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Bern, Baby: Talking With Bernie Williams

Yesterday afternoon I got the chance to go to a blogger roundtable conversation with Bernie Williams. (Many thanks to Amanda Rykoff, aka the OCD Chick, for putting me in touch with the organizers). He’s in town to promote a new MasterCard program, and if you care about new MasterCard programs you can check that out here, but we got that out of the way in the first few minutes and then just talked baseball. We got a solid 50 minutes with Williams, with six of us asking questions. He’s spending most of his time on music these days, promoting his last album (rather directly titled “Moving Forward”) and planning the next one, and had just gotten back from a few weeks on tour.

As I’ve written before, Bernie Williams was my favorite player growing up – mostly because when he arrived in New York, he seemed shy and had big dorky glasses, like me (though of course unlike me, he also had incredible grace and athletic ability and went on to become a wealthy icon beloved by millions). I was at Yankee Stadium with a press pass on his last day as a player in the regular season, October 1st 2006, when he served as manager – a Joe Torre tradition when the division was already well in hand. He put himself in as a pinch hitter and lined a solid double, though the Yankees lost to Toronto 7-5; afterwards, in his press conference in Torre’s office, he joked that he was expecting Steinbrenner to call and fire him.

Williams has always been articulate, and throughout the conversation yesterday he was engaged and thoughtful, with lots of eye contact. He was also more forthcoming than I expected, especially about retirement, on which more later. I’ve talked to my share of players in locker rooms, and based on the admittedly small sample size, talking to former players in bars is a lot more constructive. Here are some of the highlights.

He said that as impressive as the new Stadium is (“They did a magnificent job”), “I’m always going to be partial to the old stadium, because it’s where I played my whole career.” Then someone asked him if he would’ve wanted to play at the new Stadium:

“Would I? Yeah! I mean the first year, first couple of months, all they talked about was that jet stream thing — everything that was hit to right-center was going out. So yeah, I would have loved to play there.”

I asked him how much baseball he watches these days, Yankees and otherwise:

“I rarely watch any other teams. If I see a game on TV, I scan through it, I look for players who played with me, and I try to follow what they do… but for the most part, mostly I see Yankee games, because I have such strong ties to the organization. I like to see my guys do well, the guys I grew up playing with. Even if I don’t watch the games I’ll try to see what they did, if they won, they lost, who’s hurt, who’s struggling, who’s having a good year. So I try to keep up.”

He was asked about the Yankees’ chances in the playoffs this year:

“…To me it’s gonna come down to the pitching – they have three, hopefully three solid starters in C.C., and the fact that Andy may be even more rested now, coming back from his injury, may be a little benefit; I think having the opportunity to have Hughes establish himself as a big-time pitcher, that’s a great opportunity for him.

After that, then you have… you know… guys who have to pitch. Hopefully they have it in mind, this mentality like they have something to prove in the postseason, because their season has been somewhat disappointing. So, you know, if they’re gonna go down they’re gonna go down swinging. I know that they’ll be able to hit, I think it’s going to come down to their pitching.

Williams talked about how he was part of the shift in the Yankees’ strategy in the early 90s, when the team started holding onto its young players instead of trading them. He talked about the role of home-grown players in the Yankees’ success, and then went on a bit of a tangent, mostly unprompted:

“By the way, I think they’ve come into a situation where it kind of backfires on young players coming up these days, because they can’t afford the luxury of struggling the first two years. Guys like Ricky Ledee, Melky Cabrera, people that have come into the organization at a time that expectations are so high… they have become very impatient with young players. So I think in a way it has backfired… I think in a way it’s kind of ironic, the one thing that has made us successful is working against young players nowadays.”

That, he added, is why he’s been so impressed by what Robinson Cano has been able to do:

“He’s just taken off, taken second base by storm, and I think in the next couple years he’s going to be definitely considered one of the best players in the game… So when you’re good, you’re good.”

