Classic Yankees: Bernie Williams

It seems strange to call him an Old-Timer, but he did show up as an Old-Timer at the recent Yankees’ Old-Timer’s Day, even though he has never officially announced his retirement. But Bernie Williams, whether he makes the HOF or not, is clearly a Classic Yankee.

I remember seeing Bernie for the first time when, in 1990 with the major league team stinking it up in last place, I went to Reading to see Albany-Colonie, at that time the Yanks’ AA team, play Reading. One reason I went was to see 2B Pat Kelly, who was from the next town over from me, play. He played in that game, along with two outfielders both named Williams—Bernie and Gerald.

I remember being struck by the gazelle-like athleticism of Bernie, who, if I recall correctly, doubled in the game. At that time, Yankee fans were grasping at straws for someone good to come up from the farm system, and hoping that the Yanks would go against their policy of the time of having little patience with the prospects.

Bernie made it to the bigs in 1991, and many thought the quiet, soft-spoken, guitar-playing OF was like a deer in the headlights. He hit .238 in 85 games, with 3 HR, 34 RBI and an OPS+ of 91. He stole 10 bases. Although fast, Bernie wasn’t a big SB guy. Once he got it going, he could motor, but it seemed like he lacked that quick first step.

Williams got into 62 games in 1992, hitting .280-5-26, OPS+ 113. He played CF, with some occasional LF and RF. Roberto Kelly wasn’t happy playing LF to Bernie’s CF late in the year. For his griping, Kelly got himself traded to Cincinnati for Paul O’Neill. Going with Bernie and O’Neill was one of the best moves the Yankees made in the 1990s.

It wasn’t easy, however. Often in this time, the Boss, George Steinbrenner, wanted to trade Bernie. Bernie wasn’t a big HR guy, didn’t steal a ton of bases, and had a weak throwing arm. The front office brass told “little white lies” (ok, big lies) to Steinbrenner, stating that they talked to other teams about him but that no one was interested. The truth was they wanted to hold on to their gem.

In 1993, Williams became the full-time CF, and hit .268 with 12 HR and 68 RBI with an OPS+ of 100. He was just 24, and the Yanks, with 88 wins and a second-place finish, were starting to turn things around after a dismal 1989-1992 period.

If not for the strike of 1994, the Yanks would have made the postseason. They had the best record in the AL at the time. Therefore Williams would have added on to his impressive postseason resume. With today’s expanded playoffs, ALDS, ALCS and WS, Williams wound up playing in 121 postseason games. That is one more than Jorge Posada, and behind only Derek Jeter on the all-time list. In postseason play, Williams is second in games, at bats, plate appearances, runs scored, hits, total bases, doubles, HR. He is first in RBI, third in walks, fourth in striking out, second in singles. Jeter leads in most categories.

Williams twice homered from both sides of the plate in a postseason game. The only other ones to do it were Chipper Jones and Milton Bradley (once each). Williams was the first to ever do it.

In that 1994 season, Bernie hit .289-12-57 with 16 SB. ERA+ 119. If not for the strike, he may have wound up with 18 HR, 25 SB and around 85 RBI.

In 1995 the Yanks made the postseason for the first time in fourteen years. Williams hit .307 with 18 HR and 82 RBI with an OPS+ of 129. He went 9 for 21, .429, 2 HR (both in the same game, from each side of the plate) and five RBI.

In 1996, the Yanks won their first WS in eighteen years. Bernie finished 17th in the MVP voting after a season of .305-29-102 with 17 SB, OPS+ 131. He then shone brightly in the postseason. In the ALDS, he went 7 for 15, .467, 3 HR and 5 RBI. Once again he had a 2-HR game, with HRs from both sides of the plate. He then won the ALCS MVP award, going 9 for 19, .474, 2 HR, 6 RBI. His walk off HR won Game 1 (the Jeffrey Maier game) of the ALCS. In the WS, Bernie was just 4 for 24, .167, 1 HR, 4 RBI, but his HR was a big one, insurance in the 8th inning of Game 3, a game the Yanks, down 0-2, had to win.

In 1997, Bernie became an All-Star and Gold Glover for the first time each and once again finished 17th in the MVP voting. He hit .328-21-100, 15 SB and had an excellent OPS+ of 147. Besides being a .297 career hitter, Bernie averaged 83 walks/162 g. for his career, hence his career OPS+ of 125. He had a rough ALDS in 1997 however, going just 2 for 17 and making the last out against the Indians.

