Williams Won’t Be the Same Player If He Leaves the Yankees


Bernie Williams has given the Yankees every day of his professional baseball career.

The Yankees signed him on his 17th birthday in 1985. He is 30 now and a free agent, and if he doesn’t give the Yankees another day, he has given them more than they ever could have hoped for when he came out of Puerto Rico as a shy kid.

On what sometimes feels like a whole team of supporting stars, a whole team of Scottie Pippens, he has always managed to stand out, because of a thing called grace. Now he has played center field on the greatest baseball team of all time. He batted cleanup. Someday it will be impossible to remember this team without remembering him.

Now the Yankees offer enough to keep him or they don’t. This has nothing to do with his reverence for Yankee tradition, his love for the organization, his feelings for Yankee fans. Scott Boras, Williams’ agent, sounds as though he is from the moon sometimes, but he is consistently right about one thing: If the Yankees love Williams the way they all say they do, they had a chance to lock him up a long time ago, and did not.


Suddenly you hear that Bernie Williams is a poster boy for greed in sports because he wants top dollar for himself. It is worth mentioning again that you hear this at the same time that the owner of the Yankees, Steinbrenner, looks to make one killing after another for his television rights and will say anything to get a billion-dollar ballpark from the taxpayers of New York.

This kind of talk usually comes from people who cross off days on the calendar waiting for their current contract to be up so they can get a better one next time.

Williams has worked for the Yankees for what must feel like half of his life. Now, when he has gone through the system and put himself in the best bargaining position he will ever get in his life, he is supposed to re-up with the Yankees even if he could make more money someplace else. Sure he is.

Is Williams better off as a Yankee? I believe he is. You look at the way he plays, the way he makes the offense work and the defense work, and he really does seem to have more Pippen in him than anybody on the team. But I don’t believe Pippen will ever look as great if he leaves the Bulls. I don’t believe Williams will look like the same ballplayer if he goes somewhere and is asked to be Michael Jordan. He doesn’t have it in him. He doesn’t have the game.

Williams is not the player Mike Piazza is. He is not the best all-around player on his team. Derek Jeter is. Bernie Williams is not even the best free-agent position player available. Mo Vaughn is.

If Williams gets the kind of money Piazza got from the Mets, it is more about timing than anything else. Williams will be overpaid the way Neil O’Donnell was in football, the way Bobby Bonilla was with the Mets once.

People want a bad guy here and there is no bad guy, there is just the market. So Williams may well end up somewhere else, Arizona or Los Angeles or Colorado. If he does, he will find out just how good he had it in New York, in the middle of this lineup, in the middle of this spectacular baseball place.

But a bigger loser, if he goes, will be the Yankees. There are smart people running this team, and there is a ton of money behind this team, so there will be another real good center fielder to replace Williams. But he will not fit this team the way Williams does. Forget about the basketball comparison with Pippen. There is a lot of Tony Perez in Bernie Williams. He fits the Yankees the way Perez fit the old Cincinnati Reds.


There was a night at the World Series this year when I was sitting with Joe Morgan, joking with him, asking how he could call the Reds of the ‘70s the best team of all time if they weren’t the best team of the ‘70s.

“Who was better?” he asked.

“The A’s,” he was told. “They won three in a row, you only won two.”

“We would have won more if Dick Wagner [a member of the Reds’ front office those days] hadn’t traded Tony Perez,” he said. “Things were never the same.”


Perez was traded to Montreal after the Reds swept the ’76 Series from the Yankees. The Reds never won anything after that. No one is saying that will happen to the Yankees. All year long, we have said there is no one indispensable Yankee. There isn’t. But there are a few who have been special, who have been here all along, since the Yankees were on their way to the Series in ’94. Williams is one of those. He is more than his numbers, the way Perez was. He will be more than his numbers here when he is gone.

The Yankees have been good to Williams, and have been good for him. And they have gotten full value in return, since his 17th birthday. The Yankees owe Williams their best offer. He owes them a good listen. Nothing more.