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Winfield discovers fall fun

The only thing he misses is playing the field. But to compensate, Dave Winfield has become the Toronto Blue Jays' premier cheerleader.

"They signed me just to play ball, but I think the character and chemistry of this team allowed me to be myself. I didn't have to focus on anything else," said Winfield, at 41 enjoying the spotlight in the twilight of a career that seemed over a year ago, when the California Angels decided not to re-sign him.

"They thought I was all washed up, that I couldn't do the job anymore," the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Winfield said. "Maybe I proved that the old man does have some stuff left."

Indeed. Despite hitting 47 homers and driving in 158 runs in little more than a season and a half for the Angels, he no longer was wanted there. The Blue Jays were ready last December, contract in hand.

"Getting signed by Toronto was the best Christmas present I ever got," Winfield said. "I just thought the fit was so right, me coming to a club that needed a cleanup hitter, a guy who was predominantly a DH, and they allowed me to do it, to play in some 150 games again.

"As long as I've been able to play, I've been able to put up the numbers; and the age hasn't made a difference. Playing for a contending team has given me a lot more adrenaline, a lot more will to succeed. I'm proud to have achieved what I did at 40, at 41. I hope to do it at 42."

"If I was playing poorly, I'd say: "Get off my age.' But when you play well, hey, let's play it up. I'm sure I've gained a lot of fans this year, those people 40 and over."

In 156 games in 1992, Winfield batted .290 with 26 home runs (only Joe Carter, with 34, had more for Toronto) and 108 RBI (second to Carter's 119).

Just call him Mr. Ontario.

"What pleases me," Winfield said, "is that so many times when we played up here (with the Yankees and Angels), I did a lot of damage to this ballclub and so many fans would say: "We wish you played here.' And I'm glad when I finally did come here that they still saw vintage Winfield."

In the playoffs, he is batting .300 _ only Roberto Alomar and Devon White are doing better among the Toronto regulars _ and has two of the Blue Jays' eight home runs, both off Oakland ace Dave Stewart.

"And now we're home," Winfield said in that wonderful, mellifluous voice just made for FM radio, the broad smile smile accentuating an unstated fact: The Blue Jays did better than expected in Oakland and are one win away from the World Series.

"Two out of three," he said. "We came into Dodge City and made it out alive. I don't think too many people expected that from us. Once we took the first two (in Oakland), people started talking "sweep.' Hey, had we thought before we got out there that we would sweep and clinch, they'd have looked at us like we were crazy. So we're happy to have two out of three, and now we have them back at our place."

He is in the post-season for the first time since 1981, the first of his 9{ turbulent seasons with the Yankees. Winfield batted .154 in that ALCS and .045 in the World Series against the Dodgers. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner derisively referred to Winfield as "Mr. May," a less-than-flattering comparison to Reggie Jackson, baseball's "Mr. October."

"Different place, different time. I don't relate to that anymore," Winfield said. "I've played this game long enough that there's a lot more good than garbage. I'm pleased I played long enough to really finally enjoy the game.

"Some players have been much more fortunate than me, being in the right place at the right time (to win a World Series). Now, maybe it's my time. If I was unable to play anymore, I'd have to be satisfied with my career. I've played a long time, I've enjoyed myself, I've got a lot of scars. But a (world) championship is the one thing I'd like to get _ the missing link."

He has become something of a surrogate manager with the Blue Jays. "Sometimes," manager Cito Gaston said, "when I'm not around the clubhouse, he carries a little bit bigger stick than I do. And my stick is pretty big."

In Toronto, Winfield said, the players and fans look at him as a winner, a leader. That, he said, wasn't always the case in New York. Now, he feels good about himself.

"I've done a lot of teaching with some of the younger guys here, and I've done a lot of cheerleading," Winfield said. "Normally, I'm always on the field, in the furthest reaches of the field. It's difficult to communicate with everybody on what you'd like to have done.

"Now, on the bench, I've had time to talk to other players, to interact. The staff (Gaston and his coaches) are very quiet. I'm the other extreme. I'll be making all this noise, and they'll be looking at me. I think I instilled some enthusiasm in some of the guys. It was a quiet bunch, and I don't play the game that way."

And for the first time in a decade, for the second time in his 20-year major-league career, he has reason to cheer. In eight seasons in San Diego, the Padres never were contenders. Likewise the Angels in his year and a half.

In New York after 1981, the Yankees challenged but never won a division.

"The fans were great and the city was great, but I didn't have fun," Winfield said. "And we didn't win. Had we won, it would have taken some of the pain away.

"When you play for 17, 18 managers in four different cities, it's not always enjoyable. It's taken me a long time, but I'm finally beginning to enjoy it."