I was looking at the long list of autograph guests for this weekend’s Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo in Toronto.
This year’s Hockey Hall of Fame inductees will be there along with some NHL and Maple Leaf legends. Among the baseball guests is Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, who is fondly remembered from his time with the Blue Jays.
I have also been part of some media scrums with Winfield, but never really got to engage with him back in the 1990s. During my childhood, I was a huge fan. Back in the day, with no cable or regional TV deals and no MLB Network, I listened to him play a lot more than I watched him play. Before he was traded to the Yankees, getting to see out of market teams while growing up on the Ontario-New York border along the St. Lawrence River gave that much more reason to make sure that we tuned in to watch Mel Allen on This Week in Baseball. We went to a few Montreal Expos games every year, and I always picked which games my dad and I would go see based on seeing star players. Seeing Winfield and the San Diego Padres come to the Big O was a highlight.
Unfortunately, Winfield became a household name and a villain in Canada when he tossed a bouncer toward the New Yankees dugout after warm-up throws in Toronto. The ball struck a seagull and killed it. Winfield was charged with cruelty to animals by the Metropolitan Toronto Police.
Through the years, the semi-annual Expo has established itself as the premier hockey collectibles show in the world.
But there is more to this show than hockey. Before the hobby-destroying and Montreal Expo-dismantling baseball strike of 1994, there was a significant amount of baseball cards, autographs and unopened baseball wax moved at the show.
Remember that times were good in Toronto for all sports back then. The Blue Jays had won back-to-back World Series, and several Jays players were autograph guests at the show. The Argos were coming off a Grey Cup victory led by Rocket Ismail, Pinball Clemons and Matt Dunigan, and the Buffalo Bills own the Toronto market and they were in the middle of their run of four straight AFC titles. Basketball was also heating up as Michael Jordan’s popularity drove the sport in the hobby, and Toronto was looking forward to getting an NBA franchise.
Winfield was always a player I admired. I have a few of his rookie cards – mine are O-Pee-Chee instead of Topps – and I was always fascinated in his prowess of being a multi sport athlete. Winfield could have played in the NFL or NBA, but he chose baseball.
The first time I interviewed him, sort of, was during the first Blue Jays game I went to as a member of the media. It was a pre-season game at the dome in Toronto. They left Florida to play a two-game set against the Dodgers in front of sold out crowds in the dome. I guess getting a pair of Grapefruit League crowds north of 50,000 would pay a lot of bills.
I had a photographers pass that game. I was shooting for Canadian Sportscard Collector magazine, and was on the field for some interviews during batting practice and then would be in the locker room doing interviews after the game. We were doing a special issue with an inserted panel of cards, and my shots from that day were going to be used.
The star of that game was rookie outfielder Shawn Green. He was the Jays’ first round draft pick in 1991, and he put on a show in that game, including hitting a double that would drive in the winning run.
In the locker room, Winfield was having a blast, interrupting his own media time by pointing at Green and smiling, yelling, “Look at the kid!”
The media gathering was interesting because that day was a turning point for Winfield. He was no longer the bird slaughtering villain. He was now a superstar with the Blue Jays. Fans stopped flapping their wings at him and cheered him. Winfield was always a consummate professional and would never show that the mocking in Toronto that lasted nearly a decade ever bothered him. But nonetheless, he looked like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
When the beat writers were done, I told him I was with a Canadian hobby magazine and asked him about baseball cards and memorabilia.
“I jumped to the Padres line-up right out of the University of Minnesota,” he said. “It happened very quickly. But I remember seeing my first ever Topps baseball card. When you see yourself on a baseball card, it’s a big moment because you realize that you have made it.”
Halfway through the next question, Winfield saw teammates pouring anything liquid they could find on Shawn Green’s head while he had some microphones in his face.
“Look at the kid!” Winfield exclaimed. He looked back my way.
“You want to do a story on baseball cards? Interview the kid. He’s going to be a big star here and everyone in Toronto is going to want his rookie card!”
As the season went on, I was at about 25 or 30 Blue Jays games, usually in the photography pen. I watched Winfield work the crowd before a game. He signed a lot of autographs for kids up and down the third base lines. He flashed his big smile. He was larger than life. He made sure that getting a Dave Winfield autograph on the photos, programs and cards was not just getting a signature, but it was a moment. Dave Winfield got it. He was the face of the franchise.
