Bernie Williams has never officially retired. Now 40 years old and with a burgeoning music career, the former center fielder hasn’t been able to quite call it quits. Perhaps, he hasn’t filed out those retirement papers yet because he wants to play for Puerto Rico during the upcoming World Baseball Classic tournament. It would be a nice gesture if Bernie’s last baseball appearance could come during the WBC. Now all he has to do is convince the team to take him.
So I got to thinking about the 2008 season and where we failed, and the answer came to me in a flash: Bernie Williams! If they had Bernie patrolling the outfield, they would have made the playoffs. He brings the mystique and aura!
Seriously, though, the only reason I bring up Bernie is because of his feature role in a movie, “Keeper of the Pinstripes.” Newsday’s David Lennon caught up with the Yanks legend to get his thoughts on retirement.
“I’ll be 75 and still not announce my retirement,” Williams said last night at a pre-production party in Manhattan. “I’m still within this two- or three-year period where I can say, ‘You know what? Let me just work out … ‘”
It’s nice that he’s keeping himself in shape, but the prospect of him coming back isn’t exactly realistic. Brian Cashman invited him to Spring Training in 2007, but Bern declined. It’s now two years later. It seems that ship has sailed. Bernie seems to know it, too: “But I’m not really thinking about baseball right now. It’s always in the back of my mind, but I’m not really thinking of getting out there.”
We’ll always remember Bernie’s contributions to the dynasty. I just don’t want to see him trying to make a (probably futile) comeback.
According to Tyler Kepner, Bernie Wlliams, a recent guest of President Bush’s and coach at a White House T-ball game, will make an appearance at Yankee Stadium before the year is out. Bernie’s publicist doesn’t yet have any official details concerning Bernie’s reappearance in the Bronx after a two-year Cold War with the Yankees, but this is one overdue détente.
Over the weekend, Joe Brescia checked in with Bernie Williams and churned out a rather wistful piece about number 51. Bernie is in the City this week to play guitar at a few of the MLB-sponsored All Star festivities, but he hasn’t made a public return yet to Yankee Stadium. The Yanks, Bernie tells Brescia, asked him to flip the countdown clock, but he had a family obligation. I hope the Yanks and Bernie can heal their own wounds before the season ends so Bernie can get a proper day of appreciation before Yankee Stadium meets the wrecking ball.
Despite an acrimonious divorce following the 2006 season, the Yankees still appreciate all that Bernie Williams gave to the game. To that end, they would like to honor him before the Stadium closes down in
seven months. “Obviously, Bernie is special to us,” Hank said yesterday. No date has been set for Bernie Williams Day, but that is sure to be a hot ticket.
Before Santanamania momentarily took hold of our Yankee-loving lives, we were in the middle of discussing the winter when Bernie Williams almost left New York. I argued that Bernie’s departure would have paved the way for the Red Sox to win in 1999. But not everyone took such a shortsighted view as I did.
In fact, one of our frequent commenters, Eric from Morrisania wrote an excellent counterfactual about what may have happened if Bernie had indeed been allowed to leave, and in Eric’s view, things turn out pretty well for the Yanks. Since it’s such a well-done comment, I thought it merits its own discussion. So here is Eric’s view — with some very minor edits by me — on what could have been if Bernie had left New York in November of 1998.
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 a slight decrease in 2000, which is significant since we made the playoffs by finishing only two games better than a pretty bad 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.
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’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.