Bernie Williams retires (no, really)

Just as everyone predicted, Bernie Williams is retiring after his longtime Yankees teammate Derek Jeter.

Officially, that is. The New York Yankees announced this morning that their former center fielder will be signing his retirement papers in a press conference on Friday, during which they will also unveil the plaque that will commemorate him in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park when they retire his number in May. He will also throw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to that evening’s Subway Series opener against the Mets.

Even if you’re a Yankee fan who loves Williams (which should account for virtually all of them above grade-school age), it’s easy to cringe a bit at this most recent example of an organization hopelessly in love with its own sense of pageantry and spectacle. Williams hasn’t played in the major leagues since 2006. For all intents and purposes, he was retired. This novelty of an event might be better filed under “quirks in baseball bureaucracy” or “adventures in MLB paperwork.” But if there’s a man for whom you are probably willing to suspend your disbelief and play along at least for one day, it’s Bernie Williams.

If anything, this unnecessary development simply provides an unexpected occasion to remember one of the increasingly overlooked heroes of the 90s Yankees dynasty teams. Anyone who watched that era knows how crucial Williams was to those teams’ fortunes and has likely been surprised to see him rarely get his full due. There are a variety of factors that have contributed to this in one way or another. He was not part of the 2009 championship team that cemented Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte as the “Core Four” with five rings each. Also, try to come up with as cute and marketable of a moniker containing the word “five.”

Williams also broke into the big leagues a bit earlier than his contemporaries. He made his debut in 1991, the first of what would be a successful group of young home-grown players spearheaded by then-GM Gene Michael. He played his first full season in 1993 and two years later he first achieved something he would do for eight consecutive campaigns: hit for over .300.

In 1996 he enjoyed his best season to date, batting .305 with 29 home runs and 102 RBI and helping the Yanks capture their first World Series title since 1978. Things got even better for the team and Williams himself two seasons later. While the ’98 Bronx Bombers collected a record 125 victories between the regular and postseasons, Williams won a tight American League batting title race, finishing with a .339 average, .02 points higher than Mo Vaughn. His career-best .997 OPS wasn’t too shabby either.

It’s certainly nice to enter free agency wearing a batting crown, and Williams cashed in with a new seven-year, $87.5 million contract prior to the 1999 season. As the story would have it, he was actually close to inking with the rival Red Sox before owner George Steinbrenner stepped in and closed the deal.

Williams began to decline in 2003 and by his final season in 2006 he was splitting time between DH and all three outfield positions as needed. After the Yankees refused to guarantee a roster spot the following season, he chose not to re-sign. It would not be Bernie’s final time in a baseball uniform, however; he played for his native Puerto Rico in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

In an organization overflowing with history at pretty much every position, the legacy at center field for the Yankees is particularly imposing. Making your mark following names like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle is a gargantuan task. Yet Bernie Williams succeeded, quietly and gracefully. Over eight seasons spanning 1995-2002, he averaged a formidable .321/.406/.531 slash line. He currently sits in the top-10 in a host of Yankees all-time offensive categories: 2336 hits (5th), 449 doubles (3rd), 1069 walks (5th), 1366 runs (6th), 287 home runs (7th) and 1257 RBI (7th).

So if Yankee fans don’t exactly know what to do with what is sure to be a somewhat odd event on Friday, they can at least take a moment to appreciate a fine career spent completely in pinstripes. Some might chuckle to think that at any time over the past nine years, Bernie Williams might have traded in his guitar for one more try with a bat and glove. And others will wonder whether if he suited up today he would at least look better at the plate than Carlos Beltran.