Bernie Williams a Yankee of uncommon dignity, grace

ByIan O'Connor ESPN logo
Monday, May 25, 2015

Even in the final years of his career, Bernie Williams would walk into the Yankee Stadium clubhouse with a look suggesting he had gotten lost on his way to a barbecue. He was the tourist in the middle of baseball's Times Square, the center fielder who seemed as if he had stumbled into a dynasty and was never quite sure why he belonged.

Williams had been a musical student in Puerto Rico, and his mother had hopes he might someday parlay his pre-med ambitions into a career as a doctor. But when he was 16, the Yankees thought enough of his raw skills to stash him in a Connecticut baseball camp until they could legally sign him on his 17th birthday.

The fact that the world-famous Yankees wanted him didn't inflate the prospect's sense of self. In fact, even as he developed into an American League batting champ, a four-time World Series winner and the most prolific run producer in postseason history, Williams never pictured himself as the honored guest of the ceremony held in the Bronx on Sunday night, when the Yankees retired his jersey number, 51, and gave him a plaque in Monument Park.

"I would've never in a million years thought I would've had an opportunity to play here as long as I did," Williams told me in late September 2005 as he stood in the players' parking lot gazing up at the old Stadium faade. Seven years earlier, with the Yanks in the middle of a World Series sweep of San Diego and about to close out a 125-win season, I asked Williams, who had just won his batting title with a .339 average, if he'd felt a growing connection to the team's center-field legends, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

He laughed out loud, drawing surprised glances from different corners of the visitors' clubhouse inside Qualcomm Stadium; Bernie had been a subdued, almost withdrawn presence that autumn as he approached free agency, fueling the notion he was prepared to leave. Williams swatted away the suggestion that he belonged in the same historical zip code as Joe D and the Mick.

"What I will say," he continued, "is that I understand who's been walking on that grass before me. I mean, I truly respect what being a New York Yankee for life would mean."

As it turned out, Williams showed that respect for 16 years, forever carrying himself in pinstripes with dignity and grace. He didn't measure up to DiMaggio and Mantle as a player, but go ahead and read the accounts of life with the late Yankee greats and decide if they measured up to Williams as role models and men.

Funny, but he almost didn't cut it as a Yank. In Williams' early hours as a major leaguer, some veterans referred to him as "Bambi" for what they perceived as his soft and weak constitution. Mel Hall, nothing more than common clubhouse bully, called him "Zero" and mocked him at every turn in a misguided attempt to break his spirit.

"It was getting really bad," recalled Gene Michael, then the general manager, "and I called Mel into my office and told him, 'You either get off him right now or you're gone.' And Mel quit doing it. Bernie wasn't going to be able to blossom that way."

Williams also had to survive the tantrums of George Steinbrenner, an old Big Ten football coach who occasionally used him as a tackling dummy. Steinbrenner once ordered Michael to work the phones until he found a team willing to take Williams off their hands, and the GM responded by intentionally leaving vague messages for his peers designed to go unreturned.

Michael did nearly deal Williams to Montreal for Larry Walker in 1993, and Bob Watson did nearly trade him a couple of times in 1997, and Brian Cashman did nearly bid Williams farewell as a free agent in 1998, when Albert Belle was waiting on deck. The Yankees lucked out when Belle broke his verbal agreement with New York, and when Bernie couldn't bring himself to become the biggest Williams to hit Boston since Ted. He called Cashman at 1 a.m. to try to salvage a deal. Williams later told Steinbrenner how much being a Yankee meant to him, and the Boss responded by increasing his $60 million offer to the $87.5 million over seven years that got it done.

Nobody in the front office ever regretted doing that deal, by the way. The following October, Williams slammed a walk-off homer against the Red Sox in the 10th inning of Game 1 of an American League Championship Series the Yankees would win in five on the way to the second title in their three-peat run.

He delivered one indelible postseason memory after another, starting with his staggering performance in the 1996 Division Series triumph over the Texas Rangers and Juan Gonzalez, inspiring teammates to spray him with champagne and to dance around him while chanting, "MVP, MVP." It was fitting that Williams was the first of the homegrown Yankee stars to be celebrated like this in the early stages of the dynasty, as he was the one who opened the door for Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada behind him.

