Bernie Williams is one of the most respected Yankees of all time, and that is easily clear when you visit Monuments Park at Yankee Stadium and see his number 51 retired alongside other legends such as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and his buddy Derek Jeter.
That’s why he is uniquely qualified to talk about the Yankees this season while they fight to remain atop the American League East and pursue the franchise’s first World Series title since 2009. According to Williams, the current core represents a pleasant surprise in New York City.
“Absolutely. I mean, I don’t think the players thought it was unexpected, they just had their sights set on being the best that they could be. I think everybody else thought that they weren’t going to be in the thick of it right now,” Williams said, emphasizing the need for the Yankees to live up to their new status as bona fide contenders in the American League. “The cool thing about that is that it sets a precedent, and now they are going to be expected to keep that level of excellence.”
Williams knows what the growing pains of learning to win are all about, having worn pinstripes his whole career from 1991 until 2006. He witnessed both the frustrating period of the early ’90s when the Yankees missed the playoffs three consecutive years at the start of his career while he was patrolling center field, and into a golden age that included six World Series appearances and four titles between 1996 and 2003.
According to Williams, things will continue to get even better in the Bronx as long as the pitching and healthy bodies hold up.
“It’s good. It’s the way it’s supposed to be for that franchise, in my estimation. I think, like anything, it remains on the fact that they remain healthy and that the pitching goes out and gets the job done," Williams said. "I think they have a good mix of young players, while Matt Holliday's addition to that lineup really gives them a solid veteran presence that truly has helped them a lot."
The Yankees' pitching staff is certainly pulling its weight, boasting the fourth-best ERA (3.70) in the American League entering Saturday, but the spotlight shines brightest on Aaron Judge, the young hitter who has become a true sensation.
Judge hit his 23rd home run Friday in Oakland, while his two hits also propelled him to the best average in the AL at .339. His three RBIs elevated his total to 52, just one behind Nelson Cruz as leaders of the junior circuit.
Williams is amazed by what the 25-year-old outfielder has done in just his second year, but at the same time he warned that baseball has a tendency to humble you as it gets to know you.
“The major challenge for him will be the second time around the league when opposing pitchers figure him out and he has to make adjustments around his swing. I think that really is the determining factor,” Williams said. “Once he goes the second half of a season making sure that he has adjusted to what they are trying to do against him, he is going to be right on his way.”
Judge’s WAR has jumped from minus-0.4 during 27 games in 2016 to a league-leading 4.1 after 63 games in 2017. The cold, hard numbers say he is an MVP candidate, but, according to Williams, familiarity can be an ally and an enemy at the same time. It’s up to the player to make his way through uncharted waters.
“That is extremely important for a young player. You don’t know the league, the league doesn’t know you, but they are going to discover and try to attack your weak point until you prove to them that you can make the necessary adjustments," he said. "It’s going to be really interesting to see how he deals with that.”
Williams takes a look around the majors nowadays and he sees Dominican players such as Cruz leading the AL in RBIs, Ervin Santana sitting third in wins and Luis Severino boasting the sixth-best ERA, so the former ballplayer from Puerto Rico can’t help but swell with pride when it comes to the current crop of Latin players in the majors.
“Latin presence in the majors has always been very important, and right now I am so proud of this new generation of players that has come out to represent Latinos, not just from Puerto Rico, but also from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Mexico," Williams said. "We are very well represented.”
If you are wondering what has become of Williams more than a decade removed from playing his last game, he will tell you that he has become a Latin Grammy nominated artist and a philanthropist with a campaign called Sin Aliento (Breathless).
“Sin Aliento tries to help those afflicted with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Nobody knows what causes it, but it doesn’t let you breathe,” Williams explained as he tries to fight the illness that his father battled in the late ’90s up until his death in 2001. “It is much more common than Lou Gehrig’s disease, and the people that are diagnosed with it last three to five years. We as Latinos are 15 percent more likely to have it compared to the general population in the U.S., and that’s why I consider it very important for us to educate ourselves about this condition.”
As you can see, Williams is a baseball legend hitting homers off the diamond as well.
Williams will put on the Yankee uniform once again on June 25 for “Old Timers Day” and then he will get to see for himself how Judge blasts home runs and adjusts to the opposing pitcher when the Texas Rangers are in town that afternoon. He will watch as Judge tries to loft another towering shot into the New York breeze, and he will know that the Yankee legacy is in good hands.