It was late last Friday night, after Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, and Bernie Williams had finished his daily workout: He followed a game-breaking hit with 15 minutes of abdominal exercises, diligently done on the clubhouse floor while many of his New York Yankees teammates scarfed down beer and small mountains of spaghetti and meatballs. After Williams's work was done this night—in the eighth inning against the Baltimore Orioles, he had driven in the tying run and daringly scored the go-ahead run in what turned out to be the pivotal frame of the series—he tried to describe what it is like to play at such a heightened level in such a showcase. With his usual eloquence, he talked about an awareness of surroundings "on the field level only. You don't even see the fans." It is, Williams decided, as riveting as the moments before childbirth. "It's like the father waiting for his wife to deliver," said Williams, who has three children. "You are hoping all goes well. You get to a point that you are so focused, nothing else matters."
Expectant? The Yankees can relate. Since signing Williams on his 17th birthday, 11 years ago, New York has waited anxiously for his arrival as an elite player. He had been known for being too soft and for playing his ubiquitous Fender Stratocaster guitar better than centerfield. As recently as last season Williams remained so unpolished that Gene Michael, the Yankees' general manager at the time, feared that owner George Steinbrenner would ship him to the San Francisco Giants, who were offering the undistinguished Darren Lewis in return. Just a few weeks ago New York manager Joe Torre had to scold Williams for what he politely called Williams's "bad body language" during a two-month slump.
The wait is over. So dazzling was Williams in lifting the Yankees past the Orioles in five games and into the World Series that you can consider the Championship Series to have been his birth announcement. A star is born. "No one should have to use the word potential again with Bernie," said Baltimore hitting coach Rick Down, who spent the previous three seasons in the same role with New York, before Game 4. "He's done it. He used to let his first two at bats affect his last two at bats. Not anymore. He's in control. Nothing flusters him now. He used to get off to slow starts, have bad Aprils or whatever. Now I think you'll see a consistent player in control from Day One of the season."
Said Orioles manager Davey Johnson after the series, "I don't know how you can get him out." Neither did the Baltimore pitchers. They didn't retire Williams in more than two consecutive plate appearances. He batted .474, slugged .947 and, after being put out his first two at bats in the series, reached base 14 times in 22 plate appearances. Including the Division Series against the Texas Rangers this year and the Seattle Mariners last season, Williams has hit .455 with seven home runs and 16 RBIs in his 14 postseason games. "It's an exciting time," he said after Game 4. "The intensity and focus I've had is incredible. There's time for nothing but thinking baseball all day. Well, that and the guitar."
Having a red-hot switch-hitter in the middle of its lineup makes New York a formidable opponent for either the St. Louis Cardinals or the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. What's more, the Yankees have home field advantage, a suffocating bullpen and a knack for clutch hitting, all of which give them an edge in close games. "We feel like the only way we can lose is if our starting pitching gets blown out," says first baseman Tino Martinez. "And with our pitching staff, that rarely happens."
Baltimore may have been the greatest home run hitting club in history during the regular season, but it had precious few other ways to get runners home against New York. It advanced an extra base on a hit only four times in the series and did not steal a base. Only once did the Orioles knock in a run with a hit other than a home run, of which they had nine. Against the Yankees, who allowed fewer homers than any other team in the American League during the season, they were 4-14 overall this year, 0-9 at home and 0-13 when New York started a lefthander. "We were kind of one-dimensional," Johnson said after Baltimore was eliminated 6-4 on Sunday. "If a guy makes a mistake, we'll whack it. But when you face good pitching, there aren't many mistakes. And if there are mistakes, they're usually not made with people on base."
In the series against the Yankees, the third through sixth hitters in the Orioles' lineup—Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Bonilla and Cal Ripken—batted .188 in 80 at bats with seven RBIs, or one more than Williams had. Bonilla was 0 for 19 before hitting a home run in the last inning of the last game with Baltimore down by four runs.
While New York had the current and past Mr. Octobers in its dugout (Williams and Yankees special adviser Reggie Jackson, who made sure to be in camera range in the final innings of the clincher), the Orioles had an overmatched Bonilla. He's a .190 hitter in the 22 postseason games he has played, and in Game 2 against the Yankees he joined John Kruk as the only players to whiff four times in a nine-inning League Championship Series game.
Baltimore carried a lead into the eighth inning in each of the first three games and lost two of them. It was ahead 4-3 in the eighth of the opener when New York's 22-year-old rookie shortstop, Derek Jeter, lofted a fly ball that sent rightfielder Tony Tarasco, not to mention Jeff Maier, to the wall. Jeff, 12, from Old Tappan, N.J., is symbolic of the kind of audience baseball is trying to recapture. The game, after all, began at the kid-friendly time of 4:08 p.m. While baseball was reaching out to youngsters like Jeff, he returned the favor. Just as Tarasco camped under the fly, Jeff, seated in the first row of Section 31 at Yankee Stadium, stuck his glove over the wall and into fair territory, hoping to grab a souvenir. The ball bounced off his mitt and into the stands. "It was a pretty high hit," he said. "I'm not used to seeing a ball hit that high in Little League."
Rightfield umpire Rich Garcia somehow did not see Jeff interfere with the ball, which, given the likelihood that Tarasco would have caught it, should have been ruled an out. Instead Garcia called it a home run. "His mistake was watching the outfielder instead of the ball," Johnson said. None of the other five umpires admitted to having seen the kid touch the ball, either. "I saw it from the dugout," fumed Johnson. "I always say one play doesn't beat you. But that's as close as you get." Instead of being four outs from a win, the Orioles were tied. They were beaten three innings later when Williams blasted a hanging slider from Randy Myers into the leftfield stands.