Murphy received 73 votes for the Hall of Fame this year, just 12.6% of the total, so he was well short of induction. Bernie will jump on the ballot for the first time next year, and as you can see, his overall career path was very similar to Murphy’s. Both fell off considerably at age 32-33, and both had absurd peaks: Murphy hit .290/.383/.536 from ’83-’87, Bernie hit .324/.410/.551 from ’96-’00. The former can’t match the latter’s postseason exploits and World Series rings, but the latter can’t match the former’s two MVP awards. How do you think Bernie will fare in the voting ext year?
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 Times — Jack 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.
It’s not everyday that you get an opportunity to talk baseball with a Yankee great. So when Don Povia of HHR Media Group and Taylor PR invited me, along with a number of other bloggers, to speak to Bernie Williams, I couldn’t say yes faster. The roundtable discussion was sponsored by MasterCard, which is currently running a Reserved by MasterCard promo. Just go to Facebook.com/mastercard to find out more.*
A big thanks to Hugging Harold Reynolds, which has a video of Bernie talking about the Yanks-Sox rivalry.
With Bernie Williams it would seem that two topics are appropriate. We were all there because of Bernie the Yankee, but there is also Bernie the musician. He’s had no modest music career — last year he was nominated for a Latin Grammy. Those were the two obvious discussion points, and for much of the time our questions centered on those topics. But towards the end we hit on a related topic, George Steinbrenner. While Bernie was comfortable and affable the entire time, he really shined when discussing Mr. Steinbrenner. You could tell he meant a lot to Bernie, not necessarily by the content of the stories, but by how animated he became when telling them.
One of the bloggers started the afternoon’s discussion with a question about Bernie’s music career, asking him how he’s handling the change from baseball. As he did with every question Bernie gave a thoughtful response. I was impressed by his humbleness. He admitted, without prompt, that he isn’t as skilled as many other popular recording artists. But it seemed more like he was expressing a desire to continue improving. He was also honest about how audiences receive him. Yet he’s not just some ballplayer who used his fame to start a different career. That plays into it, of course, but unbeknownst to me until yesterday afternoon, Bernie attended a performing arts high school.
Still, as interesting as Bernie has made his musical career, I was more interested in his amateur efforts. In the late 90s I remember reading in the papers that Bernie and Paul O’Neill used to jam in the clubhouse. O’Neill played drums, so it was only natural that the two would get together and pass the time playing their instruments. I was kind of skeptical — did they really jam? — but Bernie took right to the topic. They jammed plenty, he said: after batting practice, in rain delays, and even after games. Sometimes O’Neill would bring in some of his buddies and they’d jam with four, five instruments going.
O’Neill wasn’t the first Yankee to hammer at the skins. The kit he used, according to Bernie, was actually Ron Guidry’s. It was set up in a storage closet near the clubhouse, making for easy access. Bernie did mention that he developed an affinity for rock and the blues in high school, which I’m sure helped him meet O’Neill stylistically — I can’t imagine O’Neill being into the kind of music Bernie enjoys now. But it’s clear that Bernie has a passion for music. It makes me glad that he was able to find his niche in the industry following his baseball career.
Bernie might talk about passion in music, but he really shows it when he talks about his upbringing with the New York Yankees. This was a topic that always interested me because, in the same way as many other Yankee fans at the time, I didn’t warm to Bernie at first. He came up as an injury replacement for Roberto Kelly, at the time one of my favorite players, and he did’t exactly hit well in his stead. Bernie, though, says he was just happy for the opportunity, and didn’t feel the additional pressure of filling in for a popular player. It’s not like he had many fans in the Stadium to impress.
He was surprised, he said, when the Yankees ended up trading Kelly. He thought he was the one to be traded. That’s an understandable position, given how the Yankees operated in the 80s. They routinely traded young talent for established veterans. But when they traded Kelly and decided to keep Bernie, he thought they were changing philosophy; and they were. The decision to hang onto Bernie came when George Steinbrenner was banned from baseball, a period when the Yankees hung onto a number of young players who would become the core of their championship teams.
The other major point he hit on, one that we discuss frequently in the comments, is the ability to succeed in New York. It’s true, he said. Some people have an attitude conducive to surviving and succeeding in New York. He described it as even-keeled — the ability to weather some bad play and realize that when you’re yourself and performing well, the fans will love you. Bernie clearly has that attitude himself. I did ask, without getting names or specifics, if Bernie had come across a player or two who had the requisite attitude but just had a few bad years in the city. He clearly wanted to bring up an example, but held back. His response, though, led to the Yankee Attitude Matrix, which we’ll debut later today.