As you might expect, George Steinbrenner came up, in response to a question from Amanda Rykoff, and Williams talked about the two times he called Mr. Steinbrenner on the phone. The first came when he was a free agent in 1998, being courted by the Red Sox:
“Being part of the Yankees for six years, with no options – not having the free will to decide my own destiny – I think I sort of owed it to myself to explore the possibilities. Maybe just see what’s out there, not necessarily that I wanted to make a change, but just to see what was out there. And when the Red Sox came with their offer – it was the Red Sox, Arizona, I think it was Detroit also – I was like wow, man, this is kinda cool, going into the free market now. But at the end of the day, it came down to the fact that I had been with the Yankees for such a long time – that I was so used to the city, the system, my teammates – so, deep down inside, I know that I just want to remain a Yankee.
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So you’re trying to work with the agents, the people who are negotiating the deal, to try to accommodate that desire for you. But I thought it was a little bit too late, because I thought – you know, at the time, Joe was sort of wining and dining Albert Belle [laughs]. And I was like, well, maybe this is not gonna happen.

And actually it took, I called George from my house in Puerto Rico – this is a true story – I called George from my house in Puerto Rico. And I said to him, ‘George, Scott and Brian have been talking, and you know, I don’t think they’re getting it done the way that I want to get it done. And I just want you to hear it from me that I want to become a Yankee, I want to remain a Yankee, I want us to work this out.’ And he said, ‘What do you want?” And I said – at the time, Piazza was the guy that was getting kind of a comparable contract – I told him, ‘Well George, I think I want to get a contract similar to the one Mike Piazza has with the Mets.’ And he said, ‘Okay. I’m gonna discuss it with my people here, give me some time, and I’ll give you a call.’ I think it must have been a couple hours, maybe two or three hours, and he said ‘Okay, here’s the deal’.

…And that’s how it happened, it was between me and George, we were just negotiating – after all this, you know, great contract negotiation with agents and general managers, it came down to two people.”

The second phone call came one year when the Yankees unexpectedly canceled their annual Family Day, a time when players could bring their kids onto the field to play before a game, which Williams’ young children loved and looked forward to.

I called him. Well actually, I talked to Joe Torre, I said ‘Joe, what happened? Why don’t we have Family Day this year?’ He said ‘Well, it’s coming from up top, it’s been suspended, I don’t know.’ And I said, ‘Well, we can’t have this. My kids are looking forward to this, I’m in a tough situation.’ And he said, ‘Well, you wanna call George? Give him a call.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I will.’ And I gave him a call- it’s a funny story cause I called, and I don’t think he was expecting a call from me, I mean, obviously. And I said, ‘Hey George, how’re you doing-’ — well, no, actually I said ‘Mr. Steinbrenner, how’re you doing?’ And he said, ‘Good, what can I do for you?’ I said ‘Well, I heard we’re not having Family Day this year, and I was wondering why we’re not having it, cause I know my kids are looking forward to it, and I’ve been one player who, I really don’t ask for much, but I really would like you to reconsider this decision, because it’s really important for me and my family,’ and this and that. He said ‘Okay, I’ll get back to you on this.’

And I think – I think it was because the Yankees, we won that day. So he said ‘Okay, we’re going to have Family Day tomorrow.’

Finally, I asked: “So, as far as I know you’ve never actually, technically, officially made a retirement announcement. Is there any particular reason for that? Do you have any plans to ever do that?”:

Yeah, I do have plans – you know, at the time – I think it’s been four years now? Like the first year or two, I was going through somewhat of an… existential crisis, I guess. So to speak. Because you know it takes, it takes you some time to adjust – and you have this possibility of maybe playing for another team, and so many options running in your head. And, you know, you just start missing the game, and going through the World Baseball Classic didn’t help – cause I was like “Oh man, I can do this again!”. But I knew deep down inside, you know, it was a situation in which I would have to move on and do other stuff, like my music, that I have a lot of passion for. But I sorta kept it open, I think maybe just trying to fool myself into thinking that maybe one day I could come back, but every year that passes obviously it’s just harder and harder and harder to get back into it. And I think, you know, if it’s not this year, then probably next year I’ll just make it official. But it’s been unofficial for quite some time now.”

That’s not a surprising answer, really – it’s probably what most of us assumed. But I didn’t expect him to be quite so up front about it; when he was in his prime, I never thought of Williams as a tear-the-uniform-off-me kind of guy. And if it was this difficult for Williams, an intelligent guy with a second career in music that he seems to love, you can only imagine how hard retirement must be for someone less well equipped for post-baseball life. 

