July 15, 1999
By BUSTER OLNEY
Angry words launch themselves from deep inside Bernie Williams, his emotional silos opening and unleashing responses aimed at hurting an antagonist, the way Williams hurts when someone else fires slashing words at him. He never fires the first shot -- his parents weaned him of this instinct long ago, constantly reminding him that he needed to be respectful of others.
Williams wants to retaliate, but before angry words escape his mouth, they lodge in his throat. They are choked off. He says . . . nothing. Williams tries to say something vicious, needs to say something nasty.
Instead, he will stare softly and pause for five seconds or maybe 10, and sometimes, in his velvet voice, he will spit out his best retort: "I can't believe you said that, man."
This is a Bernie Williams explosion. This is his most blistering counterattack.
There is great praise aimed Williams's way, too. After winning last year's American League batting title, he is batting .336 with 13 home runs and 52 runs batted in this season, and he was one of three Yankees who participated in Tuesday's All-Star Game. While there is a passive exterior that his teammates see in the clubhouse, they all recognize the signs of emotion burning within him. But rarely do those signs come out in his responses.
"Sometimes it's sickening," Williams said about his own reticence. "Sometimes you really want to hurt people with what you say, but it's always a burden on your mind. Yeah, it's terrible, man. It hurts to not be able to express the feelings the way you want to feel them. You don't want to finesse them and make them come out in a civilized way. You just want to go out there and really say what you feel. It's something I've got to work on."
Williams paused, his eyes questioning. "Do you ever feel that way?"
Despite these feelings, Williams is now the highest-paid player in franchise history after signing a seven-year, $87.5 million contract last November, following a pivotal face-to-face meeting with George Steinbrenner, the club's principal owner, in which Williams spoke his mind.
A Vulnerable Player Even in the Clubhouse
All around the country, fans berate him in center field, where he is out in the open. Even in the sanctum of a baseball clubhouse, Williams is vulnerable.
Teammates routinely ride each other, naturally picking out the most prominent bull's-eye in another's personality. Paul O'Neill, the Yankee right fielder, plays in a rage, and he prefers that nobody notice how he flips his bats or punches water coolers or smashes his helmets to the ground; teammates choose to make light of this. Derek Jeter is embarrassed by teen-agers cooing his name, so his colleagues sometimes do their best impressions of 14-year-old females.
Williams came to the big leagues in 1991 as a natural target, bespectacled, awkward socially, quiet and introverted. Mel Hall, a former Yankees outfielder, berated him constantly, to the point where club officials thought Williams would be driven to tears and, at the least, be less effective as a player. Gene Michael, then the general manager, told Hall he would be traded or released if he didn't leave Williams alone; Michael asked Hall why he treated Williams so badly, and Hall never had a good explanation, or offered the simplest explanation: Williams was defenseless.
The teasing now generally is good-natured. Most of the practitioners have decent intentions. For players on the fringe of the Yankees, like Hideki Irabu and Ramiro Mendoza, being ribbed draws them closer, demonstrating they are part of the fraternity; it would be far worse to be ignored completely. Tim Raines, the veteran outfielder who left the Yankees to sign with Oakland after last season, possesses such a positive personality that even Williams laughed when Raines taunted him.
Williams is never fully comfortable with the nettling, however.
"I think I'm one of the guys," he said, "but I'm not one of the big guys, always getting on people and stuff.
"It hurts me to get on people," he said. "I don't like to get on people, because I don't want them getting on me."
Sometimes His Guitar Does All the Talking
Williams is handsome, his brown skin taut over cheekbones rounded like the backs of tablespoons, his brows framing gentle eyes. He wears thin wire glasses that could be crushed with one hand.
He has never felt completely at ease with others, never revealed his feelings easily.
"I never have," Williams said, "and to tell you the truth, I don't think I ever will."
At an early age, growing up in Puerto Rico, he became convinced he was different. Williams was larger than his peers, long-legged, quiet and introspective, and the growing sense that he was different from other children probably increased his reticence. "I was always afraid of rejection," Williams said.
His father disliked the idea of being the center of attention or speaking his mind in front of strangers, and he avoided gatherings or parties. Williams would go out with friends, and after an hour or two, the family station wagon would appear: time to go home. "He wanted to make sure we wouldn't get into any trouble," Williams said.