Towards the end of our time together we started asking questions about Bernie’s relationship with George Steinbrenner. He had two stories that illustrated what the Boss meant to him, and both were his most elaborate moments of the afternoon.
The first involved his contract negotiations after the 1998 season. After being tied to the Yankees for so long, he said, he wanted to test the market. He received interest from a number of teams and, as we know, a large offer from the Red Sox. His agent, Scott Boras, and Brian Cashman were talking about a deal, but Bernie didn’t feel they were getting it done the way he wanted it to be. So he reached out to Mr. Steinbrenner.
Bernie recalls that he called Mr. Steinbrenner and told him that he wanted to remain a Yankee. That, apparently, is what Steinbrenner wanted to hear. His response, according to Bernie, was, “OK. What do you want?” Bernie mentioned Mike Piazza’s seven-year, $91 million contract, and George said he’d do what he could. This was at a time, remember, when the Yankees were looking at Albert Belle — wining and dining, Bernie said. But George came back hours later with a seven-year, $87.5 million offer. That got the deal done.
At some point during his tenure in pinstripes, though he can’t remember which year, the team apparently cancelled a family day for the players. This is when they can bring their kids to the park and let them play on the field. This dismayed Bernie, but more importantly it dismayed his wife. He called up Mr. Steinbrenner and asked him to reconsider family day, saying how important it had become for his kids. The answer, “I’ll think about it,” turned into a yes later that day. Bernie thinks it’s because the Yankees won. I don’t doubt that.
The afternoon was nothing but enjoyable. How could it not be? It was a bunch of fans sitting around and asking questions of a guy who helped deliver four World Series titles. Bernie had plenty to say, and he certainly gave us elaborate answers to each question. Major thanks go to him, Taylor, and MasterCard for hosting the afternoon. If you want a different angle on the event, you can check out Emma Span’s write-up at Bronx Banter. Amanda Rykoff at The OCD Chick will have a comprehensive recap up later in the day. Which is good, because I surely didn’t get in everything.
* Brought to you by Carl’s Jr.
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Bernie Williams hasn’t played in a regular season game for the Yankees since Oct. 1, 2006. He went 1 for 1 as a pinch hitter in Game 162, and then played in just one game during the ALDS. He knew he was nearing the end of his career, but he couldn’t convince the Yanks to give him a guaranteed deal. The team offered to invite him to Spring Training, and Bernie went home to nurse his wounded pride instead.
Now, three full seasons removed from his last game as a Major Leaguer, Bernie still feels the itch, and when he showed up at George M. Steinbrenner Field yesterday, he spoke with reporters about coming to grips with his forced retirement. “Someone said it takes a player three to five years to get used to not playing,” Williams said. “I’m in my fourth year now, so I’m right between there. I miss it, but I like what I’m doing.”
Bernie is 41, but he still thinks about coming back. “I think mentally I try not to really think about that too much,” he said. “I go through periods of time within the past couple of years in which I go back and forth, and this doesn’t help, being here and saying hi to the guys. It obviously brings a lot of the old feelings back, but I know that I’m doing something worthwhile in another field. Any way that I look at it, I can’t lose. If I come back, that would be great. But if I don’t, it’s just a great opportunity to do something different and try to excel at it.”
As much as he may want to rejoin the Majors, Bernie’s time has passed. I hated seeing Bernie go fading away as he did, and it still pains me to hear my one-time favorite talk about wanting to come back. He tried that during the WBC in 2009 and ended up with a quad injury. It was an ignoble end, to say the least.
But what’s done is done. Instead of dwelling on Bernie’s tortured present, let’s look at his distant past. As a top Yankee prospect in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bernie was subject of more trade rumors than we could count. Scouts knew he would be good, but they couldn’t foresee his peak from 1997-2001 when he hit .325/.411/.548 and led the Yanks to four World Series berths. And so into the Wayback Machine we go.
Would you, in 1989, have traded Bernie Williams for Jeff Blauser? That’s what the Braves wanted to do. Blauser, then a highly-coveted 22-year-old, had just made his Major League debut and would go on to put up serviceable career numbers. He hit .262/.354/.406 and twice made the All-Star team. A deal was nearly in place that may or may not have involved Bernie.
Here’s a more intriguing rumor: What about Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla for Bernie Williams, Kevin Maas, Roberto Kelly Jesse Barfield and a pitcher? It’s a bit tougher to say “no” to Bonds. The Yanks maybe could have landed Bonds and Bonilla in a deal with Gerald Williams instead of Bernie. A Bonds/Bernie outfield would have been a sight to see in the late 1990s.
