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Former Yankees outfielder Gerald Williams passes away from cancer

The homegrown talent and one of Derek Jeter’s closest friends was only 55. RIP, Ice.

New York Yankees v Detroit Tigers Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

A slow Tuesday in Yankees Universe took on a somber tone shortly after noon, as Derek Jeter’s Players’ Tribune Twitter account revealed that one of the Captain’s closest friends had passed away. Gerald Williams was a familiar name to anyone who followed the Yankees of the ‘90s and early 2000s. He spent seven seasons in pinstripes across two different stints and contributed to both the 1996 World Series champions and the 2001 club that came a couple outs shy from another title. Gerald died from cancer this morning at only 55 years old.

A 14th-round pick in the 1987 MLB Draft out of Grambling State University in Louisiana, the New Orleans native was overshadowed by another outfielder in the Yankees’ system with the Williams surname, but while he didn’t have Bernie’s bat, he had a talented enough skill set in his own right to reach both the big leagues in September 1992 and Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list in the 1992-93 offseason (No. 52). Gerald made a quick impression in ‘92, hitting 3 homers in 15 games, with his first coming off a brand name in longtime pitcher Frank Tanana.

It was tough to crack an outfield that had both Bernie and Paul O’Neill though, and Gerald ping-ponged a bit between the majors and minors for his first few years, flashing excellence here and there.

It was during this time that he got to know a talented top pick who the Yankees selected sixth overall in the 1992 MLB Draft: Derek Jeter. The shortstop quickly became a fixture at spring training and other instructional camps, and at one point, he was bullied by some older players. Williams stood up for the teenager, and Jeter never forgot it. They grew very close, so much so that even when more distinguished sports luminaries participated in Jeter’s farewell ceremonies in 2014, they were also joined by Gerald.

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees
Gerald Williams, Cal Ripken Jr., Dave Winfield, and Michael Jordan
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Williams’ top seasons with the Yankees were 1994-95, when he hit .261/.324/.485 with 26 doubles, a 109 OPS+, and 2.4 rWAR in 157 games. The Yankees were ascendant behind their young core, finishing in first place at the time of the strike in ‘94 and winning a Wild Card spot in ‘95, their first playoff berth in 14 years. Gerald would not get to stick around to exult in all the eventual championship glory in ‘96 though, as after slumping to an 88 OPS+ in 99 games, the Yankees dealt him to the Brewers in August as part of a deal that brought bullpen weapon Graeme Lloyd to New York.

Still, Williams had his most memorable Yankees highlights in ‘96. He tied a franchise record with six hits in a single game during a 15-inning marathon in Baltimore on May 1st. Tino Martinez’s grand slam stole the show, but Gerald was on top of his game while teeing off on David Wells:

Just 13 days later, “Ice” made a play for the ages in saving Dwight Gooden’s no-hitter from catastrophe with this sensational catch on a drive from a certain future Yankee:

In the aftermath of his trade from New York, Williams put together some nice seasons in Atlanta, hitting a career-best .305/.352/.504 with a 122 OPS+ in ‘98 before helping them reach the World Series again in ‘99. It was Gerald who scored the pennant-winning run on Kenny Rogers’ bases-loaded walk to Andruw Jones in Game 6, as he had doubled to begin the frame.

Gerald’s Braves fell to Jeter’s Yankees in a Fall Classic sweep, and he then signed a two-year contract with the Devil Rays, where perhaps his most amusing moment there came when he took on Pedro Martínez in a brawl.

Cut loose by Tampa Bay in June 2001 and with the Yankees looking for bench help in the outfield, a reunion was in store. Although Williams didn’t hit that well in 38 games down the stretch, his former teammates who were still around when he departed in ‘96 were happy to have him back. Gerald didn’t play during the chaotic postseason, but he did travel with the team and experienced the heartache that all fans and players felt when Luis González’s blooper fell in during the ninth inning of World Series Game 7.

Williams’ Yankees career ended in June 2002 after a hitless start to the season across 33 games, but he played parts of three more years with the Marlins and Mets. He retired after the 2005 campaign with a career batting line of .255/.301/.410 with 183 doubles, 85 homers, and 6.5 rWAR in 1,168 games across 14 seasons.

The cancer diagnosis for Williams was not publicly known until the Players’ Tribune account operated by Jeter’s team revealed it in the news of his passing. It’s sad to see familiar faces from your childhood fade into memory, and by all accounts, Gerald was one of the kindest and most well-liked figures among those Yankees teams. It’s awful to see him gone from this world at only 55. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.

Rest in peace, Gerald. Thank you.