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Sunday, December 30, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Butch Wynegar Hasn't Forgotten

Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune

ORLANDO, Fla. - Butch Wynegar was a 20-year-old rookie catcher with the Minnesota Twins. The team was in Boston to play the Red Sox. Wynegar was standing at the newsstand counter in the Boston Sheraton. There was a Gallery magazine in his hand.

Wynegar was startled when he turned and saw a newspaperman standing there. ``Don't tell anyone you saw me buying this,'' he said. ``It will ruin my image.''

Fourteen years later, Wynegar's horrible secret can be revealed: The kid who loved baseball so much he would have played for nothing wasn't above paging through a magazine that contained air-brushed photos of attractive women almost wearing lingerie.

The reasons Wynegar walked away from his contract with the New York Yankees also can be revealed.

``Billy Martin and Lou Piniella - mostly Billy,'' Wynegar said. ``Maybe I was too sensitive. But they ruined it for me. I hated baseball.''

The Yankees had Wynegar undergo a psychiatric examination during the 1986 season. He left the team in August, with $1.4 million still owed on his contract.

``There was so much written and said about my emotional problem,'' Wynegar said. ``There are probably people who think I am climbing the walls someplace. The reason I'm not playing is my foot. I was OK emotionally as soon as I got away from New York.''

In 1976, the three catchers on the American League All-Star team were Thurman Munson, Carlton Fisk and Butch Wynegar. Munson was 32. Fisk was 28 and in his fifth season with the Red Sox. Wynegar, at 20, was the youngest player to appear in an All-Star Game.

Munson died in 1979 in a plane crash. Fisk, soon to be 43, still is playing for the Chicago White Sox. Wynegar, 34, has been out of baseball for two years.

This doesn't add up, particularly when you see Wynegar. He is better-defined physically now than in 1976, when Gene Mauch took him out of Class A and turned him into the Twins' everyday catcher.

``Tae kwon do,'' Wynegar said. ``My stepson, Mark, is an 11-year-old who needed to get some confidence. I suggested martial arts. I started taking him to the gym at night. Mark enjoyed it so much, he talked me into joining.''

Wynegar weighs 193, a few pounds less than his playing weight. He said the arthritic big toe that forced him from the game feels much better. The big leaguers are desperate for catching. Wynegar has watched as millions have been thrown at mediocre players.

It all adds up to a comeback for Harold Delano Wynegar Jr. Right?

``I have talked about it with Debby,'' Wynegar said. ``Do I want to get back into the traveling? I felt like that had something to do with the end of my first marriage. Do I want to get into that life again? Would anyone give me a chance to play? And would the foot hold up?

``It sounds funny - retired from baseball because of an injury to the big toe - but there is nothing they can do surgically. They can reconstruct a knee, but they can't reconstruct this little, worn-out, arthritic joint in a big toe.''

Wynegar's ex-wife, Gretchen, lives on a five-acre farm in nearby Oveido with their three children - an 11-year-old son, and daughters 9 and 5. They were divorced in 1988. Wynegar admits to being bitter over the financial settlement.

``I go out there, see her horses, see where my money has gone, and I get too upset,'' he said. ``So I stay in contact with the kids mostly by writing letters.''

The Yankees are of the opinion the pressure of a dissolving marriage had as much to do with Wynegar's departure in 1986 as his problems with Martin and Piniella. The Yankees had acquired Wynegar from the Twins in 1982, along with pitcher Roger Erickson, for the unforgettable package of Larry Milbourne, Pete Filson and John Pacella.

``I grew up in York, Pa., and my hero was Mickey Mantle,'' Wynegar said. ``I was in awe of the pinstripes.''

By 1985, the awe was gone, replaced by the constant turmoil of playing for an irrational Martin. ``I would go into his office and say, `Billy, if I'm so stupid, you call the pitches,''' Wynegar said. ``Billy didn't want that. He wanted to be able to go into a rage whenever a guy got a big hit, even if it was off a good pitch.

``Piniella was a lot the same way. Away from the field, Lou's a good guy, but he could be brutal to a catcher. I couldn't stand to go to the ballpark anymore. So I left.''

Wynegar resurfaced in California - playing for Mauch - for parts of the 1987 and '88 seasons, but the bad toe drove him into retirement.

``I have two more years of deferred money coming from contracts with the Twins and the Yankees,'' Wynegar said. ``Thanks to tae kwon do, I'm in the best shape of my life. I have one of those Harmon Killebrew popup hitting machines - from when I was a kid - and I go out and take some swings.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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