Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Bern, Baby, Bern

The Yankees have invited Bernie Williams to spring training as a non-tendered player. That means that he would be coming to camp to basically try and secure a spot on the roster. Bernie has already said that he doesn't want to play for another team and so this is apparently his last hope to continue to play major league baseball.

I think that it's a shame that the Yankees are treating one of their greatest players this way. Bernie has accepted that he's not an everyday centerfielder anymore, but as he proved last year he can fill the job of 4th outfielder very well. Bernie no longer hits like an all-star (as his .436 Slg % showed), but he certainly hits well enough to still have a job on the Yankees. His "replacement" is the much younger Melky Cabrera. Melky brings youthful enthusiasm to the clubhouse and is a decent fielder. His hitting leaves a lot to be desired however. If the Yankees complain about Bernie's slg %, how do they explain the fact the person they have picked to replace him had an anemic .391 slg % last year? Bernie hit five more home runs and drove in 10 more runs than Cabrera in about 40 fewer at bats last year.

Bernie is 16 years older than Cabrera and while his best days are definitely behind him, that doesn't mean that the he needs to be discarded for a newer model. The Yankees have already replaced him in CF and now they are saying that he doesn't even deserve a guaranteed spot on the team. I am no fan of players hanging on long after their skills have eroded, but that is not the case with Bernie. He proved last year that he can still be a very effective major leaguer as long as he doesn't have to play every day. Will he get to every ball that he used to? No, of course not, but he can still do a very respectable job in the outfield (and I defy you to show me how Matsui is a better defensive outfielder). At the plate he has shown himself to be superior (at least last year) to the player who is now supposed to replace him.

Bernie showed in up in '92 as a shy 22 year old kid from Puerto Rico. He didn't look the part of the major leaguer. He wore big glasses and he never seemed to be paying attention on the field (my friend Mike and I still joke about him getting picked off at first base and trying to call time). He used to get picked on the clubhouse by the likes of Mel Hall. The Yankees were terrible and Bernie really wasn't much better. The fact that George Steinbrenner was banned from baseball at the team probably saved Bernie from being traded. But with the addition of players like Paul O'Neill and Jimmy Key, the Yankees started to turn things around and so did Bernie. He eventually matured into one of the best outfielders in the game and a leader on the Yankees dynasty of the 90's. He's won a batting title, multiple gold gloves , a silver slugger award and was a big part of four world series winning teams. He also ranks in the top five of many of the Yankees career hitting lists.

The Yankees make a lot of noise about history and tradition. They always boast about how all their great players come back to the team and the stadium. They are the only baseball team that still has an old-timers game. The past means a lot to the Yankees and to it's fans. How they treat their great players at the end of their careers should be just as important as how they treat them after their careers are over. One day Bernie Williams is going to be and ex-Yankee. He will eventually have a plaque in monument park, his number will be retired and he will have his own "day" at the New Yankee Stadium. So why are the Yankees treating Bernie Williams like he's Danny Tartabull?

Bernie deserves better than this. He can still play and he can still play at high level. Bernie still hasn't decided whether to accept the Yankees offer to come to spring training, but I think that he eventually will. It must be hard for someone with his pride to swallow such a bitter pill. The Yankees are making him beg for his supper. Bernie will come back not only because he knows that he can still play, but mostly because he still thinks that he can help the team win. That's the kind of person Bernie Willams is. He's always played the game with a quiet class and dignity. It's just a shame that the people that he's dealing haven't seen fit to treat him in kind.



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