Williams has sights set on Classic
Inclusion on Puerto Rico's provisional roster gives outfielder hope
NEW YORK -- More than two years have passed since Bernie Williams' last official action in a Yankees uniform, digging into a batter's box in Detroit for the 2006 American League Division Series.
Williams has poured his energy into a music career over that span, working on a second album that shares his other talents with the world. But the abrupt ending to his baseball life left questions -- ones that may be finally answered with the World Baseball Classic.
The 40-year-old outfielder has been included on the provisional 45-man roster for Puerto Rico in the Classic, as Williams hopes to once again wear his home colors and perhaps prove that there can be more big league innings in his future.
"He's a great player, so I don't think great players ever really forget how to do the things that they're good at," Puerto Rico general manager Lou Melendez said. "He was very disciplined as a player. It's simply a function of how well he feels physically and seeing live pitching."
Though Williams faded from the big league scene when his 16-year career went quiet, he never officially retired. After the Yankees' first-round loss to Detroit in 2006, Williams was not offered a guaranteed contract for the '07 season -- only a standing offer of a Minor League deal with an invitation to Spring Training.
Unwilling to report to camp fighting for a job, Williams allowed the Yankees' offer to hang out there, leaving teammates like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera to wonder through the month of February if Williams would one day walk through the doors of the spring complex.
But he never did, and the season began without Williams, as manager Joe Torre moved on without one of his favorite players.
Williams finally returned to Yankee Stadium for the ballpark's closing a year later, calling it his "home away from home" and bringing down the house on Sept. 21, the familiar pinstriped No. 51 cresting across the outfield. But it was just a ceremony -- could there be more innings, more games still out there for Williams to play?
"To be really honest, if I play [for Puerto Rico] and I start getting those feelings back again, start getting the urge and feel good physically, it can open a whole world of possibilities for me," Williams told the New York Daily News.
"But right now, I'm just speculating on what could happen. It's not going to be until I play in that competition whether I'm going to be able to make those kind of decisions."
Williams slowed noticeably in his last two big league seasons, but hit .281 with 12 home runs and 61 RBIs in 2006, playing more than expected due to injuries on the Yankees roster. He reported for duty this winter with Gigantes de Carolina of the Puerto Rican Winter League, stroking a hard single to center field in his first at-bat.
But Williams went hitless in his next six plate appearances before suffering a right quadriceps strain that demands nature take its course. He is healing, but no one knows for sure if Williams' timing will be there, if his body will be able to hold up after such an extended layoff.
"After two years, it's like, 'Dude, this guy might be starting from scratch. He's going to have to prove to us that he can play at this level,'" Williams told the Daily News. "So, I think at this point, I'm in that process of just trying to find out."
In being listed on the 45-man roster released Monday, Williams has made the important first step. His next challenge will be making the cut to 28 players on Feb. 22, when Melendez and manager Jose Oquendo will determine if Williams will be of service when Classic tournament play begins March 7.
"Bernie has a good chance," Melendez said. "Between now and Feb. 22, when we have to select our 28, he's going to work out and our manager and coaches are going to monitor his progress and see how he feels.
"He has to be forthright with the manager and the coaches in terms of how he really feels about his ability to play. We'll see how he gets himself back into good physical shape which would enable him to participate in a short tournament like this. But I don't think he ever forgot how to hit."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.