Lofton likely will start opener

Updated: February 26, 2004, 5:28 PM ET
Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. -- Bernie Williams had his appendix removed Thursday, and New York Yankees manager Joe Torre said the center fielder most likely will miss Opening Day.

Bernie Williams

"I'm very sorry for Bernie because he came in such great shape and worked so hard," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said. "He's a very integral part of this team. I know Bernie. He'll fight through it and be back quicker than everybody thinks. He'll be back full burner."

Williams, New York's regular center fielder since 1992, began experiencing discomfort Wednesday night, Torre said, and was sent to St. Joseph's Hospital for tests Thursday. Doctors determined the 35-year-old Williams needed an appendectomy, which was performed by Dr. Joseph Diaco.

"It would be a long shot for him to start the season," Torre said. "It will probably put him back three weeks. I think in three weeks he can probably get in the flow of things. It wouldn't be fair to rush him at-bats and all that stuff."

Kenny Lofton, signed as a free agent and expected to challenge Williams for the starting job, takes over in center field.

"I like Kenny Lofton," Steinbrenner said. "I think we're fortunate we have him out there. Every one of the teams in the race in the American League East is going to have a setback. This was an early one for us."

Lofton hit .296 for Pittsburgh and the Chicago Cubs with 12 homers, 46 RBI and 30 steals last year.

"I came into spring training expecting to play center field and DH," Lofton said. "My preparation is going to be the same."

Williams had surgery on his left knee last May. The four-time Gold Glove winner, whose defense has deteriorated in recent years, batted .263 with 15 homers and 64 RBI in 445 at-bats last season.

"When Bernie is ready to play baseball, I'm sure that this isn't going to keep him from playing center field," Torre said.

Travis Lee, who agreed to a contract this week, most likely will start the season splitting time at first base and designated hitter with Jason Giambi.

"If we decide that Jason is going to take on more of a prominent role as a DH, that for sure is going to bring another first baseman into the mix," Torre said.

Giambi hit 41 homers with 107 RBI last year, mostly as the DH late in the season. He didn't start Game 5 of the World Series because of knee trouble and had surgery Nov. 18.

"I'll play wherever," Giambi said.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press