Williams would be named MVP of the following ALCS victory over the Orioles. In fact, he won the Jeffrey Maier game, not Jeter, by hitting a towering, 11th-inning homer off Randy Myers. "Bernie Williams came through for us," young Maier said that night. "I guess I did, too."

Soon enough, everyone from Joe Torre to David Cone were saying they noticed a fire in the center fielder they'd never seen before. "I'm like a volcano," Williams said then. "You can't always see it, but I'm emotional."

Down 0-2 to an Atlanta Braves team expecting to sweep the Yanks, Williams ignited the 1996 World Series comeback with an RBI single in the first inning of Game 3 and then with a two-run homer in the eighth. He would go on to finish his career with a record 80 postseason RBIs and 22 postseason homers, which ranks second all time behind Manny Ramirez's 29. Williams would finish his regular season career with 122 more hits than DiMaggio collected, and with a batting average (.297) one point south of Mantle's.

But Williams wasn't defined by the numbers as much as he was by his ability to overcome the hurdles in his path. He didn't have a great arm or great instincts in the outfield or on the base paths. Baseball didn't come naturally to him, and yet he made himself a switch-hitter in the minors and gave the Yankees a desperately needed left-handed bat.

"Our lineup was too right-handed back then," Michael said. "We were set up then for Fenway Park, not Yankee Stadium." Williams' progress ultimately allowed Michael to make the franchise-altering trade of Roberto Kelly to Cincinnati for Paul O'Neill.

The fans adored him, too, because of the struggles he overcame and, yes, because of that look of wonderment and navet in his eye. Torre once said he'd never been around a ballplayer like him. "A very deep individual, a very sensitive, caring person," the manager would call him. "It's like he should be doing something else. There's no arrogance about him."

When the Yankees visited the families of victims in the wake of the 9/11 terrorists attacks, Torre was most struck by the scene of Williams approaching a woman in an armory, presumably waiting for DNA results. "I don't know what to say," Williams told the woman, "but you look like you need a hug." He hugged her. And that's why the city always loved hugging him back.

His playing career ended awkwardly, as most of them do, and Williams turned a bitter exit -- he was angry the Yankees only offered him a minor league contract in 2007 -- into an amusing refusal to sign his retirement papers until last month's series with the Mets. Unlike many star athletes, however, Williams hadn't been drifting about in search of a fresh purpose.

He rededicated himself to the deferred dream of becoming a great jazz musician. He took some coaching from Gil Parris, an accomplished guitarist, and embraced the same humble approach to his second career that worked wonders for him in his first.

"Bernie is someone with four World Series rings for arguably the most well-known franchise in sports history, and he almost tries to sneak in under the radar," said Curtis Winchester, a Westchester County-based singer who's worked with Williams over dozens of shows. "He comes in wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a cap over his eyes, and he just sits there until someone like me says his name.

"Gil has gotten him out of his shell with the guitar, but Bernie still thinks he's a student and that's very refreshing. There aren't enough guys in the music game who want to continue learning; too many of them think they know everything. With Bernie, there's no showboat to him. He's just like he was on a ball field. I've never once seen or heard him make a big deal out of himself."

It's never been the Williams way. He wouldn't rage against the fact he fell off the Hall of Fame ballot (for lack of voter support) after two lousy years of eligibility any more than he would rage against a Core Four nickname locking him outside of a Jeter-Rivera-Pettitte-Posada legacy that wouldn't exist without him.

And that's OK. Williams was always content as a center fielder roaming the distant shadows of DiMaggio and Mantle, and as the guitarist summoned to Fenway in September to play "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and to join the other band members waving goodbye to their undisputed lead singer, Jeter.

But this card-carrying stoic never let people mistake his kindness for weakness. Bernie Williams was tough enough to be the first of his pinstriped generation to weather the Steinbrenner storms, and to play the kind of October baseball worthy of Yankee mythology. In other words, he earned his Sunday night under the lights, his retired jersey and his Monument Park plaque.

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