Sunday, August 07, 2005

Hard Hits: Bernie All Class Till End

As his career winds down, Yankee centerfielder Bernie Williams continues to go about his business the only way he knows. In as trying a season as there's been for the switch-hitter, he's handled everything well.

It started when the Yanks got off to an awful start, losing three of four at Tampa Bay in the beginning of May. While the team was struggling on the field, Yankee brass was meeting off the field to discuss the plight of their club. It was then decided that their starting center fielder for over the last decade would no longer play on a regular basis. For the first time in his 15-year career, Williams was a role player. Did one of the most popular Yankees complain? Of course not. It's not his style to be selfish, instead putting the team first. Whatever Joe Torre wanted was fine.

This from a guy who had been one of their best players during the team's run of four World Series championships in five years. In the ball club's 10 straight postseason appearances, Williams has come through with many clutch hits in October, including an all-time playoff best 22 home runs and 79 RBI's in 115 games, the most ever in baseball history. One such big hit was an extra inning walkoff homer against the Orioles in Game Two of the championship series which evened the series up, shifting the momentum in the Yankees favor on their way to their first World Series title since '78. Williams took home the ALCS MVP hitting .474 with 2 HRs and 6 RBI's.

It's more than just the postseason which has made the center fielder one of the most popular Yankees in team history. It's the level of consistency Williams has shown at one of the hardest positions to play in all of sports. Playing center for the Bronx Bombers comes with a lot of pressure. From the great Joe DiMaggio to the larger than life Mickey Mantle, it has been a position where expectations were always high. Such was the case for the cool and collected San Juan, Puerto Rico native.

He made his major league debut on July 7, 1991 as a 22-year-old. Though he struggled early on and couldn't play regularly due to starter Roberto Kelly, Williams showed enough progress in his second year to give the team a reason to trade Kelly to the Reds for Paul O'Neill. The move would turn out to be brilliant because it made Williams the starting center fielder and O'Neill became one of the best players on those great Yankee teams.

Still, even as Williams improved in '94 and '95, a slow start in 1996 almost got him traded. Luckily for the Yankees, general manager Gene Michael didn't listen to The Boss. They would be rewarded when Bernie turned it around and had his best season as a pro, hitting .305 with career bests in homers (29) and RBI's (102), pacing the ball club in long balls. From then on, he became one of best outfielders in the game for almost a decade.

However, this good stretch began a year earlier when he helped get the Yanks back to the postseason for the first time since the '81 World Series when they lost to the Dodgers. Though they fell in excruciating fashion to the Mariners in a five-game classic wild card series, it was the start of something big. Ironically enough, that series defeat was the only postseason baseball popular team captain Don Mattingly ever saw.

For Williams, that season was the beginning of his rise to stardom. Over those eight seasons stretching '95 to '02, Williams averaged over .300, 24 homers and 102 RBI's, winning one batting title (.339 in '98), making five consecutive All-Star appearances ('97-01) and winning four straight Gold Gloves ('97-00).

One memorable Williams moment was after Scott Brosius had thrown across to Tino Martinez for the final out of the '98 World Series in a sweep of the Padres for their second World Series title in three years. As the final out was recorded, Williams knelt down in center and pounded his glove because it could have been his final game in Pinstripes. After the season, he was due to become a free agent. It was about as emotional as you'll ever see the stoic Williams.

In fact, a month later, he almost went to bitter rival Boston. They were pushing hard to get him but when George Steinbrenner found out, he quickly offered Bernie a comparable contract which kept him a Yankee. At the time, Williams signed a seven-year deal worth $89.5 million (12.8 average) becoming one of the highest paid players in baseball history.

Williams has been a very good player throughout most of that contract. However, since 2003, he has been hampered with injuries and declined. Though he was still productive last year hitting 22 long balls with 70 RBI's in 148 games, his average for the second consecutive season slipped under .300, finishing .262. It was his worst mark since his first full season in '93 when he hit .268 in 139 games.

His 15th major league season has seen a steady fall from grace that's included a couple of dropped routine fly balls and mental mistakes which opponents have taken advantage of. It's been hard to watch Williams struggle. With that the case and the Yanks even trying to convert free agent second baseman Tony Womack to center, it was clear that this would be his final season in Pinstripes. The ball club finally indicated as such last Monday, when they failed to pick-up a $15 million team option for 2006.

Even with that the case and going through his worst season, Williams continued to exude class the next day when he spoke to reporters.

"It's something they felt they had to do," he said during batting practice for Tuesday night's game at Cleveland. "I'm still playing for this team and I'm going to do all I can to help this team win."

"It wouldn't be fair to talk about it at this point in the season," he added.

This was exactly how you would have expected the soft spoken Williams to handle the situation. In an era of me-first athletes who put themselves ahead of their teams, Bernie is a throwback who understands what's really important. Winning.

That's why it's always been easy to root for him. Once the Yankees signed him as a 17-year-old amateur on his birthday 20 years ago on September 13, 1985. A month away from turning 37, Williams is closing in on the finish line. In that time, he's done himself proud and been a model Yankee.

It will be a sad day when #51 no longer patrols center field at Yankee Stadium. However, they'll never forget Bernie.

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