Hitting His Stride
After a wrenching personal loss, Bernie Williams is sparking the Yankees again
As World Series champions four of the last five years, the Yankees have become experts not only in winning but also in winning while suffering. During the 1996 season, manager Joe Torre's brother Rocco died, and his other brother, Frank, underwent a successful heart transplant. Two years later colon cancer was diagnosed in designated hitter-outfielder Darryl Strawberry. In '99 Torre underwent surgery for prostate cancer, and over a six-week span the fathers of third baseman Scott Brosius, rightfielder Paul O'Neill and utility infielder Luis Sojo all died. Then, last year, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre had a stem-cell transplant to fight off blood-plasma cancer.
This year the burden of sorrow has fallen on centerfielder Bernie Williams, whose 73-year-old father, Bernabe, died of a heart attack on May 13 after a prolonged bout with pulmonary fibrosis. Throughout April and early May, Williams, a four-time All-Star with a .304 lifetime average, struggled to keep his batting average above .200, and he went 17 games between his second and third home runs.
"From a production standpoint, I never worried about Bernie," says Torre. "At his age , it wasn't a question of him dropping off. It was obviously a time when Bernie needed to clear his mind and sort through some things. We all understood he would return to form in due time."
Due time has arrived. Over 19 games, from May 27 through June 17, Williams batted .472 with six home runs and 16 RBIs, lifting his average from .221 to .310. As the Yankees took two out of three games from the Mets last weekend to stay within two games of the first-place Red Sox in the American League East, Williams led the way with six hits, including two homers, four RBIs and two stolen bases. With O'Neill (.257), shortstop Derek Jeter (.284, 31 RBIs), leftfielder Chuck Knoblauch (.261, 21 RBIs) and first baseman Tino Martinez (.255) struggling and DH David Justice (.245, 30 RBIs) on the DL with a groin strain, Williams has again emerged as New York's best player. "I've made progress in the last couple of weeks," he says, "getting on base more, walking more, driving the ball to the gaps and striking out less."
Williams missed 10 games in mid-April while visiting his ailing father in their native Puerto Rico, but he rejoined the Yankees when Bernabe's health took a turn for the better. Then, on May 13, after a game against the Orioles, Bernie was informed that Bernabe had suffered the heart attack. Bernie immediately flew home but arrived too late to say goodbye. "There's no way of getting over that," he says. "You can have temporary closure and hide from it by playing the game, but it's always on your mind."
Williams's return to form could not have come at a better time for New York. Through Sunday the Yankees were eighth in the American League with a .267 team average, and their 335 runs scored ranked fifth. Last week owner George Steinbrenner, who has remained uncharacteristically silent during most of Torre's tenure, spoke out, telling The New York Times, "I can't say mat I'm happy. We really haven't hit at all. From Jeter to Justice to Knoblauch, they're not hitting. Martinez is not hitting."
Even when all the bats return to form, Torre's greatest headache will be the Yankees' lack of pitching depth. After leaving in the fourth inning of his start against the Mets last Friday, lefthanded starter Andy Pettitte was placed on the 15-day DL with a strained left groin, joining righthander Orlando Hernandez, who's out indefinitely while recovering from surgery on the second toe of his left foot. That leaves New York with a temporary rotation of Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Ted Lilly, Randy Keisler and Adrian Hernandez—me latter three with 17 major league starts among them.
"One thing that I have been impressed with is the ability of the guys in our clubhouse to stay focussed and strong," says Lilly, a 25-year-old rookie. "There's no panic, just a sense of pride. You feel like everything will work out."
For Williams, at least, it has started to.