Bernie Williams never got his long-winded retirement tour. He wasn't a member of the "Core Four" -- solely because he was born a few years too early. And he never posted numbers worthy of serious Hall of Fame consideration. (Maybe in a different offensive era, but not during the late 1990s.)
But make no mistake about it: In his 16-year career, Williams crafted the legacy of an all-time great -- not just as a Yankee, but within the sport of baseball as a whole.
It's probably not fair that we haven't really spent any time celebrating that legacy. Williams was unceremoniously left out of the Yankees' roster plans before the 2007 season, and it's taken eight years for the club to announce it will retire his No. 51.
Frankly, it's about time. There's a valid argument to be made for the 1996-2000 Yankees as the greatest dynasty in baseball history. They won four titles in a five-year span, during an era steeped with expansion and free-agent movement.
There's also a valid argument to be made for Williams as the most important player on those Yankees teams. When you stack it up, that debate comes down to Williams or Derek Jeter, and it's really, really close:
Jeter 1996-2000: 28.3 WAR, .323 AVG/.396 OBP/.470 SLG, 78 HRs
Williams 1996-2000: 25.3 WAR, .324/.410/.551, 131 HRs
In that same timeframe, Paul O'Neill (16.1 WAR) and Tino Martinez (12.9) are next when it comes to offensive players -- not even close to the impact of Williams or Jeter. On the pitching side of things, Andy Pettitte and David Cone were each around 20 wins above replacement during that five-year span, but they didn't have the same everyday impact. And, of course, Mariano Rivera was as dominant as any reliever has ever been. But a closer can only contribute so much.
It's pretty clear that Jeter and Williams were the biggest catalysts of those four title teams (including one of the greatest teams ever assembled in 1998). If you want to make the comparison, you can't go wrong either way:
On defense, they're basically a wash. (Both were mediocre defenders at the time, before their defensive metrics plummeted later in their careers.) They both roamed premium real estate, with Jeter putting up absurd numbers for a shortstop -- typically a position devoid of offense. Williams hit for much more power, and Jeter had better speed. They had about the same batting average, with Williams getting on base at a slightly higher rate.
If you picked Jeter, you certainly aren't wrong. But remember: Jeter had Williams hitting behind him in the order at the time. In a 2001 Esquire story, Alex Rodriguez rather infamously declared, "You go into New York, you wanna stop Bernie and O'Neill. You never say, 'Don't let Derek beat you.'"
To be fair, that quote is flawed on several levels. Jeter hit ahead of Williams and O'Neill for a reason. It wasn't his job to take pitchers deep. It was his job to get on base in front of the middle of the order. In that regard, every single opposing pitcher was surely saying, "Don't let Derek beat me" -- and that's partly because pitching to Bernie with men on base was never a good idea. Jeter did his job, Bernie did his (O'Neill did his, et cetera, et cetera ...) and the Yankees were a juggernaut.
But Rodriguez's basic premise holds up. It was Williams at the heart of those Yankees lineups. It was Williams -- a switch-hitter who could mash from both sides -- who just about every opposing pitcher wanted to avoid.
Regardless of where you fall on the debate, Williams is either No. 1 or 1A in terms of his role within that dynasty. And you can't overstate the weight that carries with regards to his legacy.
To put it in simple terms: Williams was arguably the best player on arguably the best dynasty baseball has ever seen. He was immensely clutch in the biggest moments, and his teams always, always won. (He made the playoffs in each of his last 12 seasons, winning four titles, six pennants and 10 AL East crowns.)
In any other sport, those are the credentials of an all-time legend. Baseball -- as the one sport where it's nearly impossible for a single player to carry his team -- may be a bit different. But that shouldn't diminish what Williams meant to the late-'90s Yankees.
Because of his role on those teams, Williams' exit from the Bronx before the 2007 season was particularly sour. (That's hard to imagine now, given the fanfare -- and at times overt sappiness -- of the Rivera and Jeter farewells.) Williams' contract had expired after the '06 season, and in a crowded outfield, he eyed a bench role. But the Yankees refused to offer Williams a guaranteed contract, instead giving him a non-roster invite to Spring Training.
Williams declined, and he never played again -- though technically he still hasn't formally announced his retirement. Clearly, Williams has moved on to the next phase of his life. He has spent his post-baseball days as a jazz guitarist, and -- unlike some other ballplayers who have embarked on musical careers in retirement -- Williams is actually really good.
But, needless to say, Williams deserves his day in the sun back on the diamond -- even if it'll come about seven years too late.
Take a look at the below video. Remember this game? Of course you do. It's the same game in which Jeffrey Maier turned Jeter's deep fly ball into a game-tying home run in Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS.
As usual, Williams comes through in the clutch. It's the first of his two career postseason walk-off homers -- a historic feat matched only by David Ortiz. Williams would go on to win the ALCS MVP Award, and the Yankees' dynasty was born.
But pay close attention at the 18-second mark, when the broadcast goes to replay. Williams puts a perfect swing (on a truly awful pitch). He watches the ball sail toward the left-field seats for a split second, then trots to first base -- never once breaking stride, as the old Yankee Stadium goes berserk.
Let me get one thing straight: You won't find a bigger proponent of athlete celebrations than me. It takes a lot of really hard work to hit a home run in a Major League game. If you want to enjoy the moment with a bat flip or a pose, by all means, go right ahead.
But -- call me old-fashioned -- I'm not sure there's a cooler way to celebrate than this. I mean, the guy just hit a walk-off homer to win an absurdly tense playoff game, and his reaction is basically: "Yeah, I know I'm good, but I don't need all these people to know I know I'm good. Let me get around these bases, and let's get the party started."
That moment is Bernie Williams in a nutshell.
Historically, it'll forever be overshadowed by Jeter's more memorable homer -- and perhaps rightfully so. But it was just as important.
No one will ever mistake Williams for the flashiest ballplayer. But his teams won. They won a lot. And No. 51 was arguably the biggest reason as to why.
Now that's a legacy worth remembering.