Perhaps something a little more recent would give us a taste of life almost without Bernie. The Yanks and Bernie nearly split up in 1998 when the team moved on Albert Belle after Bernie’s contract demands grew too rich for their tastes, but that almost-divorce, rescued on Thanksgiving Eve, had its origins in the 1997 off-season. With Bernie nearing free agency and the Yanks not in love with their enigmatic almost-superstar, the team looked to trade him that winter and nearly did so to the Tigers. The deal would have sent Roberto Duran and Mike Drumright, Detroit’s number one pick in 1995, to the Bronx for Bernie.
Why the deal was scuttled remains a mystery. Murray Chass speculated that (1) George quashed a deal then-GM Bob Watson negotiated on his own; (2) other baseball advisers didn’t feel the Yanks were getting enough back from the Tigers; or (3) it was a negotiating ploy to get Bernie to lower his demands on the Yankees. No matter the reason, it would have been a disastrous trade for the Yanks. Drumright never reached the majors and today works in construction in Wichita, Kansas.
So Bernie remained that ever-elusive Yankee for Life®. He’s trying to give up the sport, but it just keeps sucking him in. Even if his words make me wince today, I, for one, am quite relieved the Yanks never traded him as they often considered doing.
For the seventh installment of our Yankees By the Decade retrospective on the aught-aughts, we land in center field. For the Yankees of the 2000s, center field represents quite the dichotomy. The position peaked early and never regained the luster of the Bernie Williams Era.
Bernie Williams retired — or was forced off the Yanks when he opted against accepting a Spring Training invite in 2007 — in 2006. Yet, he remains the center fielder of the decade. Despite a late-career swoon, he still hit .293/.378/.474 as the Yanks’ center fielder this decade, and his early-00 numbers are, as we’ll see soon, stellar.
After Bernie became too old and too slow to adequately man center field, the Yankees simply could not find an adequate replacement. For one year in 2006, Johnny Damon‘s offense was well above-average, but his defense in center was anything but. He turned in a -11.6 UZR that year and sported his trademark awful arm. The man hired to replace Bernie had all over 843 at-bats at center over his four years with the Yanks.
Melky Cabrera and then Brett Gardner followed Damon in center. Although Gardner flashed some speed and Melky an arm, the two weren’t impact offensive players. For the decade, the tale of center field is one of decline. Bernie started off strong, but by 2009, the Yanks were content to live through average or below-average center field production. It’s been a long, hard fall:
|Yanks CF Overall|
With this table, we can track that fall. For three years, Bernie was a beast. He put up a combined OPS+ of 140, and Yanks’ center fielders hit a combined .308/.388/.509. The vast majority of the team’s overall counting stats in center came during those three years. The 81 home runs and 340 home runs were nearly 40 percent of the decade’s totals. The slugging outpaced the rest of the decade by over .060 points.
In 2003, though, Bernie fell to Earth, and for the next two seasons, the Yanks tried to move a proud aging ballplayer to lesser position. In 2004, the team brought in Kenny Lofton, but Joe Torre stuck with his man. Bernie still made nearly two-thirds of all center field at-bats, and his OPS+ over that span was a good-but-not-great 108. Still, the combined .281/.368/.446 line was not too shabby.
In 2005, it all fell apart. Bernie couldn’t hit, and his legs were gone. A cameo by Melky Cabrera was worse, and the Yanks’ center fielders hit .241/.296/.332. It was truly a low point of the decade. Johnny Damon provided some pop in 2006, but he couldn’t man the position. The combined .273/.345/.461 line was a breath of fresh air amidst some offensive woes later in the decade.
When Melky Cabrera took over in 2007 and enjoyed approximately 80 percent of the center field playing time for the next three seasons, the Yankees were seemingly content to let the offense in center slide. Since 2007, Yanks’ center fielders have hit .268/.333/.393. That .726 OPS is a far cry from the .897 mark that started the decade. Melky’s combined UZR in center over the last three seasons has been -8.4. He was well below average in 2007 and at or slightly above average in 2008 and 2009. Melky had an average 2009 with the stick, but now he’s gone, sent to Atlanta in the deal that brought Javier Vazquez back to the Bronx.
As the Yankees head into 2010, they will begin a new era in center field. Curtis Granderson is under contract through 2013, and the club holds an option for 2014. Hopefully, the new decade will begin as the previous one did — with some top offensive and some solid defense out of center field. It’s been a while.