Bernie Williams, an Improbable Star in Center Field, Is Immortalized Just Beyond It


On July 5, 1991, Cal Ripken Jr. drove a pitch from the Yankees’ Tim Leary to the center-field wall at the old Yankee Stadium. Roberto Kelly chased after it, crashed into the fence and sprained his right wrist. Two days later, Bernie Williams was roaming center field in the Bronx, as Tyler Kepner reports in this article for The New York Times.

This is how it often happens, an emergency leading to the realization of a dream. Williams’s career unfolded in ways he never could have imagined, with four championships, five All-Star selections and $103 million in career earnings. He never left the Yankees, and on Sunday, the team retired his No. 51.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that a skinny little 17-year-old kid from Puerto Rico could be here this day, in this celebration,” Williams said in his speech, before the Yankees fell to Texas, 5-2, for their 10th loss in 11 games. “I am overwhelmed.”

Williams thanked George M. Steinbrenner, the principal owner who died in 2010, for making him a Yankee and keeping him here. Hal Steinbrenner presented Williams with a custom-made ring, No. 51 surrounded by diamonds on the face.

It is one for the thumb for a player who helped the Yankees win four championship rings from 1996 through 2000. Seven of his teammates in those seasons — Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez and David Cone — came back for the night.

“I don’t think we appreciated or realized it,” Pettitte said when asked if they recognized, at the time, the majesty of their run. “I don’t know if it was because we were so young and we were winning from the get-go; you didn’t know anything else, you didn’t expect that there would ever be times where it would be that difficult, like it was from 2003 to 2009, the drought that we had, to get to the World Series.

“I think that’s why you saw it be so special for us in 2009 when we were able to win it again, because then you realized it. Then you realized how hard it was, what we were doing, and how precious it was, and what a great core group of players that was.”

A few of the 2009 champions remain, that season validating their Yankees tenure while burdening them with expectations of doing it again. The Yankees have won just two games beyond the division series since Robinson Cano fielded the grounder that clinched their last title.

Cano was a homegrown Yankee and was so inspired by Williams that he wore his No. 51 in the minors; it was still stitched on Cano’s glove when he arrived in the majors in 2005. The Yankees wisely avoided a 10-year commitment to Cano in free agency, but losing him to Seattle in December 2013 reflected the new market reality.

Premier free agents really can sign with almost any team. Nearly everyone has the cash to make a reasonable extension offer to keep players before they get to the open market. The Yankees’ financial advantage is not as meaningful as it once was. They need elite players from their farm system.

“It’s really essential going forward,” Manager Joe Girardi said. “With the price of free agency and the length of years free-agent contracts are, I think it’s extremely important that you’re able to call on your minor leagues and get production. You think about the long run that took place here, there were kids that came up from the minor leagues that were really successful and filled in with other players — free agents that came over, and trades. It was a great mixture, and you have to have that.”

In recent days, the Yankees have added some higher-profile prospects to the major league roster. Like Williams, the rookies were summoned mostly because of circumstance.

Jacob Lindgren, a left-handed reliever selected in the second round of the draft last June, got into town Saturday night — his first time ever in New York — because the Yankees needed bullpen help after allowing 25 runs in two games. Garrett Jones, an outfielder, mopped up Saturday’s mess.

Asked where he was a year ago at this time, Lindgren pointed to the clubhouse television, which was showing the Southeastern Conference tournament from Hoover, Ala.

“I was probably there,” said Lindgren, who pitched at Mississippi State. “Probably at Hoover.”

Now he was in the Bronx, a few lockers from outfielder Slade Heathcott, whose winding path to the Yankees included serious injuries and an alcohol diversion program. Heathcott was a first-round pick in 2009, chosen just four spots after Mike Trout.

“I was a really big fan of Josh Hamilton, his story,” Heathcott said, referring to the troubled Texas outfielder who will rejoin the Rangers on Monday. “Obviously, my background is nowhere close to the degree of that, but I liked his story of how he came back and didn’t let anything stand in his way.”

Heathcott is here because the incumbent center fielder, Jacoby Ellsbury, is out indefinitely after spraining his right knee last week when his spikes caught in the dirt on a swing. Ellsbury’s absence is troubling to a team that relied on him as a catalyst at the top of the order.

The ace of the rotation is out, too, with Masahiro Tanaka working his way back from his latest elbow scare. C. C. Sabathia has a 5.47 earned run average; Michael Pineda has had two shaky starts since his 16-strikeout masterpiece; and the middle infield has been weak.

The Yankees are standing in second place in the American League East, but they are standing wobbly, close to the lead only because the division is so thin. To win it, General Manager Brian Cashman probably needs to find the kind of solid reinforcements on the trade market that he did last July.

Two intriguing prospects now have their chance to make an impact. Another homegrown player, though, is more comfortable strumming than swinging. Williams’s reluctant retirement is finally official with a plaque and a disc in Monument Park.

“You don’t want the 2015 version of Bernie Williams,” he said. “This one is more suited for a guitar than a bat.”

For the original report go to

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