Just three days ago, this blog celebrated the birthday of Bernie
Williams, the last great Yankee center fielder. Last year on this same date,
the PBB celebrated the birthday of Tim Raines, a Williams’ Yankee
teammate who was also one of the soft-spoken outfielder’s best friends
and biggest admirers. Today we recognize Hall, who was also a teammate
of Williams. But unlike “Rock” Raines, Mel Hall was not a friend or
booster of Bernie’s. Instead, he was one of the talented
switch-hitter’s biggest detractors and most unrelenting antagonists. In
past interviews, Williams credits the ongoing barrage of insults hurled
at him by Hall during Bernie’s 1992 rookie season with the Yankees, as
one of the driving forces behind his development of the mental toughness he now
credits for helping him achieve the success he did during his 16-season
pinstripe career. When that 1992 season ended, the Yankees dumped Hall,
traded their starting center-fielder, Roberto Kelly to the Reds for
Paul O’Neill, who then teamed with Williams to form the core of an
outfield that would lead New York to perpetual postseason appearances
and four World Series rings.
My earliest memories of Bernie were of those watching him play for the Albany-Colonie (NY) Yankees at the now-closed Heritage Park somewhere around 1990. Back then, Bernie was one of two prospects with the last name of Williams trying to make their way from New York’s double A minor league franchise to the Yankee Stadium outfield and I have to admit, I thought Gerald Williams would win the competition.
But Bernie was a grinder. The only superstar skill he had was using his great speed to get into position to catch just about any fly ball hit his way. In Yankee Stadium’s spacious center field, that was an important skill to have. He was also a switch-hitter. These were probably the two key reasons why Buck Showalter made Bernie his regular center fielder in 1993. From that point on, Bernie simply evolved himself into a great Yankee and became a key cog in the pinstripe teams that won four World Series during the glorious 1996-2000 run.
During his peak years, Bernie made five straight AL All Star teams and put together seven consecutive years of scoring at least 100 runs, of driving in at least 90, and eight consecutive years hitting above 300.
One of Bernie’s unheralded talents and also his most annoying was the way he would step out of the batter’s box at exactly the precise moment when the opposing pitcher was about to initiate his windup. Nobody did this more effectively than Bernie. Unfortunately, it was also the reason most Yankee games took four hours to complete when Bernie was on the team.
I do regret the fact that the Yankees did not permit Bernie to retire on his own terms. He was pretty much forced off the team when the Yankees decided to go younger in the outfield with Melky Cabrera in 2007. I will always feel that Bernie deserved a Yankee roster spot at the beginning of that season.