In 1998, Bernie missed some time with an injury, but won the AL batting title with a .339 mark. .339-26-97, 15 SB, and an OPS+ of 160 gave him a 7th place slot in the MVP voting, as well as All-Star and Gold Glove awards as well. He went 0 for 11 in the ALDS but 8 for 21 with 5 RBI in the ALCS. He then had an awful WS, going just 1 for 16. The one hit was a HR. He became the first player to win a batting title, a Gold Glove, and a WS title in the same year (there was no Gold Glove Award in 1954 when Willie Mays won the batting title and the NY Giants won the World Series).

After the 1998 season, Bernie became a free agent and was very close to signing with Boston. Bernie wanted to remain a Yankee however, and at the last minute called George Steinbrenner up to see if something still could be done. It could be and was. Bernie re-signed with the Yanks the next day.

Bernie responded with superb play through 2002. In 1999, Williams hit .342-25-115, OPS+ 149. The usual (by now) AS and GG awards came with it, along with 11th in the MVP voting. He led the AL with 17 intentional walks in a season where he drew 100 walks to go with a .342 batting average. In the ALDS he was 4 for 11 with a HR and 6 RBI. The ALCS saw 5 for 20, a HR and 2 RBI, but it did see another walk off HR from Bernie in Game 1, making it two ALCS games in his career that Bernie won with a walk off HR. He went 3 for 13 in the WS.

2000 saw Bernie’s fourth and last WS title, and he was the one who caught the last out of that Subway Series, a fly ball off the bat of Mike Piazza. The Yanks were just 87-74 (3-15 to close the year) in that last year of the 1998-2000 trifecta, and it was Jeter and Williams who carried the team offensively. Williams hit .307, hit 30 HR for the only time in his career, and drove in a career-high 121 runs. He added 13 SB and had an OPS+ of 140. All-Star, Gold Glove, and 13th in the MVP voting (he probably deserved higher).

It was his fourth and final Gold Glove Award. He was 5 for 20 in the ALDS, then had a superb ALCS vs. Seattle, going 10 for 23, 1 HR and 3 RBI. Although he was just 2 for 18 in the WS, he had a big HR off of Al Leiter in the fifth and final game.

In 2001, the Yanks, as we know, came oh-so-close to winning four World Series in a row. Bernie once again hit .300 in making his fifth straight (and final) All-Star appearance. He hit .307-26-94 with an OPS+ of 138. He was 4 for 18 in the ALDS, and 4 for 17 in the ALCS. He did hit 3 HR in the ALCS, however. He was 5 for 24 in the WS.

In 2002, Williams hit .333 and finished 10th in the MVP voting. He also won the only Silver Slugger of his career. .333-19-102, with an OPS+ of 141. It was the last great year Williams, who turned 34 at the end of that season, would have. He was 5 for 15, with a HR and 3 RBI in the postseason.

Williams is a borderline HOF player. In a recent interview, he admitted that his stats didn’t add up to or compare with other stats put up at the time, but also mentioned the fact that we now know why some of those other stats were so inflated. No, Bernie didn’t hit 40 HR in a season or drive in 140 runs. He only had one season of 30 HR. The switch-hitting cleanup hitter drove in 100 runs five times. His OPS+ numbers were very respectable for his prime. From what may be called his breakout year of 1994 through his final great season of 2002, Bernie averaged .319-23-97, 139 g./yr., with an OPS+ of 140. Although not a big HR hitter, that OPS+ number, 140 over a nine-year span, is really impressive.

In 2003, Bernie became “mortal.” His average dropped seventy points from .333 to .263. He had just 15 HR and 64 RBI, OPS+ 107. He missed 40 games due to injuries. He wasn’t the same in the OF, either. The range slipped a bit, and he never had a great arm. Bernie was 6 for 15 in the ALDS, 5 for 26 in that epic ALCS vs. Boston, and then was fabulous in what would turn out to be his last WS. The Yanks lost to the Marlins in the 2003 WS, but Bernie went 10 for 25, 2 HR and 5 RBI.

In 2004, Bernie hit just .262-22-70, OPS+ 108. He was 5 for 18, HR, 3 RBI in the ALDS. He did have a great ALCS despite the Yanks’ collapse. In that ALCS, Bernie was 11 for 36 with 2 HR and 10 RBI.
The end was nearing, however. You could see it as his OPS+ numbers had dropped from the 140 range down to 107 and 108. Decent, but not Bernie-like.

In 2005, Bernie had the worst season of his career. He hit just .249 with 12 HR and 64 RBI. The OPS+ number dropped to 85. He was 4 for 19 in the ALDS.

After that season, the Yanks accepted reality, that Bernie couldn’t be their everyday CF anymore. In that offseason, the Yankees went out and got Johnny Damon. The writing was on the wall in Game 5 of the 2005 ALDS, when Bernie DH’d in that decisive game and Bubba Crosby started in CF. (The Yanks lost, and you may remember Crosby and Sheffield messing up a gapper in that game).

