Yankees' Williams on spot Hallowed position might not hold him

October 21, 1998|By Ken Daley | Ken Daley,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

SAN DIEGO -- There are precious few positions in all of sports that come with a rich history and prestige already attached.

Quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. Tailback at the University of Southern California. Center for the Los Angeles Lakers. All evoke memories of legendary performers and represent remarkable traditions.

But perhaps no position anywhere can match that of center field for the New York Yankees. Of patrolling the hallowed turf defended by DiMaggio and Mantle. Of playing, literally, center stage in baseball's most hallowed theater, Yankee Stadium.

Can Bernie Williams really walk away from that?

As the Yankees bid for two more victories over the San Diego Padres that would clinch a record 24th World Series championship, that is the question nagging at their management, players and fans.

"He's been a part of this organization for some time, and it would be hard to imagine him without pinstripes," said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "Those other uniforms just won't fit him right, I don't think."

But Williams, at the behest of combative agent Scott Boras, appears intent on at least window shopping when he becomes a free agent 15 days after the end of the World Series.

With a 2-0 lead, the Yankees can wrap up the Series in San Diego, possibly denying Williams another chance to roam the Bronx outfield as a member of the home team. If the Series doesn't return to New York, Williams' last home game there could have been Sunday's Game 2, when the two-time All-Star hit a two-run home run off Andy Ashby to help power a 9-3 victory.

"I don't want to talk about that right now," Williams said sternly after Sunday's game. "Right now, I'm focusing on the World Series.

"That situation didn't distract me during the season, and I would be a fool to let it distract me during the playoffs or the World Series. I can't think about my future, because this is my future right now."

Perhaps Williams' lack of sentimentality after Sunday's game was an indication he is leaning toward a return. Perhaps it is something else. Williams' emotional detachment used to be portrayed by the New York media as coolness under fire. But the more he refuses to hint at his intentions, the more he is being described as cold, calculating and aloof.

"Who knows if he'll be back?" said Yankees manager Joe Torre, who describes Williams as shy and sensitive. "I hope he doesn't know for sure which way he's going. We'd love to have him back."

Williams "settled" for the biggest single-season contract in Yankees history this year, one that pays him a team-high $8.25 million. That deal was reached after team owner George Steinbrenner rejected Boras' reported demand for a seven-year, $77 million contract.

One American League batting championship and World Series berth later, that offer is looking more like a bargain.

Cashman insists the Yankees will make a determined effort to keep Williams, but even he admits there will be limits to how much of a cash man he can be.

With the Arizona Diamondbacks (home of Williams' former Yankees manager, Buck Showalter), Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers and perhaps even the Texas Rangers expected to join in the bidding, Williams' salary could reach record territory in a hurry.

"It takes two to make any deal," Cashman said, "so I have no idea what will happen. I don't know what to expect. Hopefully, we'll get to a point both sides are comfortable with. He's been a Yankee forever, and we'd like to keep it that way.

"The bottom line is we've already got it in our minds that he's a guy we want to try to keep. We'll put our best foot forward toward making that happen. But if things get crazy, that can be difficult."

Not even the powerful Yankees can afford to keep this record-setting team together at any cost. Williams is the first priority, but re-signing him could mean the end for free-agent teammates such as third baseman Scott Brosius, catcher Joe Girardi, outfielders Tim Raines and Darryl Strawberry, and pitcher David Cone (if he declines his $5.5 million option to return).

Big money also must be earmarked for arbitration-eligible shortstop Derek Jeter, closer Mariano Rivera and starting pitcher Andy Pettitte.

"Everything you do impacts everything else, especially when you're talking about numbers that large," Cashman said. "Bernie is a piece of the puzzle. But his piece of the puzzle is obviously bigger than some other guys'."

Where that piece fits next, only Williams can say. But only the Yankees have such history on their side.

Pub Date: 10/21/98

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