Baseball / MLB

Hall of Famer Winfield impressed by Otani's versatility

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

When Dave Winfield was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 1973, it was as a pitcher. When he entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, it was because of his career as a batter and outfielder. He briefly played both positions in college, and when he looks at the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ Shohei Otani today, Winfield sees a kindred spirit.

The Hall of Famer is accompanying the Major League All-Stars on their tour of Japan this year, in his capacity as a special assistant to Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark, and got the chance to see Otani’s brief pitching appearance in the eighth inning of Game 1 of the MLB-Japan All-Star Series on Wednesday at Kyocera Dome. Otani was impressive in retiring all three batters he faced and was throwing his fastball in the mid 150s.

“Although I was up high, I was up in a suite, I said, ‘this kid is bringing it,’ ” Winfield told The Japan Times before Game 2 on Friday. “They just informed me today that he’s versatile, he’s played the outfield, he’s DH’ed, and he’s hit the long ball himself.”

“Reminds me of me,” he added, laughing. “I have to meet this kid.”

Otani, in his second professional season in Japan, went 11-4 with a 2.61 ERA for the Fighters on the mound and hit .274 with 10 homers and 31 RBIs in 212 at-bats, mostly as a designated hitter. The debate about whether Otani should concentrate solely on hitting or pitching has trailed him since his debut last season, but to this point, the 20-year-old has maintained his preference is to do both.

“What happens is, many time ball clubs and organizations, they kind of pigeonhole you or they start to get into specialization,” Winfield said. “Can you believe in college, for three of the four years, they didn’t let me hit, only pitch? So sometimes you can go wrong,” he added with a wry smile. “You can be misguided.”

The charismatic Winfield was one of the best athletes to ever grace an MLB diamond. A two-sport star at the University of Minnesota, where he also played basketball, Winfield, as a pitcher, was voted the Most Outstanding Player of the 1973 College World Series. He possessed such athleticism that in addition to being drafted by the Padres, he was also taken by the Atlanta Hawks late in the NBA draft, the Utah Stars in the ABA draft, and also the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings despite not having played collegiate football.

The St. Paul, Minnesota, native chose to play baseball professionally, and the rest is history. Winfield spent 22 seasons in the big leagues, where he was a 12-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove Winner. He was on the Toronto Blue Jays’ 1992 World Series championship-winning team and finished his career with a .283 average, 465 home runs and 1,833 RBIs.

Winfield enjoyed a robust career but never had an opportunity to play on a Japan tour, saying that there was an opportunity late that he had to pass up because of a family commitment. Winfield has, however, visited Japan on two occasions in the past and enjoys seeing what the country has to offer.

“Of course you check out the history, and sightseeing and just absorbing the culture and sampling some of the food,” Winfield said.

The Hall of Famer also sung the praises of the Japan team that beat the MLB All-Stars 2-0 in Game 1 on Wednesday and 8-4 in Game 2 on Friday.

“They play good baseball here in Japan, they really do,” Winfield said. “They’ve played baseball for 100-plus years. They know how to play. It’s a different style, but they get it done. They’re always competitive, because they’re fundamentally sound.”

In his role with the MLBPA, Winfield is a fan of tours like the one the MLB players are currently on, saying it helps broaden the game’s horizon. The influx of Japanese stars in the majors is proof of the way the game keeps expanding internationally, which Winfield sees as a positive sign.

“Adding any diversity to the mix makes the game stronger,” Winfield said. “Not only at home, but in the ability to expand internationally and influence people. I think it’s the best game in the world, and I like to see us take these kinds of steps. The competitions and the interactions with different cultures.”