Yankees Magazine: From center field to Monument Park

As a player, Bernie Williams occupied hallowed ground. In retirement, he joins the greats who came before him.

December 22nd, 2016
Without Bernie Williams' contributions -- especially in the postseason -- there might not have been a Yankees dynasty. (New York Yankees)

Bernie Williams' time in the sun was rapidly approaching. The prospect had spent parts of the 1991 and '92 seasons with the Yankees, and the team's brass liked what they saw. Williams, who signed out of Puerto Rico when he was 17 years old, was now 24 and about to take over the most famous position in sports -- center field for the New York Yankees.
By the time the Yankees began Spring Training in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1993, they had already traded away Roberto Kelly, the player who had manned the position for the previous four seasons. In exchange for the All-Star center fielder, the Yankees acquired right fielder Paul O'Neill.
Although O'Neill proved to be a key contributor, Yankees Manager Buck Showalter and General Manager Gene Michael were clear on their purpose in trading Kelly.
They believed in Williams, viewing him as a player who could become the cornerstone of their team for a long time.
In his first two partial seasons in pinstripes, Williams was given No. 51. As a player who had not yet proven himself beyond Triple-A, there was little chance the Yankees would give the switch-hitter one of the few remaining single digits. Those numbers were reserved for stars, or at least for veteran players. Those numbers were saved for players whom team officials firmly believed would some day reach the status of the men who wore the single digits that had already been retired -- men such as Babe Ruth, who wore No. 3, and Lou Gehrig, who dressed in No. 4, and Joe DiMaggio, who donned No. 5.
With only two single digits left unretired at the time, the Yankees were even more selective.
Still wearing No. 51 in the spring of '93, Williams was summoned to Showalter's office after a workout.
"I had no idea what he wanted to talk about," Williams said. "I was hoping it wasn't something bad. I was hoping he wasn't going to tell me that I had been traded or that I was going to start the season in the Minors."
When Williams sat down, Showalter explained that he had engaged in a conversation with principal owner George Steinbrenner, and they both felt that the center fielder should make the switch from No. 51 to No. 2 or No. 6.
"Buck was really direct in that conversation," Williams said. "He told me that he wanted me to wear one of those numbers because they were right with the numbers that the greatest Yankees had worn."
But without giving it another thought, Williams told Showalter that he preferred to stick with No. 51.
"He was surprised," Williams said. "He told me they pretty much only gave those high numbers to the young guys, to the players who would probably be sent down again. Fifty-one was supposed to be a temporary number for me."
Williams did not have a special connection to No. 51. He simply didn't feel the need to show the world how good he was -- or could be -- by wearing a highly regarded number on his back.
"I was flattered," Williams said. "I was thrilled that he and Mr. Steinbrenner thought so highly of me, especially with how little I had done. But I was OK with 51. It didn't matter what number I had as long as I was continuing to improve on the field. I was happy with them giving No. 2 and No. 6 to someone else."
That conversation epitomized what Bernie Williams is all about. It served as an example of his humility. In a profession where outward confidence and big egos are part of the culture, Williams was the opposite. Throughout his 16-year career in pinstripes, Williams carried himself with a quiet sense of confidence. He didn't brag about his personal accomplishments, and when he hit a big home run, he simply put his head down and ran toward first base.
When Williams walked out of Showalter's office, neither he nor the manager knew that the young outfielder would be the last player to wear No. 51 for the Yankees.

"It's something I'll be proud of for the rest of my life," Williams said. "To know that you're a part of the Yankees tradition forever is special. It's still hard to comprehend."
Williams took the first steps toward immortality in his first three full seasons in pinstripes. He played in 139 games, batting .268 with 12 home runs, in 1993. In the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, he improved his average to .289 while hitting the same number of longballs in 31 fewer games, and in 1995, he batted .307 with 18 home runs and 82 RBI.
"That was the period of adjustment for me," Williams said. "I needed the experience I got in '93, '94 and '95 to become a successful Major Leaguer. There's a period of time in which every successful Major League player makes a series of adjustments and overcomes the adjustments that opposing pitchers make in the way they approach them at the plate. That cycle usually takes about two years, and it's during that time that you prove whether you can make it and have a long career.
"It was also important for me to improve my baserunning skills and my fielding," Williams continued. "The last component was adjusting to life as a Major Leaguer. Especially in New York, there were a lot more distractions than there were in the Minor Leagues, and that took some time to figure out how to handle. But the biggest thing for me was that I was given the chance to develop. I could take a deep breath and say, 'OK, I'm here to stay. I don't have to worry about being sent down again.'"
Williams' road to Monument Park and to joining the 18 men whose numbers have been retired was largely paved during the team's dynasty in the late '90s and early 2000s.
As the 1996 Yankees inched closer to the franchise's first World Series victory in 18 years, Williams was the most consistent force in the lineup, batting .305 with a team-leading 29 home runs and 102 RBI during the regular season.
In that postseason, Williams raised his game to another level and led the underdog Yankees back to baseball supremacy. As the leaves changed colors, Williams batted .345 with six home runs in 15 games. But those numbers don't tell the whole story.
Two of Williams' home runs in the American League Championship Series were arguably the most pivotal in the team's championship run. In Game 1 at Yankee Stadium, Williams hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 11th inning to give the Yankees a leg up in the series. Then, with the Yankees leading the Orioles, 2 games to 1, Williams hit a first-inning two-run homer at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The blast gave the inconsistent Kenny Rogers a much-needed early lead, which the Yankees never relinquished.

