11/30/11 2:05 PM EST
Part of dynasty, Bernie leads ballot newcomers
Center fielder tallied four rings, displayed grace over 16 seasons
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
Bernie Williams is already in the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame. That much was decided in September. As for that other Hall, you know, the one in the brick building in that small village in New York called Cooperstown, well, it's no shoo-in for the Yankees legend.
In fact, Williams might be a long shot.
Then again, when looking at the players for whom 2011 will mark the beginning of eligibility for election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Williams appears to at the very least be the strong front-runner in his class -- and likely the only possible contender.
Williams, the Puerto Rico native who was up and down in the Minor Leagues in 1991 and '92 before seizing the center-field job in the Bronx in '93, ended up playing 16 seasons -- all with the Yankees -- and retired after 2006 with a .297 batting average, 287 home runs, 1,257 RBIs, four Gold Glove Awards and five All-Star Game appearances. He also compiled a career on-base percentage of .381 and slugged .477.
But the numbers that made him an icon in New York were the ones tallied in the postseason. Williams still owns the postseason record for RBIs (80 in 545 plate appearances) and ranks second in playoff history in other key categories (home runs, total bases, runs, hits, doubles). Williams was a major contributor in the dynasty that brought four World Series titles to New York (1996, '98, '99, 2000) during his tenure, and the Yankees lost in two other Fall Classics (2001, 2003) with Williams in center field.
"Just to be mentioned in that light, it's great," Williams said. "It always gives you a great sense of accomplishment. But at the same time you have no control over that decision and what's going to transpire."
If perceived character and how one handles himself off the field count for anything with voters, Williams' stock will rise. He was known for a quiet grace and treated the game, his teammates and opponents with respect.
Former Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly said he remembers that aspect of Williams' personality, and for good reason. Donnelly, who was a 31-year-old rookie at the time, gave up a game-deciding three-run home run to Williams in New York in Game 1 of the 2002 American League Division Series. In a news conference after the game, Williams was asked about the pitcher, whom he had not faced before that at-bat. Williams referred to the right-hander as "Donaldson."
"Before I even read about it the next day, Bernie came up to me and apologized for getting my name wrong," Donnelly said. "And that pretty much summed up Bernie Williams. He was a great player, but he also carried himself with a lot of dignity. Just a really classy guy."
But will it be enough for Cooperstown to come calling? It remains to be seen, as it does for the rest of the class, which seems to fall well short of Williams' credentials and could struggle to post the 5 percent of the vote needed to reappear on the ballot in 2012.
A candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote from Baseball Writers' Association of America members to gain election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Second baseman Roberto Alomar (90 percent) and pitcher Bert Blyleven (79.7 percent) earned their ticket to Cooperstown on the 2011 ballot. Former Reds shortstop Barry Larkin (62.1 percent) and starting pitcher Jack Morris (53.5 percent) are the top returning vote-getters from last year's ballot. Results of the 2012 election will be announced on Jan. 9.
Vinny Castilla was a career .276 hitter with 320 homers and 1,120 RBIs in 16 seasons, most notably some huge slugging years in the light air of Denver with the 1990s Colorado Rockies (he hit 191 homers and drove in 562 runs from 1995 to 1999 alone, for example). However, voters might take away points for the offensive inflation provided by the Mile High effect, and Castilla did not prove particularly valuable as a defender and played in only four non-descript postseason series, all losses.
Javy Lopez was a tough, durable player, mostly at the premium position of catcher, and a three-time All-Star who put it all together in a few memorable seasons at the plate (.328/.378/.687 with 43 homers and 109 RBIs for the Braves in 2003; .284/.328/.540, 34, 106 for Atlanta in 1998). Lopez finished with 260 career homers, 864 RBIs and a career OPS of .828.
Ruben Sierra played in 20 Major League seasons, made four All-Star teams, and hit 306 homers while driving in 1,322 runs. Pitcher Brad Radke won 148 games, and speedy Eric Young Sr. stole 465 bases.
Tim Salmon said he's flattered to be mentioned as even having an outside shot of getting in, but he realizes how slim his chances are.
"I guess I did enough for people to think of me for about a half-second five years later, so that's cool," Salmon said.
Voters will think about Williams for a lot longer than that. He figures to get much more than the 5 percent that will keep him in consideration moving forward, although with loaded classes arriving in 2012 and beyond, this might be the best time for him.
Either way, the soft-spoken former star seems to be at peace with whatever might occur.
"My dad always told me, 'You always want to have that goal to get to the Hall of Fame,'" Williams said recently.
"But as I'm getting older, I know that my joy of the game, a lot of it comes from the relationships I was able to develop. all the memories and experiences I was able to go through that have made a profound impact on my life.
"Everything else is just icing on the cake."