In fact, the conversation ended on a rather wistful note. Williams was asked if the Yankees had approached him about possibly retiring his number, and about what it meant to him to be considered one of the Yankee greats:

“I have no expectations, as far as that goes, that’s their decision… What I can take with me, which is something that nobody can take away from me, is my experience, the years that I played with them, the World Series rings, the batting title, the Gold Gloves, all the relationships that I have within the organization. Even though I left on not the best terms, I’m still able to feel that I’m part of this great organization, and that’s something that nobody can take away from me. In my head, that I have this great experience – and I’m, I don’t want to say great career – but this great experience that I have, being part of the Yankees for such a long time.

…At the end of the day, you know, it’s just about the memories. It’s about the time that you spent that you’ll never be able to forget – the ticker tape parades, the goofing around in the clubhouse, spring training, running around the field – it’s just the little things, to me, it’s what made the difference. Now that I’m moving into this other period of my life, with the music, it has become even more prevalent – to be able to remember those little details.

And I have absolutely no complaints whatsoever.”

I don’t think most Yankees fans have too many, either.

Odds and ends:

-Asked about playing guitar while Paul O’Neill played drums: “We jammed all the time,” he said, before and after games, during rain delays. O’Neill used Ron Guidry’s old drum set, which was kept in the bowels of the old stadium in “the Paint Room” (which in fact was full of paint).

-In talking about how the team developed into the late 90s dynasty, it was clear 1995 still stings: “The first round of the playoffs, still – I still remember those games… they were HORRIBLE. Losing three straight…” He trailed off.

-On how important home field advantage is in the playoffs: “I think it helps a lot; I don’t think it’s critical.”

-Williams’ manager said that Williams was probably the only man with a World Series ring and a Grammy award… but Amanda pointed out that Jay-Z does, in fact, have a World Series ring. Still: not a lot of dudes.

-This October 23rd, Williams will play a concert in Suffern, NY; part of the proceeds will go to support the Vincent Crotty Foundation and The Christopher Konkowski Memorial Scholarship Fund, charities set up in the memory of two local high school baseball players who were killed in a car accident last year.

There were lots of questions I wanted to ask, but didn’t get the chance to: Who’s the toughest pitcher you ever faced, and why; What was it like playing guitar with Bruce Springsteen; What do you miss most about playing, and what do you miss least; Do you even like the song “Disco Inferno”?

What would you have asked?

Categories:  Bronx Banter  Emma Span  Player Essays  Yankees

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19 comments

1 Emma Span   ~  Oct 5, 2010 3:31 am

Whoops... this published too soon, kids, it's not quite finished yet. Please ignore for now and it'll be up in polished and completed form later in the day...

2 The Hawk   ~  Oct 5, 2010 8:18 am

Assuming the piece is done now - good job.

Sometimes I feel like just an out-and-out Bernie fan, but during those halcyon days of the late 90s, even when Jeter had emerged as the big star/leader, it always felt a little off to me because it seemed obvious that Bernie was the straw that stirred the drink, so to speak.

3 Emma Span   ~  Oct 5, 2010 12:32 pm

Yes, it's done now. Dig in...

Joe from RAB was there yesterday too, and posted his take: http://bit.ly/dl78Jc

4 Alex Belth   ~  Oct 5, 2010 12:50 pm

Great stuff, Emma. You rule. Man, I miss Bernie.

5 Jon DeRosa   ~  Oct 5, 2010 12:58 pm

Thanks Emma. I would have asked him about switch-hitting: his origin story, the practice, the mindset.

6 bp1   ~  Oct 5, 2010 12:58 pm

Well - geez. Thanks Emma. What a great read on such a dreary day.

To this day he seems like it's all a mystery to him. Like he's still pinching himself, still seeing through the eyes of a kid who doesn't realize he is BERNIE WILLIAMS! Very humble and genuine, and still a bit surprised at how people react to him.

When it comes to Bernie - all I can say is "more please".

7 bp1   ~  Oct 5, 2010 1:09 pm

Oh yeah - questions I woulda asked Bernie. Ummm ..... (thinking) ....

A followup to his comment about not leaving on the best of terms. What advice would he give to guys like Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada as they approach the end of their careers? It's different for those guys vs pitchers (Andy and Mo), and he might have some interesting perspective.

8 Ben   ~  Oct 5, 2010 1:09 pm

I once hear Bernie refer to himself as "a punch and judy hitter with some pop." I love that. So humble and accurate.