"I think the expectations I put on myself were higher than what anyone else put on me," said Williams, who was named the ALCS MVP after the Yankees clinched the series in five games. "I didn't feel like there was any outside pressure on me because what I was trying to do was live up to the expectations I had set for myself. I had put in countless hours of practice, and when I was in the moment, I trusted my preparation. I had done it a million times, and I was ready."
Including their postseason tally, the 1998 Yankees won more games than any other team in baseball history. On their way to winning a record 125 games and their second World Series in three seasons, the Yankees earned a 114-48 regular-season record. Their center fielder was again essential to that success. Williams wasn't only the best hitter on the team; he was the best hitter in the American League, capturing the batting title with a .339 average.
"It was so much fun to come to the Stadium that season," Williams said. "Once we got past the first few weeks, we felt as if we were going to win every game."
One season after being eliminated by the Cleveland Indians in the postseason, the Yankees overcame the Tribe in six hard-fought ALCS games in 1998, and Williams batted .381 with five RBI.
After the Yankees swept the San Diego Padres to win the 1998 World Series, Williams became a free agent. He was heavily pursued by several teams, including the Boston Red Sox and the Arizona Diamondbacks, who at the time were managed by Showalter.
Williams received multi-year offers from both clubs, with the Red Sox presenting the most lucrative deal. Williams' desire was to stay with the organization he grew up in, but re-signing with the Yankees would mean leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table.
"My agent went back and forth with the Yankees, trying to get them to increase their offer," Williams said. "I didn't care if they matched what the Red Sox were offering, but I felt like I had an obligation to myself and my family not to go back to the Yankees if they weren't even in the same ballpark financially.
"On the night that I had to give the Red Sox an answer -- and I was planning to accept their offer -- I called Mr. Steinbrenner at his house," Williams continued. "His wife answered, and she put him on the phone. I explained to him how I felt. I told him how much I wanted to stay with the Yankees, but I also told him what I needed for that to happen. He respected me for reaching out to him directly and for being honest. He increased his offer, and I signed a seven-year deal with the Yankees."
Williams added more October heroics to his résumé in 1999. The Yankees took on Boston in the ALCS, and Williams contributed to the Game 1 win with a 10th-inning walk-off home run. The Yankees never trailed, taking the series in five games en route to their second straight title.
"That was the first time we played Boston in the postseason," Williams said. "It was a big series for us, and they had a really good team. Pedro Martinez was the best pitcher in baseball that season, and we knew we'd have to face him a few times. I had a conversation with Yogi [Berra] before Game 1, and he said, 'You've got nothing to worry about. We've been beating the Red Sox for 100 years.' I felt like we were invincible after that."
In 2000, Williams hit a career-high 30 home runs. He added one more homer in the 2000 World Series against the New York Mets, and the image of him catching the final out of that Fall Classic is not only one of Williams' favorite memories, but also a favorite of millions of Yankees fans.
"When Mike Piazza hit that ball, I thought it had a chance to go out," Williams said. "But I took a step back, and I realized that I could get to it. After I caught the ball, I kneeled down and said a silent prayer. It was a beautiful moment, and I'm reminded of it by people all the time."
Although the Yankees didn't win another championship in Williams' career, they went to two more World Series. Again, without Williams' mighty contributions -- namely his three home runs and five RBI in the 2001 ALCS and his single during the Yankees' eighth-inning rally against the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS -- the Yankees very well might not have won their 38th and 39th American League titles.
The 2002 season marked Williams' eighth consecutive campaign in which he batted over .300, an accomplishment that still fills him with pride and one he credits a former coach for encouraging.
"If there's one individual statistic that I'm glad I had, it's that one," Williams said. "More than anything else, that shows I was consistent. I set a goal to reach a level of excellence, which for me was hitting .300. I reached it in 1995. Willie Randolph was very instrumental in my attitude after that. He said, 'This is not a fluke. This is the type of player that you are going to be.' Mentally, that made me work harder, and it got me into the frame of mind where I started expecting it out of myself."
In addition to what he did at the plate, Williams won four Gold Glove Awards in center field, further maintaining the Yankees' tradition at that position.
"As I got older, I learned to appreciate what playing center field for the Yankees meant," Williams said. "I didn't play in the same era as Mantle or DiMaggio, and I never compared myself to them. But I was always proud to run out to the same place on the field they once roamed."
Williams played his final game in 2006. He finished his career with 2,336 regular-season hits and 287 home runs. While those numbers didn't resonate with Hall of Fame voters, it's what Williams did when it mattered most that has made him an icon in New York and one of the most beloved Yankees of all time.
Without Williams' postseason record 80 RBI and the 22 home runs and 128 hits he collected -- both good for second on baseball's all-time postseason list -- who knows how baseball's last dynasty would have ended up. Maybe it wouldn't have been a dynasty at all.
Either way, the young man who was too humble to take a single digit has made No. 51 just as monumental.