When Bernie Williams nearly left New York

Hey, Coney, why don't you have a job?
Who is LaTroy Hawkins?

October 12, 1999 — For the first time since Bucky Dent carved himself a place in playoff lore, the Yankees and Red Sox are gearing up to meet in the postseason. Boston is all abuzz as the AL East Champions are playing host to the Wild Card team and defending World Champions from New York. While the Yankees finished with 98 wins this season, the Red Sox’s 104 victories were tops in the Majors, and the Yanks will have to hope that their superior pitching can overcome a power-packed Boston lineup.

Ironic in this meeting is one center fielder for the Red Sox, the former Yankee Bernie Williams. Williams, after becoming a Yankee mainstay, left the Bronx after the Yankees’ 125-win season last year. While the Yankees were prepared to offer Williams a five-year, $60-million contract, the star and his agent Scott Boras rejected that deal. They knew they could get more elsewhere and were tired of playing games with George Steinbrenner.

So now Williams will face off against his old team in Fenway. The Yanks — with their tempestuous twosome of Paul O’Neill and Albert Belle — look strong, but can they overcome the Red Sox?

* * *

We know that didn’t happen. Bernie Williams wasn’t on the Red Sox in 1999, and the Yankees were the AL East champs again.

But it was close. For a while in 1998, it looked like Bernie was Boston-bound, and if he had landed in Fenway, it’s not hard to imagine the Sox taking the division. Williams was the top offensive center fielder in the AL in 1999. His VORP that year — a measure of how much better he was than the next best available option — was 79.9. Darren Lewis, the Red Sox’s starting center fielder, pulled down a -24.8 VORP. That swing of 100 would have theoretically netted the Sox 10 more wins and a spot atop the AL East. It’s funny how history turns out.

“Bernie on the Red Sox?” you might say with a chuckle. “That never would have happened, right?” While it can be tough to see through Scott Boras’ hyperbole and fake seven-year offers, by all accounts in November of 1998, Bernie Williams nearly ended up in Fenway.

Bernie’s tale begins in 1997 when the Yankees were trying to extend their center fielder. They offered him a five-year deal worth just south of $40 million. As you could guess, they were laughed out of the room, and for a while, it seemed as though their offer and past contract snubs were insulting enough to convince Williams to cease negotiations entirely. Money and loyalty are powerful motivators.

Throughout November, Scott Boras and the Yankees engaged in their usual dance as reports of other deals surfaced. At various times, the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Rockies and Red Sox all expressed interest in Williams. But by the end, it became a battle between rivals. The Yankees and the Red Sox squared off with a big x-factor waiting in the wings.

To the dismay of Yankee fans, that x-factor was none other than hotheaded slugger Albert Belle. As the Yankees and Bernie looked to finalize their looming divorce, a new marriage between the Yankees and Belle was on the horizon. While the Yanks were initially interested in Jim Edmonds, those talks fizzled, and at 32 years old, Belle was one of the most sought-after free agents of 1998. The hip condition that would end his career two seasons later was nowhere to be found, and his numbers and temper were fearsome.

When Williams rejected that five-year, $60-million deal, the Yankees turned their attention to Belle. When I left my apartment on Wednesday night, November 25, 1998, to attend a friend’s Thanksgiving Eve party, I believed that Bernie Williams’ tenure in the Bronx was over. The Yanks and Bernie, as Buster Olney had reported that morning, were nearing a final separation, and Bernie was about to land in Boston.

The Yankees however had an out: Scott Boras offered them one last chance to match the Red Sox’s supposed seven-year, $90-million deal. Bernie, it seemed, wasn’t as keen to get out of New York as earlier reports indicated. When I got home late that night, my dad had left me a note on the door: Bernie Williams signs with the Yanks for seven years and $87.5 million, it said. I was ecstatic. Somehow, the Yankees and Bernie were able to overcome their differences, and Bernie would remain a Yankee.

In the end, it was always tough to tell if Bernie was actually going to leave. Three columnists in The TimesJack Curry, Harvey Araton and Buster Olney — all speculated that Boras used vague, half-serious offers to get the Yanks to ante up. By keeping the archrival Red Sox involved, Boras knew the Yanks would pay, and he won.

When the real 1999 ALCS dawned, the Yanks, led by Bernie, beat the Red Sox with their sad excuse for a center fielder. As we know, Bernie’s Yanks would go on to great success. While Bernie’s contract became something of an albatross by the end of it and Williams still seems to have a poor relationship with the Yankees, keeping Bernie out of Boston was a sage move.

Hey, Coney, why don't you have a job?
Who is LaTroy Hawkins?
  • Rich

    It was reported at the time that Bernie personally called George in the final hours to implore him to make a competitive offer because he wanted to remain a Yankee.

    That move was not too dissimilar from what A-Rod did this past offseason when he contacted Hank to inform him how much he wanted to remain a Yankee.

  • Bob

    Three years later, Boras convinced us to sign Giambi because the team had committed the unpardonable sin of losing a world series on a couple of bloop hits. Let’s hope those days are over.

    • steve (different one)

      why would Boras care if the Yankees signed an Arn Tellem client?