The Yanks brought Bernie back in 2006 basically as a backup OF. Injuries to Matsui (the year of his broken wrist) and Sheffield (the year of the 1B experiment late in the year and for the playoffs) forced Williams into more playing time than he or the Yankees expected, although most of it would be in RF. He rebounded to hit .281 with 12 HR and 61 RBI, OPS+ 96, in what would turn out to be his finale. He played in one postseason game, going 0 for 3 with two strikeouts.

Bernie hoped, at 38, to return in 2007 as a backup OF, PH, sometimes DH, but was hurt when the Yanks offered him an invitation to spring training as a non-guaranteed, non-roster invitee. Williams wanted a guaranteed contract and refused to play. He has never officially announced his retirement, but that is what it turned out to be— a forced retirement.

Williams was the last ex-player announced when the Yankees had their farewell to the Old Stadium at the last home game of the 2008 season, and he drew a long, heartfelt ovation from the Yankees fans. Williams wore #51 for sixteen Yankees seasons, from 1991-2006, hitting .297 with 287 HR. He had over 2300 hits, and a career 125 OPS+. His 162 g. average was .297-22-98. No one has worn #51 since, and although Williams probably won’t make the HOF, it is not out of the question that #51 may be retired someday soon. Williams ranks behind DiMaggio and Mantle as far as Yankee centerfielders are concerned, but probably ahead of Earle Combs. DiMaggio, Mantle and Combs are all in the Hall.

On baseball-reference.com, Williams grades out as thus. Black Ink 4, Average HOF about 27; Gray Ink 61, average HOF about 144; but in the next two categories, Williams does well: Hall of Fame Monitor, 134, Likely HOF about 100. Hall of Fame Standards: Bernie 48, Average HOF player 50.

So it looks like close, but not quite. But as Bernie stated (and eloquently and as far as I could tell, without malice), it’s tough to compare his stats against others of his time because of what the others were doing, that is, artificially inflating the stats and the setting of the bar.

In 121 postseason games, Williams hit .275 with 22 HR and 80 RBI.

Bernie did come out of “retirement” at the age of 40 to play for Puerto Rico in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He went 0 for 5 with two walks.

Williams finished in the top 10 in many Yankees hitting categories. You can check it out here.

In 2003, Bernie released the CD The Journey Within, which hit #157 on the top 200, and #3 on the U.S. jazz charts. He followed this with the CD Moving Forward in 2009, which hit #178 on the top 200, and #2 on that U.S. jazz chart. Moving Forward even got a Grammy nomination. I have both CDs, and they are a mixture of rock (a cover of Kansas’ Dust in the Wind is on the first release), jazz, salsa, and classical. There is a lot of Latin/Brazilian influence in the music. They are both quite enjoyable, easy-listening CDs. Williams, a classically trained guitarist, has performed the National Anthem before some games, has been praised by Paul McCartney and has performed with Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band.

According to Wikipedia, Williams, 42, will have book coming out soon:

In July, 2011, Williams’ book, “Rhythms of the Game”, co-authored by Williams, Dave Gluck and Bob Thompson with a foreword by Paul Simon, will be published by Hal Leonard Publishing.

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3 Responses to Classic Yankees: Bernie Williams

  1. David K. says:

    Bernie should be a Hall of Famer. I wanna ask you this question: if the Yankees had Ken Griffey Jr. as their center fielder through those 16 years, would they have won at least four World Series titles? I think the answer is probably not. Bernie stepped up his game at playoff time and the fact that he was a switch hitter who hit for both average and power (at his best, which was during the four championship years), was one of the key ingredients to the offense. He got so many big hits that your head swims just thinking about them. Even if you say Ken Griffey Jr. was better, I'd say Bernie was the better money player and I'm glad we had Bernie instead of Junior. That, and the fact that Bernie was never suspected of steroids, whereas we know of so many who did steroids, is the reason that this man should be a HOF.

  2. David K. says:

    I'd just like to add that he was a consummate team player. He never swung for the fences just to pump up his stats. He knew his strike zone and his plate discipline was legendary. I believe that he could have hit a lot more homers and drove in a lot more runs if he had been a selfish player. There were many times in blow out games either way that he could have swung for the fences when there were guys on base. That probably would have put him into the Hall of Fame for sure. But I watched or listened to just about every game Bernie ever played for the Yankees and I can say wihout any qualifications that this guy was the most unselfish and the best team player I ever saw. I remember Michael Kay was always very critical of Bernie because he didn't have great baseball instincts, but he did say something I totally agree with. He said Bernie is the best non-instinctual player he ever saw. He was not instinctive on the base paths but he was also the most unselfish.

  3. Susan says:

    The *real* heart and soul of those great Yankee championship teams.