Monday, May 21, 2007

That's Doctor Bernie, Baby!

I'm a Yankees fan by marriage (sorry, Dad), and by city of residence, but I cheered for my favorite team since childhood, the Detroit Tigers, last year when they handily defeated the Bronx Bombers (heh heh) in the ALDS.

However, I suffer some guilt knowing, in hindsight, that the Tigers' series was the end of the road for one of my favorite Yankee players, Bernie Williams.

The New York Times has an online article about Bernie that just warmed my heart, so I thought I'd share it here. Class acts are few and far between in Major League Baseball, and I ask myself, would the Yankees be doing worse this year with Bernie in pinstripes?

Different Uniform, but Same Cheers for Dr. Williams

Published: May 21, 2007

The graduates had filed into the Theater at Madison Square Garden, and as the screech of bagpipes accompanied the procession of Iona College’s administration and faculty members toward the flower-rimmed stage yesterday, Bernie Williams, with that familiar shy smile and taller than most in a black robe and with a gold tassel swinging from his black mortarboard, returned to public life for about two hours.

But not everyone there knew or cared.

After a glance at the program, a middle-aged woman was overheard earlier asking her husband, “Who’s this Bernie Williams?”

“He was a Yankee player, until this year.”

“What’s he doing here?” she said.

“He’s getting an honorary degree,” she was informed.

“Oh,” she said, sounding impressed.

Bernie Williams was a Yankee all right. And what a Yankee. Of all their center fielders, only Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were better. Over his 16 seasons, he had a .297 average with 287 home runs and 1,257 runs batted in with four World Series rings, one American League batting title and four Gold Glove awards. Nobody ever complained that he was not worth the seven-year, $87.5 million contract he signed late in 1998.

As a designated hitter and part-time outfielder last season, he batted a timely .281 with 12 home runs and 61 R.B.I. That was enough, he assumed, to deserve another season, even at 38.

But the Yankees, meaning General Manager Brian Cashman and their front-office brain trust, didn’t think he fit “the dynamics,” as Cashman said, of this year’s roster. Instead, he was offered merely a minor league contract with the opportunity to make the team in spring training. Understandably, his pride couldn’t accept that. After all he had done for the Yankees, and done so well, he wasn’t about to attend what amounted to a tryout camp.

Joe Torre, the Yankees’ manager, wanted him and asked him to reconsider, but he didn’t. Still hoping the Yankees might change their mind, Williams continued to work out near his home in Armonk, N.Y., in case the Yankees called, but they didn’t. On opening day, classy as always, he called Torre to wish him luck for the season and, declining requests from the news media, he retired from public life — at least until Iona called about the honorary degree.

Now, as Williams stood with his mortarboard and gold tassel over his heart for the national anthem at the commencement, someone yelled, “Let’s go, Bernie,” prompting that shy smile. After the invocation, the welcome and the president’s greeting, Williams was introduced as “our honored speaker.” After more cheers and a quick chant of “Ber-nie, Ber-nie, Ber-nie,” he stood at the lectern, in a way again batting fourth, as he had for the Yankees for so many years.

He wasn’t being honored only for his classy career in baseball. He’s a classical guitarist. He supported the Children’s Health Fund, which provides care for homeless and needy children.

As fund-raisers and volunteers for Hillside Food Outreach, he and his wife, Waleska, have made food deliveries to five hungry families in Westchester County.

In his speech, Williams talked about how his father inspired his love of the guitar and he quoted Oprah Winfrey as saying, “The big secret in life is that there is no big secret.” He recalled how, as a teenager with the Yankees, he “had to have the ability to outwork” the other prospects, and how he was told that he would never make it in baseball or in music.

“That doubt fueled my reaching both my goals,” he told the graduates. He added: “My path has become my journey, and my journey has become what I am today. ... Don’t be afraid to take risks. ... Stay focused on the things you can control and don’t worry about the things you can’t control. ... Don’t let your job define who you are. Your relationships will define who you are.”

More cheers, as if he had just hit a home run. He sat down as honorary degrees were conferred on Robert M. Morgenthau, the 87-year-old Manhattan district attorney, and David A. Pope, who runs the Generoso Pope Foundation, named for his great-grandfather. He then stood as the white hood of a doctor of humane letters was draped over his shoulders.

More cheers and a loud “Yeah, Bernie” from the seats. He was then told, “Congratulations, Dr. Williams.”

For the next hour, about 1,000 graduates passed by him on the way to receiving their diplomas. Dozens took a quick detour to shake his hand. Polite as always, Williams rose slightly as each graduate approached, smiled shyly and shook hands. One graduate even slipped him what looked like a piece of paper that he quickly autographed.

Half a dozen members of the news media had hoped to talk to Williams, but they were told that on orders from his agent, Scott Boras, he “will not meet with anybody.”

And soon, in the procession of Iona’s administration and faculty from the stage, Dr. Bernie Williams, the gold tassel swinging on his black mortarboard, resumed his retirement from public life.


We miss you, Bernie, baby.

Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

Bernie Williams, seated, congratulating a graduate at Iona College’s commencement.

1 comment:

Seth said...

As a baseball fan, you know how much I hate the Yankess (not that Yankee fans aren't baseball fans, they're just different). As a baseball fan, however, I do love and respect Bernie almost as much as I hate the Yankees. Their treatment of him is indicative of why the rest of the baseball world feels the way they do about the Organization. Thank you for this posting. And, really, is Melky Cabrera that much better of an option than Bernie would have been?