I would've loved to hear what was the most intimidating experience he had on the ballfield.

I remember watching him make some classic baserunning mistakes, hauling around second on a fly ball, sliding into third while the throw went to first to force him out for not tagging up. Then, blink, blink, blink, he'd just get back to the dugout. They'd cut to the dugout later and you'd see Torre or Zim schooling to him. And him still, blink, blink, blink, just trying to learn.

Man I miss watching that guy. Torre and Zim too. In their heydey, they sure made it all look, very, very human.

9 thelarmis   ~  Oct 5, 2010 1:37 pm

great job, emma! this was wonderful. i miss Bernabe!

i do have a question i'd ask him:

PLEASE let me audition for your band/PLEASE hire me?????

10 thelarmis   ~  Oct 5, 2010 2:15 pm

roster man:

Pitchers: Sabathia, Pettitte, Hughes, Burnett, Mitre, Moseley, Logan, Robertson, Chamberlain, Wood, Rivera

Catchers: Posada, Cervelli

Infielders: Teixeira, Cano, Jeter, Rodriguez, Berkman, Pena

Outfielders: Swisher, Granderson, Gardner, Thames, Kearns, Golson

11 rbj   ~  Oct 5, 2010 3:49 pm

[4] What you said.

Bernie really comes across as a genuinely decent man. Glad I had the chance to root for him.

12 Chyll Will   ~  Oct 5, 2010 4:01 pm

Great stuff, Emma; always look forward to reading your pieces.

I feel bad for Bernie in that he's been out of the game for so long and still can't believe it; he's one of my favorites, but I remember all the GOB comments and I felt like it was time to either drastically reduce his role or gently put him to pasture, something that in my opinion was done wrong and set the stage for Torre's eventual bad departing.

But his music's really good; he has nothing to be worried about in that regard. Music like his really has no limit to how long he can keep making it as long as he desires to do so.

I agreed with what he said about the impatience with young players; it takes someone like Cano to make an impact in New York, but let's not forget that Melky for one did get to start for at least a year before he was demoted strictly for not producing, and in Ricky Ledee's case, he was a platoon player his entire career. In essence, the Yanks have made smart decisions about the young guys who go on to be starters (Cano, Wang) and the ones who platoon and go by the wayside (Melky, Ledee). It's the pitching that's always been suspect, really; particularly the way they've been handled of late.

13 Chyll Will   ~  Oct 5, 2010 4:25 pm

[12] There was so much more I wanted to add to that, but people started screaming at me in surround sound mode, so I lost my train of thought; sorry...

14 Sliced Bread   ~  Oct 5, 2010 4:43 pm

after middle-aged dude, I, stopped screaming like a teenage girl in a poodle skirt at an early Elvis concert, I would have, with tears in my eyes, asked Bernie for a hug. But you did great, Emma. I loved this. That's my guy that Bernie.

15 Sliced Bread   ~  Oct 5, 2010 4:47 pm

[8] exactly. as strong and graceful a player as Bernie was, the game didn't come easily to him. But by the '96 playoffs all that hard work was paying off. Those of us who believed he'd be great were starting to feel pretty smart, and proud of our centerfielder.

16 Emma Span   ~  Oct 5, 2010 4:55 pm

Oddly, it was really hard for me to refer to him as "Williams" when writing this and not "Bernie". Someone like Derek Jeter is easily "Jeter," but Bernie Williams has always been "Bernie".

No way to tell anything from just an hour of course, but he was as nice and genuine as you could expect, and much more forthcoming and expansive than he was in his playing days (when he was always pleasant, but often spoke in the usual baseball player platitudes).

17 Sliced Bread   ~  Oct 5, 2010 5:04 pm

[16] I think you'll run into the same first name reference problem when you interview Tino. I mean, who the hell's Martinez? Williams is far too generic for Bernie. Same way it doesn't work for Venus and Serena. You kinda have to use first names.

18 Dimelo   ~  Oct 5, 2010 7:59 pm

[0] Emma, awesome!

Bernie is all class.

19 Shaun P.   ~  Oct 6, 2010 11:26 am

[0] This was incredible, Emma! No chance anyone actually recorded the questions and answers, is there? Reading Bernie's quotes was such a thrill, to hear them too would be . . . wow.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver