Williams's time to shine
Outfielder comes to play in October
Bernie Williams isn't sure just what comes over him every year when the leaves change and the air turns crisp, or why he tends to pop out of a box score whenever the Yankees are playing prime-time ballgames for rings.
"Just the atmosphere, you know," New York's center fielder and walking symbol of pinstriped values said yesterday, as his teammates prepared for tonight's pivotal Game 3 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park. "Everything seems to be electrified and magnified. Every pitch counts. Every at-bat counts. Not that I don't focus during the season, but it seems to bring out something special in me."
Williams has played in 10 consecutive Octobers, including seven ALCSs and six World Series, winning four rings. He needs only one more run batted in to equal David Justice's record 27 in Championship Series play, two more hits to tie Pete Rose's record 45, two more total bases to match George Brett's 69.
Even now, at 36, coming off a so-so (for him) regular season, Williams has found a way to inject himself regularly into that place where the result is in the balance. "He still amazes me," said New York manager Joe Torre. "It seems when things are important, he seems to be there all the time."
In Game 3 of the Division Series with the Twins, Williams clocked a two-run homer off Carlos Silva to help boost a 3-1 lead into a 7-1 blowout. In the Game 4 clincher, he knocked in the first of what became a startling four-run rally in the eighth.
In the opener of the Championship Series, Williams knocked in one of the two first-inning runs off Curt Schilling, then hit the two-out, two-run double off Mike Timlin that gave the Yankees a three-run cushion in the eighth. And, of course, it was Williams who clinched New York's seventh straight AL East title with a two-run walkoff homer against Minnesota at the Stadium.
"It doesn't matter what's gone on in his year," said Torre. "This time of year, he seems to get a look in his eye and a good feel in his stomach."
Williams is a throwback to decades long past when the Good Lord, as Joe DiMaggio said, made you a Yankee and you stayed one for life. Since the day he was signed in 1985 and made his major league debut in 1991, Williams has worn no other uniform. "Now, he's one of the guys we look to to lead other people and show them how it's done," Torre said.
There was a time when Williams felt that the bulk of the burden was on his shoulders. There had been no rings for 13 years when Williams arrived in the Bronx, but once the next one came in 1996, it seemed that the dynasty days were back. So the loss to Cleveland in the next season's Division Series (in which New York held a 2-1 lead) came as a shock.
"I remember having to drag him off the steps in 1997 when he made the last out, and he couldn't understand why that happened," said Torre.
There have been three more rings since, plus one that vanished abruptly in the Arizona desert in 2001. But Williams still feels a special responsibility to contribute, no matter where he's batting in the lineup.
"He thinks he has to be a different player every place he hits," said Torre, who had Williams batting fifth behind Hideki Matsui in the first two games of the ALCS. "If you hit him leadoff, he tries to shorten up and bunt."
Williams is whoever he needs to be, but by now the time is long since past when he has to be The Man. He doesn't have to be the MVP or even an All-Star on this club.
"We have so many guys that have played on this team since 1996, like Derek [Jeter] and Jorge [Posada] and Mariano [Rivera] and myself," said Williams, who has been a Yankee longer than anyone else on the roster. "And the guys that have come after, most are like veterans. They know what it takes to prepare themselves day in and day out for the grind of a 162-game season. A lot of them have played in the playoffs, as well."
There are other clubhouse spokesmen now, like Jeter and Posada, and teammates who also feel compelled to step up and produce autumnal magic. But while Williams has the luxury of being an occasional hero these days, he's still a full-time Yankee icon on a club that has 15 new faces on this year's playoff roster.
His responsibility, as Williams sees it, is "to lead by example, try to show them the way that we do play the game within the organization. Obviously, trying to win every game and making sure that we carry ourselves accordingly, on and off the field."
That is, the same things Williams has been doing for more than a decade. "My role hasn't really changed that much," said the Yankee who has seen more postseason foliage than anyone else in the lineup. "It has been, just be myself, I guess."