A quiet and introspective anomaly within the bright lights and clamor of New York City, Bernie Williams rose from inconsistency and the burden of lofty expectations to be become one of the most complete ballplayers of the late 1990s. Heir to the centerfield throne of pinstripe legends Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, Williams was a model of excellence and dignity both on and off the baseball field who would become one of the Yankees’ most popular latter-day stars.
In his youth, Williams played baseball in Puerto Rico’s Mickey Mantle League, and as a teenager batted just ahead of future Texas Ranger slugger Juan Gonzalez. A graduate of Escuela Libre de Musica High in San Juan, Williams was a talented classical guitarist who considered forgoing a baseball career in favor of studying music at a conservatory. Deciding that his musical gifts would survive his youth but his baseball skills would not, Williams entertained offers from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh before signing with the Yankees on September 13th, 1985, his seventeenth birthday.
Williams quickly developed a reputation as the jewel of the Yankees farm system, a multi-talented player who was destined for stardom. In 1990, however, he almost quit baseball to return to music after the Yankees asked him to spend another year at Double-A Albany. To Williams the chance of him reaching Yankee Stadium anytime soon seemed slim. “We had an All-Star outfield out there,” Williams later recalled. “Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, Claudell Washington, just to name a few. In Triple-A, we had Jay Buhner and Roberto Kelly. I thought I had no chance.”
Instead of packing it in, Williams concentrated on developing his skills as a switch-hitter, a decision that would reap huge dividends in the years to come. In the second half of 1991 Williams reached the major leagues for the first time, replacing an injured Roberto Kelly as the Yankees’ regular centerfielder over the last three months of the season.
Williams hit just .238 in his 320 at-bats that year, and spent most of the following season at Triple-A Columbus. In late July an injury to Danny Tartabull opened up a roster spot, and Williams started the Yankees’ final 62 games that year. His .280 average was enough to convince manager Buck Showalter that Williams was ready to leave the minor leagues for good.
Over the next two years, Williams became a fixture in center field and a productive if unspectacular hitter. His reserved and phlegmatic demeanor often led people to believe that he didn’t care about his successes or failures on the baseball diamond. He so rarely gave in to overt expressions of emotions that the Yankees and their fans questioned whether he had the passion to become a great ballplayer. As teammate Tim Raines noted, Williams often napped between batting practice and the start of the game. “No joke,” said Raines. “He wakes up at 7:15 for a 7:30 game.”
Part of Williams’ problem in the early years was that the Yankees didn’t know exactly how to use him. Although he had good speed, he rarely stole more than fifteen bases in a season and didn’t make an ideal leadoff man. At the same time, his power numbers weren’t strong enough to justify consistently batting him in the heart of the order. As the Yankees tried to find the proper fit for Williams, owner George Steinbrenner became impatient with his development and openly sought to trade him. Only the adamant support of manager Buck Showalter and general manager Gene Michael kept Williams in pinstripes.
In 1995 Williams would begin to reward the faith Showalter and Michaels had shown in him. As the Yankees clawed their way to their first post-season berth since 1981, Williams posted the first .300 season of his career while blasting eighteen home runs. He led the club in runs, hits, total bases, triples, walks and stolen bases. Immediately following an off-day trip to Puerto Rico to see his newborn daughter Bianca in September, Williams reached base fifteen times in seventeen plate appearances over four games.
Getting his first taste of post-season baseball in the Yankees’ five-game Divisional Series loss to Seattle, Williams rose to the occasion. For the series he batted .429 with five runs batted in, and in Game Three he became the first player in major-league history to homer from both sides of the plate in a post-season game.
The following year saw Williams again top .300 while shattering his previous bests with 29 home runs and 102 RBIs. In the post-season he would deliver two more superlative performances while finally shaking the label of a dispassionate underachiever. While his old friend Juan Gonzalez tied a playoff record with five home runs in a single playoff series, it was Williams who stole the show, playing with more fire than his teammates or fans had known he possessed. Yankee starter David Cone said, “There was unbelievable intensity in Bernie’s eyes. I saw something I hadn’t seen before … Just the look on his face in the dugout.”
In the final game of the series at The Ballpark in Arlington, Williams matched his own record by again going deep from both sides of the plate. The first blast tied the game in the fifth inning, and the second extended the Yankees’ lead to two in the ninth. Former Yankee Reggie Jackson, who knew more than most about performing under the pressure of the postseason, said that “this was about Bernie battling to be accepted as a great player. He wants people to hold him in that regard.”
If there was still any doubt, Williams put it to rest by all but personally escorting the Yankees into the World Series. In the League Championship Series vs. Baltimore, Williams won Game One with a monstrous eleventh-inning home run off Randy Myers, tied the pivotal Game Three with a two out eighth-inning hit off Mike Mussina, and gave the Yankees the lead in Game Four with a two-run first inning homer off Rocky Coppinger. After the Yankees wrapped up the pennant the next day with a 6-4 win at Camden Yards, Williams, who batted .474 in the five games, was named MVP of the Series.
Although he recorded just four hits in 24 at-bats during the Yankees’ six-game World Series triumph, Williams made each of them count. After the Braves had taken the first two games in New York, Williams broke open a tight Game Three by launching a two-run eighth-inning home run. Despite his low hit total, Williams led the Yankees with four RBIs.
Now a certifiable hero, Williams was embraced by New York as a renaissance man and an intellectual in the often Philistine world of baseball. Visitors to the Yankees’ clubhouse would often hear Williams picking at his Fender Stratocaster in the hours before gametime (he once displayed his musical talents at The Bottom Line, a Greenwich Village music club) and his bespectacled eyes suggested the academic world more than the sports world.
Even at the plate Williams seemed more student than athlete. Few great hitters have looked so inelegant with a bat in their hands. Lacking the gorgeous natural swing of a Griffey or the raw power of a McGwire, Williams instead went about the business of hitting as if he were solving a physics problem, using an approach more reasoned than reactive.
Whatever method he employed, the results were indisputable. Following his post-season heroics in 1996 Williams raised his batting average to .328 in 1997, showing remarkable consistency by batting .329 from the left side and .326 as a right hander. Despite a hamstring injury that limited him to 129 games, he drove in 33 runs in his final 34 games to finish with an even 100 RBIs for the season. He also won his first Gold Glove for his defensive excellence in centerfield. The season ended sadly for Williams, though, as he registered just two hits in seventeen at bats during the Yankees’ five-game loss to the underdog Cleveland Indians in the Division Series. With two outs in the ninth inning of the final game, Williams ended the Series by flying out to left field with the tying run on second base, a failure which lingered with him throughout the offseason.
Driven by the disappointing end to the 1997 season, both Williams and the Yankees were determined to make amends in 1998. While New York ran away from the rest of the American League with a league-record 114 wins, Williams beat out Boston’s Mo Vaughn on the final day of the season to win the AL batting title with a .339 mark. Although Williams continued to reverse his early post-season success with three subpar series (his lone hit in sixteen World Series at bats was a two-run homer in Game Two) the Yankees went 11-2 in the post-season, including a four-game World Series sweep of San Diego to win their 24th Championship.
After the Series, speculation grew that Williams was no longer happy playing in New York, and that he might seek greener financial pastures elsewhere. Pushed to explore the free-agent market by agent Scott Boras, Williams was hotly pursued by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox — among others — but a seven-year, $85 million contract helped him decide to stay in New York.