Friday, December 09, 2005

Good-Bye, or Not

Wednesday was a sad day for some out there, a day to bid farewell to players who meant so much to the franchise, because that was the day that teams had to decide whether to offer their players arbitration. If the team didn't extend the offer, the player can't sign with their old team again until May 1. Since most players don't want to stay with one team so badly they'll sit out a month of the season, not being offered arbitration is good-bye for most of these free agents.

For example, the Houston Astros said good-bye, or at least "so long," to Roger Clemens yesterday. Clemens doesn't even know if he wants to play next season, and so the Astros couldn't risk him taking them to arbitration (more on him later). The Mets bid farewell to their franchise player of the past eight years, Mike Piazza.

It was expected that one of the sad good-byes would belong to Bernie Williams. His agent, Scott Boras, has a reputation for not taking into consideration anything other than the bottom dollar, so it was thought that he'd be shopping Bernie elsewhere after Wednesday.

However, the Yanks offered Bernie arbitration, under the condition that Williams would not accept the offer (they reached similar agreements with Al Leiter and Ramiro Mendoza). This means that Bernie remains a free agent, but his window to negotiate with the Yanks now runs until January 8. It is now rumored that there will be a one-year deal in place, between $1.5-2MM with incentives, before that deadline (past that deadline, the player can't sign until May 1).

Not having to say good-bye to Bernie is a mixed relief. The idea is that if Bernie sticks around, he will be in the old Ruben Sierra role--pinch hitter, sometimes DH, emergency outfielder. Given Sierra's performance in that role (Ruben was not offered arbitration), it shouldn't be too hard for Bernie to do better, in just about every way possible.

On the other hand, so long as Bernie is on the roster, the incoming centerfielder will likely be one extended slump away from losing his job. One bad week for Bubba Crosby would have Torre "mulling" a platoon. Two bad weeks for any CF short of Johnny Damon will have Bernie in a "job sharing" situation. So I don't like the move because it could promote stasis.

The fact is, Bernie is one of my favorite Yankees, ever. There's a special attachment you develop with a team's home-grown players. Well before Bernie Williams came to the majors, I knew his name. Before I ever saw him, there was a picture in my head of what he looked like. He, and a number of others, have been a beacon of hope that we nurture--names like Hensley Meulens (a/k/a "Bam Bam"), Hal Morris, J.T. Snow, Sam Millitello, Ricky Ledee, Ruben Rivera, Derek Jeter, Gerald Williams, Mark Hutton, Mariano Rivera, Brien Taylor, Drew Henson, Nick Johnson, Alfonso Soriano, Brandon Claussen, D'Angelo Jimenez, Bob Wickman, Russ Springer. Each name came New York-hyped with a description you could dream on. Meulens had limitless power, when he moved to the outfield because he couldn't handle the hot corner he was compared to Jim Rice. Sam Militello was a finesse pitcher, like Catfish Hunter. Snow was going to be a switch-hitting Don Mattingly. Taylor was a left-handed Nolan Ryan. Ruben Rivera was the "better Rivera," compared to his cousin, Mariano--the papers said he was like a young Mickey Mantle.

Back before the Internet, I speed-scanned copies of BA at the newsstand, looking for news of one of these fellows. The smallest mention of Bernie, or of Militello, could get me to buy BA. Bernie was supposed to be a speed-burner, the next Rickey Henderson, a lead-off guy. When I finally caught a look at him (spring training of '91?) he was taller than I expected, thicker. He never developed the baserunning instinct they were looking for, and the fact that he didn't fit into their mold, of leadoff centerfield guy, almost instantly put him in peril of being traded.

By the time that Bernie Williams finally came up to stay with the Yankees, as a fan, I'd been through a lot with him. I'd suffered through trade rumors, in an era where we were accustomed to every good prospect being dealt away. I suffered through management claiming that Bernie was hard to teach, not intense enough, had "bad instincts." When Williams first started showing his potential, in 1994, it was more than just a player having a good year, it was faith validated.

You don't get that with a player that you trade for, or sign on the free agent market. I loved Paul O'Neill, but by the time he first donned pinstripes, he already had a major league history. Even though O'Neill exceeded every expectation we had for him, that was just a pleasant surprise--O'Neill didn't have the burden of years of Yankee fans' expectations.

I hope Bernie retires in pinstripes. Be it after a few years as a useful bench player, or discovering that he just doesn't have what it takes anymore, and getting out while the getting's good. Until he quits, I'll cheer him. He's one of my guys.

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