Thursday, December 08, 2005

Bernie Williams: Yank of a Singular Stripe

By Mike Lupica
New York Daily News -
Wednesday, December 7th, 2005

It started with Bernie Williams as much as any of them, back in Joe Torre's first October, in 1996. Williams had finished off the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs, hitting home runs from both sides of the plate in the game that put the Yankees into the American League Championship Series. All he did then, against the Orioles, was hit that 11th-inning shot off Randy Myers in Game 1, tie Game 3 with an eighth-inning hit off Mike Mussina, hit a two-run shot in the first inning of Game 4.

In the series that put the Yankees back in the World Series, Bernie Williams hit .474 and was named MVP and was the best of all of them. But then he has been one of them for a long time, as much a Yankee as they have ever had.

When the Yankees last won the World Series, against the Mets in October of 2000, maybe it was fitting that the last out ended up in Williams' glove. Mike Piazza hit it and Bernie tracked it down, way out there in left center at Shea. We didn't know at the time that Williams and the Yankees would go the next five years without winning it all. Nobody would have believed such a thing possible at the time.

Nothing lasts forever. Joe DiMaggio limped away from center field at the Stadium at the age of 36, a year younger than Bernie is right now. Mickey Mantle limped away. If Williams leaves the Yankees today, he will leave in better shape than either one of them, even if he isn't close to what he used to be. It doesn't change that when you talk about all the center fielders in the history of the New York Yankees, there is DiMaggio, there is Mantle, there is Williams. It is not such a terrible way to run third.

He has played 1,945 regular-season games for the Yankees. He has played 115 more in the postseason, during which he came to the plate 443 times and had 22 home runs and 79 RBI and hit .280. Once he finally made it to October with the Yankees, in 1995, that unforgettable first-round series against the Mariners, he ended up having the equivalent of a whole season of Octobers. And in those games, he was one of the truly great Yankees, the one who came from some of the worst teams in Yankee history to play center field on Yankee teams that won four World Series in five years and once again made the Yankees the proudest name in sports.

"There is such a thing as Yankee character, and it's real," Reggie Jackson said yesterday. "If you want to trace it all the way back, you'd have to say it starts with Lou Gehrig. Character plus class. Bernie's been that kind of class, and he's been that kind of Yankee.

"There are special Yankees, and special people. Bernie's been both. He would have fit in on any great Yankee team of any era, and he would have delivered the way he always did with the money on the table. And the whole time, he never made it about him. What was good for him was good for the Yankees."
Finally Jackson said, "One of those quiet, special guys. They tell me Bobby Richardson was like that. Catfish Hunter was always like that. Bernie's been like that. It's why in my heart, I hope he's not going anywhere."

Maybe midnight tonight is a deadline for the Yankees and Williams, maybe not. If the Yanks don't offer Williams arbitration, he can't re-sign with them, even if he wants to, until May 1. Sometimes there is a wink and a nod between a team and a player, an arrangement where arbitration is offered and rejected, and the deadline is extended for another month.
Suddenly, after a Yankee career that goes back to 1991, after 2,000 games in the uniform, it has come to that for Bernie Williams.

He will come back in some form of the role Ruben Sierra has filled the last couple of years, a switch-hitter off the bench, a part-time outfielder. Or Williams will leave the Yankees for good, after the kind of good long run only a handful of great Yankees have ever had. Reggie was here for five seasons. A-Rod would have to play here until he is 40 to play as many games for the Yankees as Bernie Williams has. If Williams doesn't put on the uniform again until his first Old Timers' Day, he has played 200 more games as a Yankee than Don Mattingly did.

Williams and Jeter were a center fielder and shortstop teaming up for a decade of big October games the way DiMaggio and Scooter Rizzuto did. The only difference between them is that Jeter never lost here the way Bernie Williams did at the beginning of his career. It is one of the reasons why Yankee fans, and that means ones who didn't decide to start rooting for the Yankees in 1996, have always cheered Bernie the way they have. It was as if they all got up together.

It is why they cheered him at the Stadium the way they did this season, at the last regular-season home game, cheered him because the Yankees still weren't a lock to make the playoffs then, cheered him every chance they got thinking it might be his last game as a Yankee.

He almost left once for the Red Sox. Now he might leave for good. If he does, it means that only Jeter and Mo Rivera and Jorge Posada are left from the glory years. Those years really started in October of 1996, when the Yankees became the Yankees again and the center fielder, the best since Mantle, had 20 hits that month and was the best of all of them.

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