Yesterday John Beck took a look at some of the more underrated Yankees of the last 25 seasons or so. Bernie Williams was not on that list, with good reason. After all, Williams was a five-time All Star, four-time Gold Glover (despite negative defensive metrics) and Most Valuable Player of the 1996 American League Championship Series. Williams was highly regarded throughout his career, and ultimately earned his way onto the Hall of Fame ballot where he remained for two seasons. Underrated may not seem to be the right word to describe a player who will be honoured in Monument Park at some point in 2015.
Perhaps the right word should simply be great. Bernie posted a .297/.381/.477 career slash line over sixteen seasons with 287 HR, good for 126 wRC+ and contributing to 44.3 fWAR. He had almost another full season worth of postseason plate appearances at 545, where the higher level of competition didn't seem to faze him in the slightest. His October line: .275/.371/.480, 22 HR, 118 wRC+. Statistics alone don't quite encapsulate the impact Williams had on the organisation. Bernie Williams made his way up to major leagues at a time when the New York Yankee organisation was closer to the top of the draft order than the top of the baseball world. The first of the young, talented players to break through in the early 90's, his presence allowed Gene 'Stick' Michael to trade centerfielder Roberto Kelly for Paul O'Neil, one of the most valuable players of the dynasty run.
As Williams began to assert himself as a credible starter by 1993 and a star on the 1994 team which would have likely made the postseason barring the players strike, the fortune of the New York Yankee franchise lifted along with his performance. As the Yankees became a dynasty during that golden stretch from 1996 to 2001 - right up to the ninth inning of Game 7 anyway - Bernie Williams was the most valuable player on the team in those six seasons. He would be even if we excluded 2001 and focused on the five year span that brought four titles.
Bernie Williams hit .319/.404/.525 from 1994-2002.— Mike Axisa (@mikeaxisa) February 4, 2015
It is often argued that the term 'Core Four' neglects the impact of Williams and certainly I agree with this. Going further though, I think if anything Bernie was more valuable to the dynasty teams than any individual member of the Core Four. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera had a longer run of success, and so were probably more valuable overall to the organisation, particularly with them being a part of a fifth championship in 2009. It is worth remembering of course that the two most valuable players on the 2009 championship squad were Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia, players of the quality not found on the early years of Bernie's tenure with the organisation. Which isn't to say that Wiliams is necessarily a sure-fire Hall of Famer the way Rivera and Jeter are. Jay Jaffe takes a look at Bernie's case for induction, and ultimately concludes that Williams falls just short, even when accounting for his postseason success.
However, even if Williams is ultimately destined for the 'Hall of Very Good', one might be forgiven for thinking him underappreciated by the New York Yankee organisation. The dynasty teams in that 1996-2000 stretch defined legacies and earned recognition for several key contributors, from the retirement of Joe Torre's jersey to the plaques honouring Paul O'Neil and Tino Martinez. Some of these honours can be debated, but on the balance of it I'm personally happy to err on the side of issuing plaques to members of the dynasty. I find it difficult to apply perspective to those teams winning four championships in five seasons as those Yankee teams did, in the era of competitve balance and expanded postseasons. Suffice to say it was truly incredible, and it's entirely reasonable to imagine that it will not be repeated by any team in our lifetimes. I think that entire team deserves an honorary event but if the Yankee organisation wants to continue giving individual players their days in the sun I won't argue. Only, how has it taken this long to honour the most valuable player of that incredible stretch?
Those great teams were not about any one player, and that was perhaps the biggest part of the reason why they were so great. If they were about any one player, though, they would be about Bernie Williams. More so than Andy Pettite, Mariano Rivera, or even Derek Jeter. He deserves more than to share in the legacy of those championships with a plaque and a honorary day, he deserves to be at the head of it. Ultimately the Hall of Fame has been about narratives almost as much as performance, it was partly the narrative of those great Atlanta rotations that carried Tom Glavine and John Smoltz into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot even as Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling wait their turn. It was the narrative of Jim Rice as a feared hitter that earned him a spot while Alan Trammell and Tim Raines might never be inducted. The narrative of supposed PED use has made Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell wait for at least one more go-around. It's impossible to know if Williams could have made more of a show of his time on the ballot with a bit more perceived support within the Yankee organization, but it certainly seems likely that it would have helped. Consider the way Bernie was let go, as he was looking for a role as a fourth outfielder but offered only a non-roster invitation to spring training. Contrast it to the farewell tours that Jeter and Rivera got.
Perhaps it was the right decision not to give playing time to a declining franchise star as a reward for career effort, but it does hint at the internal perception of Williams's legacy with the Yankees that it doesn't even appear to have been considered. As does making him wait to 2015 for his day when other members of the dynasty years got their day ahead of him. I find it entirely believable that should the Yankees have been more vocal to media about positively valuing Bernie during and just after his career, he would be regarded differently by both the public at-large and the Hall of Fame voters. Being the most valuable member of arguably the greatest baseball dynasty in the last half-century could have been an easier sell than this.
It's probably too late for the New York Yankees to truly shape Bernie's legacy, but it's not too late to make an effort. Retiring #51 would be a good start.