Legends of the Game, the big card shop a block away from the stadium, could not keep Dave Winfield cards in stock. Inserts were just starting to become a thing then. People were shelling out up to $5 for his base cards from the various sets.
That year, Winfield also tried to get the fans excited. In 1991, the Blue Jays became the first Major League team to ever surpass four million in attendance. Winfield said it was a quiet four million, and he tried to rally the fans to get loud. Soon, fans wore t-shirts and buttons that said, ‘Winfield Wants Noise!’
The Jays won the World Series that year. Winfield had finally won his ring. All of the criticism he took from George Steinbrenner about being Mr. May and for slumping during the Yankees’ 1981 World Series loss to the Dodgers could be put to rest. Winfield hit .290 with 26 home runs and 108 RBIs in the regular season and hitting an 11th inning double that would be the difference in a Game 6 win to clinch the Series.
Winfield The Hero
To some, Dave Winfield was a hero.
For me, he became a hero 27 years later.
In 2019, I had a close call with a plasma-based blood cancer called multiple myeloma. I had never heard of multiple myeloma, but the more I found out about it, the more I realized that I would be in a fight every day of my life. It’s an incurable cancer that forms aggressive tumors and eats your skeleton and weakens your bones. The tumor that nearly killed me was the size of a tennis ball. It ate a quarter of my skull and had entered my brain. It was taken out May 9, 2019, and that part of my skull was replaced with a metal plate and my head was stapled shut. On May 10, I would have died. On May 11, I went home and spent the rest of the summer grinding baseball games and going through countless scorebooks as I charted pitches of hundreds of games as a brain exercise.
After a month, I began daily radiation on my skull and brain.
My last radiation treatment was on July 31. I was listening to the MLB Network on Sirius XM Radio on my way to the Ottawa Cancer Centre, thinking about ringing the bell that day. Steve Phillips and CJ Nitkowski introduced Dave Winfield and Don Baylor Jr. as their next guests. They were on the show to talk about multiple myeloma, that rare cancer that nobody ever knows about until it hits them or someone close to them.
I knew that Don Baylor had died from multiple myeloma. I guess when you get a rare cancer, it’s kind of like your birthday. You get on Google to find out what baseball players or celebrities have the same birthday, and what famous people died of the cancer that you have. The first name that popped up for me was Don Baylor.
Dave Winfield and Don Baylor were close friends. Winfield and Don Baylor Jr. teamed up with a company called Amgen to create Myeloma MVP, a website and tool kit to learn more about multiple myeloma and to create a plan for treatment. From the interview, I could tell this was personal for both of them. They were passionate about it. They saw it bob and weave and play rope-a-dope with Don Baylor for 14 years before it finally killed him.
“I knew Don Baylor for nearly 40 years from our playing days. He was my teammate, a groomsman in my wedding and one of my best friends,” Winfield once said.
I sent an email to MLB Network telling them I was a multiple myeloma patient and thanking Steve Phillips and CJ Nitkowski for having Winfield and Baylor Jr. on their program. I was floored when I got an email back from CJ Nitkowski. These are guys I listen to every day, even in the offseason. They are part of my life, and they take me into a world where I can escape the pain and fatigue and anemia that comes with my ongoing battle.
Steve Garvey also became involved with Amgen to promote the Myeloma MVP program. Garvey’s father-in-law passed away after a bout with multiple myeloma.
The cancer hovers, and then reattacks. They knew it would hit me again, and it did in March, 2020, the weekend the COVID-19 pandemic started. I had 32 chemo injections and then a stem cell transplant. During my journey, we learned that Houston Astros coach Gary Pettis was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
When I got home after a month in the hospital at the Ottawa Cancer Centre, I spent a lot of time sorting out my collection. I already had almost every Dave Winfield card from when he played, but I needed to work on my Don Baylor collection. I figured I would have Gary Pettis cards in that binder too.
In sports, we throw around the word hero a lot. We misuse that word. Being good at sports does not make one a hero. But standing up and doing something for people who fight every day, hoping they will be around for Opening Day next spring, is special.
In my world, a multiple myeloma hero beats a World Series hero in rock-paper-scissors every single time.