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Mudville: September 18, 2021 12:15 pm PDT
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Herm Winningham

“I am going to the World Series before I’m done. That I know.”

Herm Winningham loves baseball.

That is crystal clear when you have one conversation with the former Expos and Reds outfielder.

What is also clear is that he enjoys sharing that love with others. He’s been a successful youth coach and he’s quick to break down the nuances of the sport the same way he spins tales of playing with and against many Hall of Famers and being a World Series champion.

Winningham joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.

Herm Winningham was a football and baseball star growing up in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He was best friends with Mike Sharperson, another future Major Leaguer and World Series champ.

A first round draft pick of the Mets, Winningham was a top prospect in their system in the early 1980s along with some familiar names. But, as Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Ron Darling and the others went on to lead the Mets to the 1986 World Series, Winningham wasn’t among them. Instead, the role he played in helping the Mets to that historic title was as the main piece as the trade which brought Hall of Famer Gary Carter to the franchise.

Winningham would go on to win his World Series with the 1990 Reds, even scoring the decisive run in a 2-1 Game 4 win to give the Reds the sweep.

With the accomplishments he had in the game and the impact he has made with so many youngsters, it’s no wonder Winningham talks baseball with so much passion.

Let’s break down the game’s fundamentals and remember the great era of baseball known as the 1980s as we go Spitballin’ with Herm Winningham.

“When we voted on World Series shares, we ended up getting Ken Griffey, Sr. a full share. People don’t know that, but that’s what we did.”

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Winningham. You’re the third member of the 1990 Reds World Series team we have had. But before we get into that, let’s start in your childhood. How did you get started playing baseball?

Like any other little kid, I started at about seven. My mom took us to sign up for swimming, but the line was too long, so we went and signed up for baseball. I was in love ever since!

Did you have any favorite players or teams growing up?

No, because I grew up in South Carolina. We only had the Atlanta Braves and then the Game of the Week on Saturday. But one year my Little League team sold enough candy to go to a Braves game in Fulton County Stadium. The game ended up being the one when Hank Aaron was going for number 715. He didn’t get it that game, but he got it the next one. I was there the day before he hit number 715. That was the first time ever going to a Major League Baseball game. I never went to another one until I was in college.

Wow, that’s absolutely amazing! That’s such a great era to watch baseball.

Yes, it was. In high school, I watched Omar Moreno. I was a centerfielder and at that time, Omar patrolled right field and left field while he was playing center. That’s who I wanted to become. He was my hero growing up and I watched everything he did.

Back then, they played baseball. Win, lose or draw, they loved the game. The game has changed and it’s hard for me to watch a baseball game now. I grew up with those old guys who taught small ball and situational hitting. It had nothing to do with launch angle and analytics.

I agree with you for sure. It’s tough to see how much baseball has changed and the product that is on the field now.

Baseball has become an “I, I, me, me” game. Nobody wants to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of the team. That’s just my own opinion. It used to be if you had a guy on second with no outs and if you’re a right-handed hitter who didn’t get the bunt [sign], you know what you gotta do. Hit to the right side and at least get them over. Maybe you get a hit and it’s first and third. Now I see them put the shift on and guys hit right into it and don’t advance the runner. You mean to tell me you can’t hit a 200-hopper to the opposite field? It’s ugly to me that you can’t do that for the team.

Couldn’t agree with you more. It’s a shame all of that strategy is gone.

Look, I know that chicks dig the longball and it puts people in the seats. But the name of the game as a player is to be the best at what you do and get your team to the World Series. Averages are down, home runs are up and so are strikeouts. Stolen bases and sacrifices are down. Then you have the changes with pitching too.

Pitchers were always taught in the minor leagues that they had to go nine. It didn’t always happen, but it made for that mindset that they were supposed to go nine. That was instilled in you from day one as a starting pitcher. That’s the mental attitude you developed. You look at the guys now and they’ll go 4 1/3 inning and they’re looking in the dugout like, “Help!”

Do you see any way baseball starts to move back to the way it was played for the previous 100-plus years?

Those days are long gone for right now. I’m not saying that it won’t happen. Baseball always evolves. That’s one thing about this game. What goes around, comes back around. You want to put guys on second in extra innings and all those things? Nobody tries to move them to third base with one out and make it easy for the next guy. Everyone just tries to be the hero. They shouldn’t mess with it though. You can’t make it any better; it was a perfect sport. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

You were a big pro prospect. How did your professional career get started?

