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Hispanic Yankee Greats of Days Past: Bernie Williams

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Williams is one of the best Hispanic Yankees of all time.

New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

As Hispanic Heritage Month closes out today, we are going to wrap up our celebration by highlighting one of the greatest Yankees of all-time, Bernabé Williams Figueroa Jr.. There have been many great Hispanic Yankees, but Williams is arguably in the top two. This may or may not be surprising to you, but Bernie Williams ranks second all-time in fWAR among Yankee players of Latin American descent behind only Alex Rodriguez.

Williams accumulated 43.9 fWAR over the course of his career, while Rodriguez accumulated 51.7 during his Yankees tenure. The stats say the former center fielder is a borderline Hall of Famer. He falls short of the 60-WAR threshold considerably, but his .297/.381/.477 career threshold is wildly impressive given that he played during the apex of the steroid era and was still a standout hitter.

Many people may have forgotten this, but the Yankees were extremely coy about Bernie Williams’ prospect adventure. This article from the New York Times Archive explains exactly what happened. As fans may know, Williams is a Puerto Rican native and was brought to the MLB system in a typical Latin American amateur fashion by signing a contract as a teenager. However, led by then-Yankees scouting director Doug Melvin, the team hid Williams from the rest of the big-league clubs before signing his professional contract.

At the age of 16, Williams relocated to a baseball camp Connecticut. That is quite atypical. This was because Melvin and another Yankees scout, Roberto Rivera, wanted to ensure that other teams would not get the opportunity to see Williams play. Instead, he trained in Connecticut at a random baseball camp located close to Melvin’s home. Melvin said he suggested this idea to Williams’ family so that he could learn English and get accustomed to playing ball in the states.

It seems extremely manipulative. Well, that’s because it probably is, but at the time, no team would offer Williams if they hadn’t seen him play and Melvin knew that. Their plot was obviously successful. Williams signed with the Yankees on his 17th birthday when he became eligible and the rest is history.

The dynasty would not have been possible without Williams raking from both sides of the plate for so many years. He notched 2,336 hits, 449 doubles, and 287 homers while making five All-Star teams, winning the 1998 batting crown, and going deep in postseason play a remarkable 22 times. Williams had a mastery of the strike zone and gave fits to pretty much every pitcher who faced him. The Yanks haven’t had a true mainstay in center since Bernie’s departure, but you never know, maybe another Hispanic switch-hitter has something to say about that (cough cough....Jasson Dominguez).

Bernie’s Hall of Fame case falls short due to poor defensive metrics. His resume falling short is unfortunate because defensive statistics are more unreliable the further you go back — they don’t always align with the eye tests of the time at hand. At the same time, he probably played the position for too long due to his status as a player and Joe Torre’s unwillingness to move him. If not for his drastic defensive fall late in his career, it is more than possible that he could have a stronger case for the Hall and wouldn’t have been dropped from the ballot after just two chances.

Because of this, it’s even more important to celebrate his legacy and what he brought to the Yankees dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Sometimes we overlook the “Hall of Very Good” players, but clearly, we won’t allow Bernie to be among those forgotten!

That about winds it up for our Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. The history of Hispanic culture runs deep in the major leagues and with the Yankees. It’s always fun to remember and appreciate the players who paved the road for the stars of today like Luis Severino, Gleyber, Torres, and Jonathan Loáisiga. If you missed any of the posts from the month, be sure to go back and check them out!