From the archives: When Bernie Williams nearly left New York

Bernie goes boom against the Padres in the 1998 World Series. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

On this date in Yankee history in 1998, the Yankees signed Bernie Williams to a seven-year, $87.5-million. The deal was a surprise as it was the largest in Yankee history at the time, and it had appeared as though the team and Williams would head in different directions. The Yanks were on the verge of signing Albert Belle, and Williams was all but Boston-bound before he and the Boss had a conversation.

As a young fan, I idolized Bernie’s calm demeanor and steady play. I was crushed as the Yanks prepared to move forward without him, and I returned home from a pre-Thanksgiving party on the night of Wednesday, November 25, 1998 to a note from my parents. It simply said that the Yanks had signed Bernie. My disappointment quickly turned to elation, and Number 51 stayed in pinstripes for the rest of his career. What follows is a post I wrote in 2008 about the Bernie machinations. It all went down 12 years ago today…

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 faded by the end of his career and had a tough time coming to grips with the end of his playing career, keeping Bernie out of Boston was a sage move indeed.

Quick Draft Order Tracker Update

Just a quick heads up, I have added all of the Type-A and B free agents that were offered arbitration (with Elias scores) to our 2011 Draft Order Tracker. It’s also been updated to reflect the now finalized Victor Martinez, Joaquin Benoit, and John Buck signings as well. There’s a total of 14 Type-A’s and 21 Type-B’s, so the supplemental first round could theoretically be 35 picks long. That won’t happen though, some guys will re-sign with their old club, some will accept arbitration, some might should retire (coughTrevorHoffmancough).

I did the math, and the absolute worst that the Javy Vazquez compensation pick can be is 57th overall. More than likely, it’ll be right around 50 somewhere, which isn’t bad at all. That pick is protected, so the Yankees keep it no matter how many free agents they sign.

A late-night ‘what if': Derek Jeter vs. Cliff Lee

For the past few weeks, the Hot Stove League rumors have mostly concerned Derek Jeter. While Cliff Lee remains the biggest off-season fish on the Yanks’ radar, the team has been preoccupied with the negotiations with Jeter. What if those negotiations are going to cost the Yankees more than just dollars? According to Yanks’ GM Brian Cashman, the team’s focus on Derek Jeter very well might do that.

According to Michael S. Schmidt of The Times, the Yanks’ courtship of Jeter has diverted them from their Hot Stove League shopping list. “We would like to have him signed, in the fold, and concentrating on other aspects of the team,” Cashman said. “Instead, we are concentrating on re-signing our shortstop.” By and large, all has been quiet on the Cliff Lee front, but as the Jeter situation drags on, the Yanks will have to turn their attention elsewhere if they want to check off the players on their off-season shopping list. I’d hate to see Jeter emerge as the reason why the Yanks can’t adequate pursue Lee.

Open Thread: The night before the turkey

For better or worse, Derek Jeter has dominated the Yankee headlines over the past few days, and he has broken the fanbase into two groups. Some feel Jeter is an aging short stop asking for too much; others feel the Yanks should pay their captain what he wants. Either way, Derek probably isn’t going anywhere, but this one won’t be resolved any time soon.

To, um, commemorate the goings-on, long-time RAB reader Tyler Wilkinson sent us the graphic you see here. Interpret it as you will, and check out more from Tyler on Twitter. It might make for interesting discussions during the Hot Stove League, but I think we’ll feel better when Jeter and the Yanks agree to terms.

Anyway, here’s your open thread for the evening. In local action, the Nets visit the Celtics, and the Knicks wrap up a home-and-home set against the Bobcats in Charlotte. On the ice, the Blue Jackets visit the Islanders while the Devils host the Flames and the Rangers are in Tampa Bay to face the Lightning. If you’re with family tonight, enjoy the start of the holiday. We’ll be here all weekend.

Report: Mets uninterested in Derek Jeter

As Derek Jeter‘s contraction negotiations have turned messy, those who say they will just die without Jeter grow concerned that he’ll sign with the Mets or — gasp! — the Red Sox. In fact, The Post even photoshopped Jeter’s head onto Dustin Pedroia’s body for its back cover today. But while fans fear Jeter’s departure, take a read through this short article. Daily News writer Andy Martino says that if Jeter does hit the open market, the Mets won’t be interested. They have $11 million invested in their short stop and aren’t looking to add a 36-year-old who is demanding more than $15 million a year.

In essence, that’s what this entire exercise in futility is about. The Red Sox just eschewed resigning Victor Martinez for four years and $52 million. They too are not about to sign Jeter to a long-term deal worth more money than that. In fact, no team on the open market will. Sure, the Giants might be interested if they can land Jeter for low-dollar, short-term commitment, but the offer from the Yanks — one they’re willing to sweeten — is the best Jeter will get. He knows it; the team knows it; and when the posturing and negotiations are through, Derek will be back in pinstripes. That you could take to the bank.

A Yankee contract negotiation from the past

I miss Moose (Julie Jacobson/AP)

Baseball is not your typical business. Employees, i.e. players, cannot expect a raise every year. They can for a certain period, but at some point their skills begin to decline. At that point teams are willing to pay them less and less, and for good reason. Understandably, players try to fend off this notion for as long as possible. Not only does it mean less money for them, but it’s an admission that they’re getting older and won’t be able to do the things they once did. No one wants to admit that to themselves.

Some players take this better than others. As we saw last year, Johnny Damon didn’t take it well at all. He turned down an offer from the Yankees because it constituted a pay cut. This winter we’re seeing Derek Jeter desiring to remain at his $20 million salary even though his production no longer justifies it. Yet I can remember one player who took a pay cut graciously. That happened in the winter after the 2006 season, and the player was Mike Mussina.

In the winter following the Yankees’ third straight World Series victory, the market was rife with free agents. Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, and Mike Mussina highlighted the class. The Yankees went with the pitcher, signing Mussina to a six-year, $88.5 million contract. In the deal’s final two seasons, plus the 2007 option season, Mussina earned $17 million. But by the end of the 2006, even though he had pitched very well during that season, he realized that he wasn’t going to make $17 million again. So he took a pay cut.

The deal went pretty smoothly from what I can remember. Mussina signed for two years and $23 million — a $1 million signing bonus and $11 million in each of the two seasons. That represented a nearly 55 percent pay cut from his 2006 salary, and a 34 percent pay cut from the average annual value of his previous contract. Yet he took it with grace. In fact, the only stipulation on it seemed reasonable: he demanded to make more than Carl Pavano. Done and done, said Cashman.

In some way, I can see a parallel for Derek Jeter. In one way, he’s in a unique situation and therefore can’t really compare himself to someone else. In another way, I can’t really blame him for wanting more than A.J. Burnett. That’s why a three-year, $50 million contract makes sense. That not only puts Jeter’s salary a tick above Burnett’s, but it also means their contracts expire at the same time. I can even see the Yanks being generous and offering an option year, so that Jeter might stay with the team longer — and so that he makes more from the Yankees in 2014 than Burnett does.

(If the Yankees wanted to get really generous they could go three years, $56.7 million, which would replicate the average annual value of Jeter’s previous contract.)

Yet it’s clear that Jeter is not being as honest with himself about his position as was Mussina. That’s his right, I suppose. Rare is the player in Mussina’s mold. Still, I can’t help but wish Jeter would see things in the same way as his former teammate. If that were the case, he’d already have a contract by this point.

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