by Harold Friend
Bernie Williams' baseball career ended under circumstances that seemed mysterious to some individuals, but not to those who know him. Bernie Williams has basic values he will always honor. His parents taught him to treat others the way he wanted to be treated, and all Bernie asks is that others provide him the same respect he gives them.
Bernie Does Not Reveal His Feelings
Bernie Williams has never felt completely at ease with other people and never reveals his feelings easily, if at all. As a child growing up in Puerto Rico, he was always quiet. "I was always afraid of rejection." He learned to play the guitar at his parents' home -- on his own. He is at ease only when he is playing the guitar and friends -- it used to be his teammates -- gather around to listen and sometimes sing. Bernie never sings. He never initiates a conversation, but David Cone once said, "You can approach him with a topic that interests him and he'll surprise you."
Star Money for a Non-Star Player?
Bernie had his first good season with the Yankees in 1995, when he hit .307 with 18 home runs. The next season, he batted .305 with 29 home runs and 102 RBIs as the Yankees won the World Championship. In 1998, Bernie won the American League batting title with a .339 average. He became a free agent after the World Series, but months earlier, Bernie had turned down a $37.5 million, five year deal. Yankees' general manager Bob Watson commented that "This is star money for a non-star player." It was hurtful, especially to someone who wanted others to respect him as he respected them. On November 23, the Red Sox offered a seven year contract for $91.5 million, which dwarfed the Yankees offer of $60 million for five years.
Bernie Wanted to Remain a Yankee
Boston has a long baseball tradition and the contract the Red Sox offered was more than generous, but for Bernie, it would be difficult to sign with them because Bernie was a Yankee. He acknowledged that he could have played at Fenway Park, but it was something that he didn't want to do. Bernie wanted the Yankees to respect him, to pay him competitively, and to validate him as a star player.
A Pivotal Meeting
Scott Boras, Bernie's agent, arranged a meeting with George Steinbrenner late in the afternoon on November 24. Bernie told the Yankees how he felt. He told them how much it meant to him to play for the Yankees and to be a part of the Yankee tradition. After the meeting, Steinbrenner told reporters, "I understood this was a young man who truly wanted to remain a Yankee, and he didn't like the idea of going to another team." But these are the Yankees and this was George Steinbrenner.
Joe Torre Wanted Albert Belle
Late on the night of November 24, the Yankees offered Albert Belle a five year, $60 million contract. Manager Joe Torre had lobbied hard to get the temperamental slugger. Steinbrenner approved the deal. It seemed Bernie was gone, but at the last minute, Belle backed out to sign with Baltimore. Faced with the Orioles getting Belle and the Red Sox getting Bernie, the Yankees offered Bernie $89.7 million for seven years. Bernie became the highest paid Yankee of all time.
What the Yankees Should Have Done
Not signing Bernie was the right baseball move, but the Yankees disrespected Bernie. He said he would not play for another team, which he has proven. The Yankees should have never offered Bernie a minor league contract. They should have offered him a position in the organization. But the Yankees have proven that they, unlike Bernie, no longer respect loyalty. How much Lou Gehrig's team has changed.
Olney, Buster. "Bernie Williams, Baseball's Shyest Superstar." New York Times. 15 July 1999, p.D1.