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Bernie Still A Big Hit For Yanks; Bombers' Williams Passing The Test Of Time; Outfielder Takes His Place Among Team's Legends
BY PETE CALDERA, STAFF WRITER
June 12, 2004
NEW YORK - Long before Bernie Williams began creeping up the Yankees' all-time lists in hits, games, and RBI, he was the constant subject of trade talk.
Most of that chatter came from an impatient principal owner.
Williams' slow starts in the early '90s irritated George Steinbrenner, and then-general manager Gene Michael would hear about it.
But only once did Michael pick up a phone and inquire about a trade for Williams. It was spring training of 1993, and the object of his desire was a fleet, young center fielder from Cleveland named Kenny Lofton.
"No one went after the ball better," Michael said. But the talks with Indians' GM John Hart "never got serious."
It's a Birdstone-type long shot to stick with one club over a long baseball career, and the odds are even steeper to last with the Yankees.
Williams' high on-base percentages and low maintenance have kept him in pinstripes longer than anyone since Don Mattingly, in total games played for the Yanks.
"That's why we never traded him," Michael said. "He did all the things we liked, and he worked at his game. He's still the same way."
On Thursday afternoon, Williams' 2,000th hit prompted such an outpouring of affection from a crowd of 41,586 that Yankee Stadium morphed into a spontaneous Bernie Williams' Appreciation Day.
"We've taken Bernie for granted for so long," manager Joe Torre said. "He's been a very reliable guy on our ball club over the years."
Since Mattingly retired, Williams has occupied the Stadium's coveted corner locker, often retreating into his own quiet world, immersing himself in his music.
Williams much prefers communicating with a guitar or a Louisville Slugger than the spoken word.
But the fans' long ovation for his 2,000th hit jostled some old memories, and Williams - for a moment - stepped back to remember where he'd been.
"I certainly can appreciate that I was here when we weren't as good," Williams said. "There were a lot of growing pains."
With the constant buzz about being traded, or the talk about not living up to his star potential, "I sort of got it in a rough way," Williams said of his Yankee initiation. "I had to learn to establish myself.
"It's very rewarding to look back over" that period.
Williams admitted he nearly quit baseball while studying biology at the University of Puerto Rico.
"I was doing a semester of pre-med and playing in the minors, and I was not doing well in either one, just getting by," Williams said. "I couldn't live my life like that. I had to make a decision."
Looking back, "I realize I probably would have been a terrible doctor," Williams said. "I have so much more fun playing music and playing baseball."
Fourteen seasons later, Mattingly recalled his first sight of Williams. "He looked like he was 15 years old. He was gangly, and long-legged."
But he could hit from both sides of the plate, had power from the right side, and could outrun balls in the outfield.
Williams never threw well, and he was not an instinctive baserunner - tags that have dogged him his entire career.
And the early spring was never his time of year.
"He started slowly and some people got discouraged each year, including our boss," said Michael, now the Yankees' vice president and senior adviser.
Michael would have to plead patience with Steinbrenner, who often railed during his Williams tirades that, "Well, Mattingly's not hitting either."
"Give these guys a chance," Michael would say.
Williams has maintained a certain naivete through the years, but was never immune from the rumbling inside the owner's box.
"This is all I know, for better or worse," Williams said of his Yankee life. "With all the distractions - I'm sure it's quite an experience for people who haven't been here as long as I have."
Williams nearly left the circus to join the Red Sox after the 1998 season, and his imminent defection spurred Steinbrenner to make a seven-year offer on Thanksgiving Eve - instead of importing free agent Albert Belle.
"We were an eyelash from losing him," Torre said. "But I think he's comfortable here. I think he was relieved [that he re-signed]. It worked out that he stayed here.
"I think he's got his own leadership qualities," Torre said of Williams' no-excuse, workmanlike approach. But there's always a mystery to his way. "Sometimes, you don't know what sparks him."
He's been a five-time All-Star, a four-time Gold Glove Award winner, with four world championship rings, and a batting title.
In the Yankees' all-time record book, Williams' name can be found with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Berra.
He will have a plaque in Monument Park, and a Bernie Williams Day at the Stadium when he retires - an event that seemed right around the corner just a month ago.
Williams had knee surgery a year ago, then appendicitis in February that shortened his spring training.
Eleven years after their first inquiry, Steinbrenner signed Lofton, and Williams seemed destined for a designated hitter's role, or a spot on Torre's bench.
Lofton is on the disabled list for the second time this year with a strained hamstring, and Williams - who raised his average from .185 to .253 entering Friday - has been Torre's regular center fielder.
Two thousand hits means "you've been able to go to the post a lot," Torre said.
Though Williams has spent his career flying under the radar, "He's gotten more attention this year probably because there's somebody else we signed who can play center field."
In recent off-seasons, Willliams has dragged himself to the Stadium three times a week to work out and receive treatment on his chronically bad shoulders.
Still, "You have to ask him about taking days off [during the season]," Torre said.
Williams turns 36 in September, but "I think you're going to see him [play] a little longer," Torre said.
His contract runs out after the 2005 season. Beyond that, "it's hard to say," Michael said. "But he's taken care of himself.
"They thought Roger Clemens was finished in Boston, but look how off they were," Michael said. "You never know about these things."
Bernie Williams' ranking on the Yankees' all-time lists:
Home runs: 249 (seventh place)
Needs one to tie Graig Nettles for sixth.
RBI: 1,082 (ninth)
Needs 17 to tie Don Mattingly for eighth.
Doubles: 380 (fifth)
Needs nine to tie Joe DiMaggio for fourth.
Games: 1,710 (ninth)
Needs 26 to tie DiMaggio for eighth.
The Yankees' all-time hit leaders:
1. Lou Gehrig, 2,721
2. Babe Ruth, 2,518
3. Mickey Mantle, 2,415
4. Joe DiMaggio, 2,214
5. Don Mattingly, 2,153
6. Yogi Berra, 2,148
7. *Bernie Williams, 2,001
*including Friday's game