You had the January and June drafts. I was drafted four times. I had left my junior college and went to Florida State. [Head Coach] Mike Martin said, “I don’t know what you’re doing here, I can’t teach you anything else.” I left Florida State and never played there and signed professionally. I reported to Joan W. Payson Complex. The rookie ball teams had already been set, so all the ballclubs sent their late signees there. Baltimore, St. Louis, all of them. It was a hodgepodge of players. When I walked in, they gave me a uniform, a locker and a pair of socks. They told me to watch these outfielders and how they played.

For two weeks, I watched those guys hit it harder, throw it farther and run faster than me. Man, I was struggling. One day I went into the locker room and there were three trash bags. As I was getting dressed, they said they released three guys. I got scared. I went out on the field by myself and started thinking, “Lord, I’m not gonna make it out of my first Spring Training.”

This was all I wanted to be. I was sitting on the ground, and I looked up and a coach was coming towards me. I started crying. I stood up and wiped the tears from my eyes. I thought, this was it, I’ll have to find something else to do. Ed Olsen came to me and said four words: come early, stay late. From that point on for the rest of my career I was the first one to the ballpark and one of the last to leave.

That’s a great lesson. Then you became a part of that great Mets minor league organization of the 1980s. What was it like coming up with all those guys?

I went to the Instructional League and that’s where I met Terry Blocker, Darryl Strawberry and all those guys. I was one class behind Straw. It was fun, but it was a lot of work. I tell kids that getting to the Major Leagues was easy. That was my job, that’s what I did. I learned a lot and kept working. Each year after the season I would go to the Instructional League to get better.

You had some great minor league seasons and made your MLB debut at 22 years old. What was your experience like moving up in the minors with the Mets?

Straw got called to the Big Leagues and there was a domino effect. He moved up and I came up behind him. But this time, Terry Blocker was moved up. I was upset. My mom said, “Maybe you’re not doing everything you’re supposed to be doing. Maybe you gotta work a little harder. If you want to get mad, get mad on that field and make them move you up.” That’s what I did. I was in a zone. They could have bounced the ball up there and I could have hit it. They moved me up to AAA two weeks later. I ended up winning the Doubleday Award as the best player on that level for the organization.

The next year I was in AAA and I got to meet a lot of the guys who would be in the Majors. Guys like Ron Darling and Sid Fernandez. We called up a young kid from A Ball. His name was Doc Gooden. Davey Johnson was the manager, and we won the first AAA World Series. We played the Columbus Clippers, who were full of Yankee Major Leaguers like Don Mattingly, Stave Balboni, Rex Hudler. Doc went out there and just shoved it up their tails!

I interviewed Mark Carreon a few weeks ago and he talked about how difficult it was for outfield prospects in the Mets system at the time because of all the talent. Did you have that experience too?

That next year I went to my first Big League Spring Training. Davey Johnson was now the manager of the Big League club. We stayed there all the way to the last week. Me, Kevin Mitchell and John Christensen. We were at the park and the clubhouse guy says that Davey wanted to see us. We go into his office and Davey said, “You all can play here, but I ain’t got no place for you.” Kevin said, “Davey, if you cut me, I’ll cut you!” It was a joke. We knew what was going on. Davey told us to take three days off and report to the AAA club.

You ended up getting called up and batted .407 in 14 games but were traded to the Expos in the Gary Carter deal. You got your first taste of the Majors playing centerfield between two Hall of Famers, Andre Dawson and Tim Raines. As a young guy, what was it like playing in the same outfield as them?

Let me tell you, I learned so much with those two guys. Not just them either. You can’t ask for anything better. Andre Dawson? Tim Raines? Tim Wallach? Man, those are some players. Vance Law, Andres Galarraga, Dan Driessen, Jim Wohlford, Wallace Johnson. They taught me how to play the game.

Those are some big names.. those 1980s Expos had so much talent. Were there any lessons you remember from them?

The San Diego Padres beat us to win the division. They were on the field celebrating. I was going in the clubhouse and Jim Wohlford stopped me. He said, “I want you to look at this. This is why you play the game. You want to be out there. You want to be right there. You want to play in October. I don’t want you to ever forget what this looks like.” He changed the way I looked at the game right there. When the 1986 Mets won the World Series, I was very happy for them. They were the guys I grew up with. But I felt sorry for myself because I wasn’t there. That was out of my control. I said to myself, “I am going to the World Series before I’m done. That I know.”