His parents insisted he treat others the way he wanted to be treated, and Williams knew how he wanted to be treated: he wanted to be left alone, and he wanted others to treat him respectfully and kindly.
He learned to play the Spanish guitar, strumming folk songs on the balcony at his parents' home, alone.
He still plays guitar -- in his corner locker at Yankee Stadium, when the team flies from city to city, sometimes turned away from others. He can be creative playing the guitar, he can be emotional, and yet never really reveal himself. "I think it's a way for him to share his thoughts," said Yankee catcher Joe Girardi, "without anybody really knowing what they mean."
Teammates sometimes surround Williams when he plays. With his head down, concentrating, he is the center of attention and entirely at ease. Sometimes they listen, and sometimes they try to sing along; Raines and Jeter screeched through "Purple Rain" last season.
Williams never seems to sing. He just plays.
"If you're struggling, and you just want to disappear for a while, just pick up the guitar and it does the trick for you," Williams said. "If you feel fine, and you think you've got some time to kill, you pick up the guitar and that can do it for you. If you're just trying to show off -- I mean, you can use it in so many different ways.
"You can communicate with people."
He paused. "Or sometimes, they say, 'Can you just turn it down?' "
His closest friend in baseball, the Atlanta outfielder Gerald Williams, said he believes that Williams finds peace in playing the guitar, a harmonious quid pro quo. "He connects," said Gerald Williams, who came up in the Yankee system. "He gets in return exactly what he gives."
And it's not the same with people? "Not at all," his friend said, laughing softly. "People are not that consistent."
O'Neill plays the drums, and when he and Williams get together with their instruments, they will try different styles, different songs. Ultimately, O'Neill said, Williams always ends up playing the blues.
Williams began emerging as a major leaguer in 1995, batting .307 that summer, hitting 29 home runs and driving in 102 runs the next year, when the Yankees won a World Series for the first time in 18 years. Each winter, however, Williams and his agent, Scott Boras, scrapped with the Yankees over the next contract. Boras wanted his client paid like a front-line star, but it became apparent that many Yankees' officials did not believe Williams fit that description.
Sure, he has spectacular range in center field, they argued internally, but he often misreads the trajectory of line drives hit in the outfield gaps. They complained how opposing base-runners exploited Williams's poor throwing arm.
His exceptional speed is sometimes offset by a penchant for mistakes, they said.
After Bob Watson, the Yankees' former general manager, offered Williams a four-year, $24 million contract in 1996, Watson said Williams was "a good player, but not a great player."
Williams rejected a five-year, $37.5 million deal early in 1998, and Watson said, "This is star money for a non-star player." The Yankees nearly traded Williams for Larry Walker, the Colorado outfielder, four years ago, and Watson arranged a deal with Detroit in November 1997 -- Williams for two pitching prospects -- before backing out. For someone afraid of rejection, someone who wanted others to respect him as he respected them, the ebb and flow of negotiations stung Williams.
"I'm sure it hurt," said David Cone, the Yankee pitcher. "I'm sure all the contract squabbles hurt, regardless of what any ballplayer says. There's a need to feel wanted, a need for some sort of validation."
During the World Series last fall, and just before he became a free agent, Williams referred to the poor 0history between him and the Yankees' officials, and told reporters he would give the team as much opportunity as any other to sign him. Some in the organization viewed this as tantamount to announcing his departure.
But the Yankees' offer of a five-year, $60 million contract was far less than Boston's.
Williams met and liked Jimy Williams, the Boston manager, but there was something strange about the idea of signing with the Red Sox. They had been rivals all those years, and if Bernie Williams played in Fenway Park, he would replace Mo Vaughn in the lineup, a popular star who had just departed after a disagreement with the team's front office.
"It wouldn't have been a situation I could've gotten used to right away," Williams said. "It would've been a challenge to play there, perhaps being more of a vocal guy, more of a leader, being a guy everybody would've looked up to, being a leader in pressure situations. That probably would've been me and Nomar" -- Nomar Garciaparra, the Boston shortstop. "It would've been a challenge."