  • Jersey

    Great post, Ben. I’ll never forget the anxiety I felt over potentially losing Bernie.

  • Bo

    George always comes thru in the end. The Yanks dont lose their own guys.

    On an unrelated topic. From Fox sports about the top 10 candidates for a breakout season:
    No surprise here. Hughes struggled occasionally last season, but he also tossed 6.1 hitless innings in only his second major-league start. Hughes has a tremendous fastball-curveball combo, and his changeup is already a workable offering. He’s battled injuries in the past, so that’ll be a concern going forward. Still, Hughes cut his teeth in the majors last season, and now he’s ready to grow into the ace of the Yankee staff. Don’t be surprised if in 2008 he gives them 200 innings and a comfortably sub-4.00 ERA. In a few years, Hughes will be contending for Cy Youngs on an annual basis.

    • RZG

      “The Yanks dont lose their own guys.”

      Yeah, Andy Pettitte never left.

    • Tyrone Sharpton

      LOL almost 4 years later, this comment sounds foolish. But Hughes definitely has that potential; he’s just gotta use it

  • Bo

    Giambi was only the best run producer going at the time and for all our good stuff couldn’t hit a lick.

    Who would have known he’d stop hitting to all fields and become injury prone?

    • steve (different one)

      well, considering George agreed to let Giambi’s agent strike the specific steroids related clause from the contract, there probably WERE some warning signs if you were looking hard enough. actually, you probably didn’t even need to look all that hard at all.

  • eric from morrisania

    Okay… please don’t shoot me for saying this, but consider this:


    We gave Bernie a 7 year, $87.5M deal ($12.5M per). Belle signed with Baltimore later that offseason for 5 years, $65M ($13M per).

    For the first 4 years of the 7 year deal we gave Bernie (1999, 2000, 2001, 2002), he was awesome, with OPS+ of 149, 140, 138, and 141. He was a key middle of the order bat on the WS teams of ’99 and ’00, and performed admirably in the heartbreaking ’01 loss and ’02 early exit. The last three years of the deal, when he was age 34, 35, and 36, his play fell off noticeably (OPS+ 107, 108, 85). And, Bernie was never an above average CF in the field, let’s be honest.

    Belle, meanwhile, gave Baltimore a great season in 1999 (OPS+ of 142; .297/.400/.541 37HR 117RBI) followed by a so-so 2000 (OPS+ 109; .281/.342/.474 23HR 103RBI) where he spent time on the DL. They shut him down with a hip problem in September of ’00, and 6 months later, he announced his retirement. Of the $39M still owed to him; insurance payed off 70%, so the Orioles were on the hook for $11.7M combined, which they could spread across 2001, 2002, and 2003.


    If we had signed Belle instead of Bernie, we would have received essentially the exact same levels of production in 1999, and slightly decreased in 2000, which is significant since we only made the playoffs by finishing two games better than a pretty shitty Boston team (that presumably would have been much better with Bernie on it). BUT, we also would have been in the market for a new outfielder either in the winter before 2001 (if we suspected that Belle’s hip condition was serious, as it was) or in the winter before 2002 (if we optimistically believed that we could count on Belle going forward). So, what could have happened?

    Assuming we expected Belle to return and his retirement caught us unaware (as it did Baltimore), we probably would have tried to swing a trade for someone during Spring Training. Ron Gant, Michael Tucker, and Milton Bradley were all dealt during the 2001 season, so it’s reasonable to assume we might have been able to pluck one of them off without giving up too much. We could have pushed for Juan Gonzalez, who wore out his welcome in multiple locations. Then, after the season, we could have pursued Johnny Damon or Moises Alou as free agents in the 01-02 offseason, or went after the big fish, Gary Sheffield, who wanted out of LA. Or, we could spent more in prospects and dealt for Jermaine Dye, who was also on the block, as a more permanent CF solution.

    Then, there’s the other scenario – where we’re concerned enough about Belle’s health after the 2000 season to pursue an OF upgrade right then and there, which would be a real possibility since O’Neill would be 37 at the time and LF is a revolving door of Ricky Ledee, Shane Spencer, Glenallen Hill, and Luis Polonia. So, what FA outfielders were available in the 2000-2001 offseason? Ichiro. Oh yeah, and Manny Ramirez.

    Imagine the Red Sox-Yankees games of 2001-2007, only with Bernie on their team and Manny Ramirez on ours. Or, imagine our lineup with Ichiro and Jeter at the top, and bear in mind that if the Sox had signed Bernie, they probably wouldn’t have signed Manny Ramirez; he’d be somewhere else (Mets? Dodgers? Angels?).


    So, my question is, would you have given away the 2000 subway series, and even traded a 2000 WS title for a 2000 Boston Red Sox title, in exchange for substituting Bernie Williams six seasons from 2001-2007 for six years of Manny Ramirez, Ichiro Suzuki, Gary Sheffield, Jermaine Dye, or Johnny Damon? Because, frankly, the numbers competition isn’t even close.

    • dan

      hhhhhhmmmmmmmmm………….I’m not gonna shoot you. That was very well thought out and said, I’ve never heard anything analyzing the bernie/belle scenario like that

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