The Yankees recently revealed their plans to retire Joe Torre's number and also honor Tino Martinez, Goose Gossage and Paul O'Neill with plaques in Monument Park throughout the 2014 season. As a footnote to their email, the team also disclosed that Bernie Williams will be "recognized" in some way, shape, or form at some point in 2015. While there has been no confirmation that Bernie's number 51 will be retired as part of that recognition, it would be a great injustice if it wasn't. So, let's revisit a series that began last year and plead the case for one of the franchise's greatest hitters.
In 1985 the Yankees signed the 17-year-old Williams as an amateur free agent. Growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico Bernie seemed destined to become a star track and field athlete as he racked up four gold medals at the Central American and Caribbean Junior Championships. Alas, he chose baseball and in 1986 he began his slow, steady climb through the Yankees' minor league ranks. By 1991, the bottom-dwelling big league club lost regular center fielder Roberto Kelly to injury so with nothing to lose they called up Williams for a test run.
On the field Bernie performed about as well could be expected from a young rookie on a bad team, but his biggest challenge was dealing with the wrath of one of his own teammates. The bespectacled and shy Williams became the target of fellow outfielder Mel Hall, a high-salary, low-character George Steinbrenner acquisition that was typical of the era. Hall, seemingly threatened by the presence of a young, promising player, ruthlessly picked on Williams referring to him as "Bambi" or "Zero." It got to the point that team captain Don Mattingly quietly diffused the situation by encouraging Williams to turn the other cheek and believe in himself while convincing Hall to ease up on him. Hall left New York for good after the 1992 season and Bernie thrived thereafter while Mel would eventually get his comeuppance.
During the 1993 season, Williams established himself as the Yankees' everyday center fielder and he never looked back. His offensive game steadily improved and evolved each year until he became one of the most well-rounded hitters in the game. As a switch-hitter he could hit for average and some power, draw walks without striking out too much, and could even steal a base occasionally. It's no coincidence that as his game grew, the Yankees began to see more success as a team. After winning the first ever AL Wild Card in 1995, Williams entered his prime and the Yankees won four World Series titles and five AL pennants over the next six years. From 1996 through 2002, Bernie appeared in five All-Star games, won a batting title, and put up a combined .323/.408/.538 slash line which was good for a 144 OPS+. He also averaged 25 home runs, 106 runs scored, 104 runs batted in and five wins above replacement per year over that time frame. It's hard to believe the Yankees would have had the success they did without him, especially considering that he also took on the leadership role vacated by Don Mattingly in 1995.
Despite all of his accomplishments, Bernie was constantly at the center of trade rumors during the 90's. This is why the Steinbrenner's can't have nice things. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed throughout all of those rumors but things got very dicey following the 1998 season. Williams was a free agent for the first time and was in hot and heavy contract talks with the rival Boston Red Sox. A deal seemed imminent until the Yankees finally gave in and agreed to a seven year contract worth more than $87 million. That was a ridiculous amount of money at the time and was no doubt inflated by his negotiations with the Red Sox. In fact, the Yankees' brass still seem to hold a grudge against him because of it, which is unfortunate.
Bernie remained a useful everyday player up until 2004. After a disappointing 2005 campaign it was clear that he couldn't handle playing center field everyday anymore and he returned as the team's fourth outfielder for the 2006 season. As a 37-year old he was still a league-average hitter and planned to return again in 2007 but the Yankees only offered a non-roster invite to spring training which he did not accept. That ending seems bitter and unfair considering the fanfare that Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera received last year, and the fond farewell Derek Jeter is sure to get this year.
A quick look at the record books makes it clear that Bernie Williams deserves his spot among the franchise greats. His name is sprinkled throughout the top ten in franchise history in just about every statistical category imaginable, including games played, runs scored, hits, home runs, runs batted in, walks, extra base hits and WAR. Thanks to the expanded playoff system that began as he was entering his prime, he is also among the most prolific postseason players in Major League history and has provided some of the more memorable moments of the Joe Torre era.
For 16 years Bernie Williams provided the Yankees with a steady presence in center field and was instrumental in transforming the club from laughing stock to perennial contender in short order during the mid-90's. He and his number 51 should get the appreciation they deserve. Finally.