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Bernie Williams Back Home And Keeping The Faith


April 21, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

In his book "The Road to Redemption," Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky uses the insight of old rabbis to name two elements that distort the normal order of life: love and grief.

For the past 11 days, Bernie Williams, the Yankees' center fielder, has been pulled back and forth between these two emotions. He was pulled away from the team by grief as his ailing father fought for his life in Puerto Rico. Williams was pushed back to New York by love and a sense of mission.

In the process of going back and forth – physically and spiritually – Williams revealed a dimension of his loyalty and value to the Yankees that even the most loyal fans have never truly appreciated.

In a moving half-hour news conference at Yankee Stadium yesterday, Williams described his emotional absence from the Yankees.

On April 9, Williams received a call from his brother when the Yankees arrived in Kansas City for a three-game series with the Royals. His brother told him that their 73-year- old father, Bernabe Williams Sr., was being taken to a hospital in Puerto Rico. Williams's father has pulmonary fibrosis, in which scar tissue in the lungs restricts breathing and makes speaking difficult, if not impossible.

Williams left for Puerto Rico when he determined the severity of the situation. He was not prepared for what he saw. The robust, active man who once ordered him around, who orchestrated his early career, was frail, waging a life-and-death battle for each breath. When he saw his father barely able to breathe, Williams broke down and cried.

"It was so different from when I saw him back on Christmas," Williams said. "He lost a lot of weight, he had a lot of difficulty breathing.

"I don't know if any of you had a situation like that before," he said to reporters, "but you start thinking about the time you were a kid and you have your dad all strong, the times you spent with him. You can't help feeling emotional about it."

His father's condition worsened, and he was eventually put on a respirator. His father was aware that Williams was in the room with his brother and an evergrowing contingent of relatives who had flown in from New York and Chicago.

Bernabe Williams's condition deteriorated to the point that he was put in intensive care.

"At some point we really thought that he was going to leave us," Bernie said.

In a final move, doctors took his father off the respirator with the idea that his lungs would not work on their own if kept on a respirator. His condition improved, his lungs began responding to treatment. "It was a miracle, at least that's the way I see it," Williams said.

Williams endured split emotions as he watched his father and his team struggle without being able to help either of them.

With Williams out of the lineup, the Yankees fell into an offensive slump and went 5-5. In his first game back, he walked, scored a run and made an outstanding defensive play as the Yankees defeated Boston, 6-1. After the game, Williams dressed quickly and left.

"The most frustrating thing for me was not being there playing the games," Williams said before the game. "I was like, `I should be there playing.' But the time that I was down there was worth it."

For the time being, his father is stable. Bernabe Williams was taken out of intensive care on Thursday and put in a private room.

"If everything goes as planned," Bernie said yesterday, "he should be out of the hospital in the next two or three days."

This story will not have a happy ending. The progressive disease will not get better. There will be no life-saving heroics.

"From what I've heard, he will eventually die from this," Williams said. "What this has taught me is that there are a lot of things I cannot control. I can have all the money in the world and I cannot get my dad better. Sometimes you have to let go and just pray."

His father taught him that lesson as well.

When Williams arrived in Puerto Rico this month, he asked his father if he wanted him to go back to New York if his condition changed. His father grabbed Williams's arms and shook his head no.

On Thursday, Williams's father let his son know he could go. "I realized he was back when he kicked me out of the hospital," Williams said. "He couldn't talk, but he pointed to me and made this gesture of a plane."

For the past 11 days, and particularly yesterday, Williams eloquently offered a variation on ancient wisdom about things that distort the order of life. Grief may take you away, but love and commitment send you back.

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