Then not only did you win one, but you scored the winning run in a come-from-behind win in the final game of a four-game sweep for the Reds in 1990. What are some of your memories from that season?

The Expos traded me to Cincinnati the second half of ‘88. Pete Rose was the manager and he got in trouble with gambling in ’89. That was Pete’s team. He put it together. In 1990, they hired Lou Piniella. Lou added Randy Myers, Tim Layana, Hal Morris and a little later Glenn Braggs. We were off and running from day one. It was fun in Spring Training, a lot of fun. We had Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton. Lou himself was fun too. We had chemistry and camaraderie. Even on our off days, we would go to somebody’s house. Next thing you know, the whole team was there. We saw each other more than we saw our wives. That was what made us such a good team.

I know the A’s were big favorites in the World Series and I understand why. But looking back, people probably underrated how good the Reds were. You guys basically dominated from start to finish and I’m sure that chemistry played a big role in that.

Don’t get me wrong, we had our fights and stuff in the clubhouse. But it never got out of the clubhouse. We didn’t let it into the press. The toughest thing in the season was when they released Ken Griffey, Sr. It was like they took the air out of our balloon. We called him Mr. Griffey. That’s the respect we had for him.

When they released him, Ron Oester went ballistic. Man, we had to go get him before he did something. It was the business side of the sport, but we didn’t care. We wanted to win and that was a big piece of our winning formula. It was hard. We went in a little dive. He ended up in Seattle with his son, but he was in the stadium one day. He told us, “This is the best chance a lot of you will ever have to get to a World Series. I got mine, you guys gotta get yours.” Then we were off and running again. When we voted on World Series shares, we ended up getting Ken Griffey, Sr. a full share. People don’t know that, but that’s what we did.

That’s really well deserved and how awesome of you guys. What did it feel like to get into the playoffs and win the World Series?

You know, before the NLCS Tony Perez said, “Guys, I’m gonna tell you all something. These games are gonna be the hardest games you’ll ever play in your lives.” Darn if he wasn’t right. I didn’t play the first game but played the second. I sat on that bench if I wasn’t playing, every pitch I would hold my breath. In the NLCS I was so mentally tired that I went back to the hotel with my wife and couldn’t sleep.

At three in the morning, I was wide awake, and we just went to this park right there where the three rivers meet. There was this big Alcoa sign in Pittsburgh. I just sat there watching that Alcoa sign blink on and off and watching the rivers. I went back to the room after an hour, fell asleep for a couple of hours and got up in the morning and was gone. I wanted to get over to the ballpark so fast. So help me though, I was mentally tired, but it was fun.

And definitely worth it all when you won the Series. What did that feel like?

The thing was that we were gonna win it, and that was fine. But the celebration wasn’t a team celebration. Eric Davis got hurt and Billy Hatcher got hurt. We couldn’t celebrate with one of our mainstays because he was in the hospital. We were gonna go to the hospital, but they said we couldn’t go because he was in surgery. We were out on the field celebrating and my wife and I ended up taking Eric’s children to the hospital. It was bittersweet because he got hurt and wasn’t there to celebrate.

But it was nice. Then you had Marge Schott. The league gives whatever amount of money towards each player for a ring. The teams didn’t make any money off of us that Series. The first four games go to the players, the next three games go to the owners. We won four straight and that was it. She took the money that the league gave us and made more rings for her people. There were people who would say, “Man, I got a World Series ring!” But they didn’t catch a fly or hit a ball all year. We all took our rings and had them redone a little different than what Marge bought. We made them a little more expensive.

Man, I love these stories. This was the era I grew up watching. This has been great. My last question is open-ended. What final reflections do you have on your career?

I was in an era where there were just awesome players. I am glad I got a chance to play against these guys. The older I get, the more I appreciate what I accomplished. When you’re playing, you don’t have time to reflect. But when you retire, sometimes you see something on a DVD or a highlight and it’s just like, “Man, wow.” Then I’ll look at that highlight of me bunting in Game 4 of the World Series and I’ll think, “Did I do that? I wonder if I could do that again?”

I’m in awe of what I accomplished coming from a small town in South Carolina. I’m not the only one. My best friend, Mike Sharperson did too. We never played against each other until Spring Training games in the Major Leagues. He was with Toronto and then got traded to the Dodgers. He won his World Series in 1988 with Kirk Gibson… but I got mine two years later.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book will be out in April 2021.

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