He is gone, but not retired. Bernie Williams said yesterday that he never has gotten around to filing official papers with Major League Baseball to say he is done. "But I think that it's closer now," he said with a laugh.
Williams' heart tells him he still can play, even though the rest of his body knows better. "I'll still feel like that when I'm 80," the 42-year-old former centerfielder said. "It's part of being a baseball player. You always trick yourself into thinking you can. That sort of mind-set never changes."
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Worth remembering Sunday was just how far that mind-set did take Williams. It allowed him to emerge from the quiet shell of a kid who batted .155 in Class A to become one of the best Yankees in a great era. He grew into a graceful, gracious player who held up his end of the bargain as a successor to Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. He wasn't as great as either, but he was more than good enough.
Good enough to rank among the all-time Yankees. Good enough to get the loudest ovation at his first Yankees Old-Timers' Day Sunday. Joe Torre and Yogi Berra received longer cheers, but Williams' carried the most fervor.
People roared when he went out to centerfield, wearing familiar No. 51. They yelled louder when he doubled against David Wells -- cheering as Williams retrieved the ball like a rookie achieving his first big-league hit, keeping the noise going as he accepted a handshake from Pat Kelly, his fellow rookie in 1991.
Bernabe Figueroa Williams thrived despite the pressure of playing a marquee position for the most glamorous franchise in sports. "He went through his routine every day and prepared for the challenge of playing in New York," said Darryl Strawberry, who played alongside him. "It just didn't bother him."
Just how high up on the Yankees icon scale is he? That's hard to say right now, even for Williams. "As long as I'm somewhere near there, that's fine with me," he said. Don't forget that he was given the ultimate honor at the 2008 closing ceremony for the old Yankee Stadium. He was introduced after Berra. Williams still can't believe it. "C'mon. That never happens," he said.
He wasn't anywhere near Berra at the end of the introduction list Sunday. And if the Yankees maintain their Old-Timers protocol, he never will be. The club reserves the coveted final spots for Hall of Famers, and Williams probably is no better than a borderline candidate for Cooperstown. But he was darned good, especially in the clutch, and really important.
You can make a good case that the Yankees' renaissance of the 1990s, which continues to this day, started with Williams. He blazed the trail before Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte came along. He was the new model: youngster brought up through the system by a team resisting the urge to buy its whole roster.
"We knew he had some potential: a switch hitter with power, selective at the plate," said Gene Michael, a key decision-maker then and now. "He just had to put it together at a young age. He wasn't fully relaxed, he wasn't fully grown. He wasn't at full strength. I thought we were pretty patient with him. I think I helped George Steinbrenner with that by being patient."
Williams' success made it easier for Steinbrenner to believe in other kids. Also, Williams played well enough to convince the Yankees to trade the previous centerfielder, Roberto Kelly, for Paul O'Neill. Yankees fans always will cherish the four championships and six pennants that followed.
Even after the Old-Timers' Day ceremony ended, a brief glimpse of Williams on the JumboTron in the fourth inning of the current Yankees' game drew another roar. "It gives me a great sense of pride," the first-time Old-Timer said, "to be able to contribute to the tradition of the organization."
He is a substantial part of that tradition now and always will be, long after he finally retires.