Williams wanted to play for the Yankees, but he would never sign for a bargain rate, certainly not after all that had been said. He wanted the Yankees to treat him as he felt he had treated them; he wanted the Yankees to pay him competitively, and he wanted validation from the organization and from Steinbrenner.
Boras arranged a meeting with Steinbrenner late in the afternoon of Nov. 24. "This is the time to tell them how you feel," Boras told his client.
When Bernie speaks with others, said his friend, Gerald Williams, "he tries to slow everything down, so he can interpret everything properly, and never lets emotion overtake him in any given situation. He tries to think as rationally as possible, because I think with many individuals, they tend to use emotion, rather than think rationally."
Bernie Williams intended to speak as clearly and rationally as possible to Steinbrenner.
In the Final Analysis Always a Yankee
Two fans hang from the ceiling in the square conference room at the Yankees' minor-league complex in Tampa, Fla. The walls are covered in Yankees colors, blue on the bottom half and off-white on top, adorned with framed pictures of Yankees players. A 14-foot oblong table stands in the center of the floor. For this meeting, Steinbrenner sat at one end when he met with Williams; Williams sat directly to his right, with Boras, Newman and General Manager Brian Cashman also perched in high-backed gray chairs.
The Yankees were not sure if Williams wanted to re-sign. He had been so aloof during the post-season, at a time when he and his wife, Waleska, dealt with a personal problem he has declined to discuss. The Yankees' officials wondered if the issue would prevent him from playing in New York again; Boras had assured them that Williams wanted to come back.
But it was left to Williams to convince Steinbrenner, to express his feelings; it was, he says now, one of the best moments of his career.
Williams talked about how much it meant to him to play for the Yankees, about the team's tradition, and in his even tone, he recited the offers he had received to Steinbrenner -- the Boston proposal, another from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"I understood this was a young man who truly wanted to remain a Yankee," Steinbrenner said afterward, "and he didn't like the idea of going to another team."
He responded to Williams affectionately, saying he'd always liked Williams, and always considered him a Yankee. As the meeting broke up, the Yankees' principal owner told Williams, "Bernie, you came here, you talked to me, and I really have to think about this."
Boras walked into the room believing the Yankees would not increase their offer. "But when George said that, I felt there was a chance," Boras said. "Bernie had never heard those things from George -- his entire relationship with him, ever since he was a young kid, George wouldn't even know his name. George wouldn't say anything to him. This was the first time the Yankees' owner had accredited him with the type of affection and affirmation that he had always wanted."
But the Yankees still were intent on spending about $60 million for their cleanup hitter. Late on the night of Nov. 24, as Williams waited anxiously to hear from Steinbrenner, the Yankees offered the moody slugger Albert Belle a five-year, $60 million contract; Joe Torre, the Yankees' manager, lobbied hard to get Belle and his thunderous bat.
As Williams boarded a flight to Puerto Rico the next morning, after a nearly sleepless night, he had come to realize that his days with the Yankees most likely were over, that he would probably agree to a contract with Boston that day.
Waleska Williams said later: "I saw the pain in his eyes when he came back. That's the saddest I've seen this man in eight years."
Cashman called Belle at about 11 A.M. on Nov. 24, and Belle indicated that he was ready to sign with the Yankees, so long as the deal was restructured: he wanted four years for $52 million, or $13 million per year, rather than a $12 million salary over five years. Cashman said he was sure that would be fine, but he needed to call Steinbrenner to get formal approval.
Fifteen minutes passed, and Cashman called back Belle's agent and relayed word that Steinbrenner approved the deal. The agent hesitated. Albert has changed his mind, he told Cashman, and later, the agent, Arn Tellem, told Cashman that Belle was leery of the New York media, and had decided to sign with Baltimore.
At 2 P.M. on Nov. 25, this was the situation: The rival Orioles were going to get Belle, and if the Yankees didn't increase their offer, Williams would sign with Boston, a team Steinbrenner hates to lose to. With Williams's words from the day before in the back of his mind, Steinbrenner called Boras and, in 20 minutes, negotiated the $87.5 million deal. Boras phoned Williams to brief him. "This is it, man!" Williams shouted. "Yeah, yeah, yeah!"
Boras called again later that night, past midnight, and Waleska Williams told the agent that her husband was in another room, with his guitar, alone and happy, probably playing the blues.