- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2007

Dave Winfield sat in a police station in Toronto and presumably pondered the bizarre business that had put him there.

The date was Aug. 4, 1983, and the New York Yankees outfielder had committed the not quite cardinal sin of flipping a warmup baseball to a ball boy sitting near the Yankees bullpen in right-center field at old Exhibition Stadium in the middle of the fifth inning.

The kid missed the ball … but the ball didn’t miss a sleeping seagull. It hit the visitor from Lake Ontario squarely in the head and immediately the bird — just like a foolhardy opponent trying to run on Winfield’s strong arm — was a dead duck, so to speak.

Unfortunately, Winfield didn’t realize seagulls were an endangered species in Canada. As the ball boy appeared with a towel to remove the remains, Winfield stood with his cap over his heart in mocking tribute. Bad move. Fans began hurling debris and invectives his way, and after the game policemen arrived to cart the 6-foot-6 slugger off to the hoosegow.

If tried and convicted, Winfield could have paid a $500 fine and spent up to six months in prison. He was released after a short time, however, and the next day a Canadian prosecution attorney said he would push to have cruelty to animal charges dropped.

Winfield’s likeness rests in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown — he was inducted in 2001 — but we can be sure his picture doesn’t hang in the offices of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or the Audubon Society. Unless, of course, he’s on their 10 Most Wanted lists.

Yankees manager Billy Martin, noted for a quick temper rather than a quick wit, nonetheless came up with a pretty good wisecrack.

“They think he hit the gull on purpose,” Martin said of the many Canadians in a snit and a tizzy. “They wouldn’t say that if they’d seen the throws he’s been making all year. It’s the first time he’s hit the cutoff man or anything else.”

Following the season, Winfield — really a decent guy — did his best to make amends. He commissioned an artist to do a painting depicting two seagulls in flight and another perched on a red maple leaf to help raise money for the nation’s Easter Seals Society, The inscription, written by Winfield, said, “To the Canadian people, committed to the preservation of their values and resources.” And the ballplayer attended the Conn Smythe dinner where the painting was auctioned.

The deceased seagull was not present, except perhaps in melancholy memory.

It should be clear by now that baseballs and birds do not mix. In recent years, two other feathered friends found themselves in disastrous proximity to horsehides.

The most unfortunate victim was a dove that found its way into a Tucson, Ariz., stadium during an exhibition game and into the flight path of a Randy Johnson fastball. The stricken dove soared over the head of catcher Rod Barajas and landed lifeless a few feet from the plate in a flurry of feathers.

“I’m expecting to catch the [ball], and all you see is an explosion,” Barajas said after the game. It’s crazy. There’s still feathers down there.”

Johnson was not amused by the incident or a flock — pardon the pun — of postgame jokes, saying, “I didn’t think it was all that funny.”

And during a Class AAA game, a player was called out temporarily after swinging and missing a pitch that struck a gull on its way to the plate in Buffalo. The play was ruled dead, but the bird wasn’t. Miraculously, it survived — but then again a minor league fastball presumably did not match Randy Johnson’s for velocity.

Birds aren’t the only creatures to suffer indignities at the hands of sports folks. In his autobiography, star pitcher Dwight Gooden told how he saw New York Mets teammate Kevin Mitchell behead his girlfriend’s cat during an argument. Minor league pitcher Jae Kuk Ryu intentionally knocked an osprey off its perch with a baseball; the bird died six days later. A golfer named Harry Wagner clubbed to death a 6-foot black swan because he felt “threatened” by the bird.

And the all-time champion of animal abuse was Mississippi State football coach Jackie Sherrill, who attempted to “educate and motivate” his players in 1992 by having a bull castrated on the practice field.

Ouch!

Afterward, Sherrill remained clueless, apologizing “if this incident was in any way not perceived as proper.”

Winfield, though, was hardly that kind of lout. An educated, well-spoken man, he was widely admired while batting .283 with 3,110 hits, 465 home runs and 1,833 RBI during a 22-year major league career. He remains the only athlete to be drafted in three major sports (by MLB’s San Diego Padres, pro basketball’s Atlanta Hawks and Utah Stars and the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.

On second thought, maybe big Dave should have chosen hoops. After all, there are no seagulls in basketball arenas.

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