murphy and Brown, Best and Hurst, Fisher and Price, Norman and Mahler, Klink and Schultz. He got hits during the terms of six presidents (1,287 under Ronald Reagan), plus another one off Len Whitehouse.
"I love longevity," A's manager Tony La Russa said before Winfield got number 3,000. "I really hope he gets the two hits tonight. I want to be here to see it."
Longevity? Winfield's first hit came on June 19, 1973, the same day Nixon went with Brezhnev to Camp David. Longevity? Winfield is the oldest man to get 100 RBIs in a season, the oldest to hit for the cycle, the oldest to hit a postseason home run—all of which has happened since he missed the 1989 season with back surgery.
And through all that time, he ran hard to first base on every grounder and graciously filled the notebooks of countless reporters. Meanwhile, he bought 18 Burger King franchises and donated millions of dollars to various charities.
Winfield, one of the best pure athletes ever to play major league baseball, was drafted in 1973 by three professional sports (football and basketball lost out); he could have done virtually anything he wanted on an athletic field. "Kids don't realize that I was Bo [Jackson] long before Bo came along," he once remarked.
Born in St. Paul on Oct. 3, 1951, the day Bobby Thomson hit the most famous homer in major league history, Winfield seemed destined to become a baseball player. "I was drafted [by the San Diego Padres out of the University of Minnesota] as a pitcher, but the first day of spring training I was made an outfielder," says Winfield. "I never played in the minor leagues. I had to learn it all up here. How many guys learn it all up here?"
And how many guys get to learn what it feels like to chase number 3,000? Winfield returned home to the Metrodome on Sept. 13 for a four-game series against the A's four hits shy of the mark. He got a hit the first night, none the second and one the third. On Sept. 16, in his third at bat, he bounced a batted ball high off the plate against Kelly Downs. Then, against the Eck, Winfield singled home a run in the ninth for 3,000. The embarrassingly small crowd of 14,654 went wild, littering the field with paper cups and toilet paper. The hometown kid had done it.
After the game Twin outfielder Kirby Puckett studied a sheet detailing Winfield's accomplishments. "When Winny got his first hit, I was 12 years old," Puckett said. "Twelve! Man, what a man."
Winfield's latest milestone was special cause for joy since it came before hometown fans.