We're playing muscial chairs here at All-Baseball today. I'm trading spaces with Mark McClusky, who offers the following piece on one of my favorite Yankees, good ol' Bernabee Williams. I have a short write-up over at Baysball on my favorite (non-Yankee) American League pitcher, Tim Hudson. (I'll be back with a write-up of the Yankees' come-from-behind, 7-6 win over the Mariners later in today.)
End of the Road?
by Mark McClusky
The decline of a once great ballplayer is one of the hardest things in sports to watch, simply because itís possible for that player to hang on in an active role longer than in most sports. There are so few great players in the game that even as their skills deteriorate, theyíre still more valuable than the average player.
I come here today at Alexís kind invitation not to bury Bernie Williams, but to praise him. I havenít had a chance to watch him regularly since leaving New York City in 1999 to move out to the Bay Area, so what I get of Bernie are fleeting glimpses, either in matchups against the Oakland Aís, or in the postseason.
Maybe my lack of regular exposure to Bernie is one reason for the shock I felt watching him in the six games the Aís and Yankees finished up last week. Because, frankly, he didnít look like a major league hitter. Bill King, the long-time Aís announcer (and one of the true joys of being an Aís fan), described some of the swings that Williams took at the Stadium when the Aís were in town as the worst swings heíd ever seen a big leaguer take.
He was right. Itís clear that Bernie is, physically, a mess. Heís had reoccurring knee problems, and heís got chronic shoulder issues that limit his range of motion. What that means is that heís not driving the ball at all. Itís a mess, as you see his swing breakdown even as he takes it.
Thatís all led to this line, which Iím sure you Yankee fans donít need reminding of: .197/.297/.262. Goddamn, Bernie Williams OPS is .559. Thatís Neifi Perez territory, and a shame, because Williams has been an underappreciated offensive player for over a decade.
I moved to New York in 1994, at the same time that the Yankees were starting to shake off the memories of the 80s and early 90s, and becoming a team worth watching. I bought tickets at the Stadium, upper deck right behind the plate, and got to see a team come together. Jeter came up, Wetteland was there. Paul OíNeill. And Bernie, the quiet centerfielder who was also somehow the stabilizing factor on the team.
I really do think of the first part of the Yankees current run as Williams team, no matter how much hype has piled up around Jeter over the seasons. They werenít teams built with dozens of free agents, and George had receded to the background, for once. Instead, those teams, culminating in the 1998 juggernaut, just went out and played hard every day. They were a business-like, almost corporate team, and some people never loved them for that.
Nostalgia for the Bronx Zoo days always seemed misplaced to me. The Yankees, at that point, were strangely likable, even for die-hard Yankee-haters. They played the game hard, and played it well. Something that didnít get noticed as much at the time was the emphasis that the Yankees placed on getting on-base; playing Moneyball while Michael Lewis was still writing about business.
In my time reporting on baseball, I never got a chance to talk to Williams, much to my disappointment. I know this is moving into some dangerous territory, but there always seemed to be a straight-line you could draw between Bernie and the Yankee icon to end all icons, Joe DiMaggio. I did get a chance to meet DiMaggio before he died, and you couldnít help but be struck by his grace and almost regal carriage. Thereís more than a little than that in Bernie. ďClassyĒ is overused, but in this case, it fits.
Which is why itís so hard for me to see him struggle. Iíve always like Williams, and more importantly, Iíve always respected him. Heís only 35, but it seems his days as an effective player are likely over. Heís earned the right to go out on his own terms; I just hope that the Yankees, recast in Bronx Zoo mode, will let that happen.