Dave Winfield, the original Padres superstar

The big slugger ripped the franchise's first-ever All-Star Game hit on his way to a Hall of Fame career

July 1st, 2016

In the summer of 1978, Dave Winfield's baseball career already had traveled a long way from his native Minnesota, where he spent his formative years as a multi-sport star. He was even further away, literally and figuratively, from Cooperstown, where he'd eventually take his legacy. In July '78, Winfield was in San Diego for Major League Baseball's All-Star Game. Since his 1973 debut, the towering, athletic outfielder quickly had become the face of the Padres franchise, a rising superstar on the field at San Diego Stadium alongside the game's elite performers in the Midsummer Classic.
Winfield was all of 26 years old when baseball's summertime exhibition fixed its bright spotlight on what was known as America's Finest City, a Major League town for just a decade by that point. All eyes turned to Southern California for a beautiful summer evening of baseball. Winfield was one of two Padres representing the home team, the other also a future Hall of Famer: veteran pitcher Rollie Fingers. But there was no mistaking that the fan favorite was the 6-foot-6 young man who had jumped straight to the Big Leagues from the College World Series, during which he led the University of Minnesota to the semi-finals and earned MVP honors.

"I was an All-Star for a second year, and the people were proud," says Winfield, the No. 4 overall pick of the 1973 Draft and now a special assistant to the executive director of the Major League Players Association. "When we got to the introductions, I got by far the loudest ovation even though I wasn't a starter that year. You step out of line to tip your cap, you step back and they cheered some more. I'll remember that forever."
Despite being a reserve, Winfield added to his All-Star Game lore in '78 by scoring during the National League's game-winning, eighth-inning rally, becoming the first Padres player to score a run in an All-Star Game. Just a year earlier, he had knocked the team's first Midsummer Classic hit. Two decades and 12 All-Star Game appearances later, he would become the first inductee ever to wear a Padres cap on his plaque at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And this year, he and Trevor Hoffman are serving as spokesmen for the 87th MLB All-Star Game.

It's safe to say that Winfield was the franchise's first true superstar, an athlete whose talents would rank him among the game's elite for years to come. Certainly, Tony Gwynn became Mr. Padre and took his place alongside Winfield in the Hall, while Nate Colbert and Randy Jones already had placed their stamp on the team in the 1970s. But not even Gwynn could top Winfield's 465 home runs, 1,833 RBI or .475 slugging percentage, all of which catapulted him into Cooperstown.
In the summer of '78, Winfield was just beginning a journey that would lead him through some fitful years in Yankees pinstripes and ultimately to a World Series ring with Toronto. He was five years into a Big League career that started without a day in the Minor Leagues after he was drafted by four franchises -- MLB, plus the NBA, ABA and NFL -- in three different sports. (The NFL's Vikings selected Winfield although he did not play college football.) He went with the Padres and baseball, and the rest is history.
Just a week before the Padres selected a 21-year-old Winfield, though, it looked like Major League Baseball and San Diego were about to part ways. Less than five years after becoming an expansion franchise in 1969, the Padres announced in May 1973 that they'd be moving to Washington, D.C., the next season for financial reasons -- a move that Ray Kroc ultimately scuttled by purchasing the club. Through all that turmoil, the Padres drafted and signed a player who stands as by far the most successful first-round draft pick in club history.
Bob Chandler, a longtime broadcaster for the Padres, recalls how the stunning news about the organization's future was so quickly followed by the team's decision to draft Winfield behind David Clyde (Rangers), John Stearns (Phillies) and Robin Yount (Brewers). "Just a week later they draft Winfield, and the team was so bad that when they brought Winfield in for a few days to work out, he was better than most of the players we had," Chandler says. "It was kind of devastating in a way. You could see this kid -- he was raw but he had such ability. He could run, he could throw, he could hit with power, and you thought, 'Oh my God, the team's going to move to Washington and we're never going to have him in San Diego.' And then five years later, he plays in the All-Star Game in San Diego."
It didn't take long for the Padres to figure out they had something special on their hands. A two-sport star with the Golden Gophers -- he also played NCAA basketball -- Winfield was drawing the attention of baseball scouts with his pitching as much as with his hitting.
"When the Padres drafted him, I remember he asked Donnie Williams, the scout who signed him, 'Do you want me as a pitcher or an outfielder?' And Donnie said, 'Big boy, we want you to swing that bat every day,'" Chandler recalls.
Winfield played his first full season in 1974 alongside Willie McCovey while the Padres, in their first year under Kroc's ownership, drew more than 1 million fans for the first time. Winfield continued to improve until he earned an All-Star nod for the first time in '77 at Yankee Stadium, where he developed an affinity for being among the very best in the game right away.

"Once I went in the locker room and you had the captains of the teams -- Joe DiMaggio was the American League's and Willie Mays was the National League's -- I looked up and down the roster; I liked it. You had the Big Red Machine and the Pittsburgh Lumber Company and previous Cy Young Award winners," Winfield says. "I thought, 'I'm going to come back. I want to do everything I can to continue to perform at that level and return.' It's like anything: Once you achieve a certain height, a certain level of play, you want to continue at that level."
And so he did the very next year, when the game was played before his home fans in San Diego. By then, his name was more recognizable around the game, and he was front and center as the city basked in a rare showing in the national sports spotlight.
In a short time in San Diego, Winfield had already made his mark as a pioneer for professional athletes working in the community by establishing the Dave Winfield Foundation and famously starting his Winfield Pavilion, which donated tickets to thousands of youngsters each season. At that '78 All-Star Game, he held a party for those kids, who then attended the first open All-Star practice session ever on the day before the game. The event inspired the idea for a day of activities, such as the Home Run Derby, on the eve of the Midsummer Classic.
The 1978 Padres wound up being the first winning ballclub in franchise history, fueled by Winfield, Ozzie Smith and Gaylord Perry, who won that year's Cy Young Award. Winfield was an All-Star for four straight years with the Padres, who struggled in the standings after that high in '78. He left San Diego on shaky terms with management and signed with the Yankees for what was then the richest contract in baseball history: 10 years, $23.3 million. He also enjoyed stints with the Angels, Blue Jays, Twins and Indians after his auspicious start in San Diego.

After his playing career ended, Winfield rejoined the Padres organization as an executive vice president for more than a decade, bringing his baseball career full circle, back to the place where a young man straight out of college got the opportunity of a lifetime to be a baseball superstar. "I appreciate that, having been a first-round pick, I was able to go directly to the Major Leagues [with] no Minor Leagues experience," Winfield says.
"I negotiated it at the beginning, but I had to earn it after a year and Spring Training. I earned the ability to stay. What I tell people is you search for that key to unlock your talent, and I was an avid student who wanted to be as good as I could be. It took a number of years, but my sights were high, my trajectory kept getting better, and I didn't really settle for being mediocre.
"I had no idea I would play for six teams in both leagues, both coasts. I appreciate all that has happened along the way."
This article appears in the MLB Official All-Star Game Program. Click here to purchase a copy, and read more features on allstargame.com.