Williams' playing time is expected to be reduced
NEW YORK -- Fans at Yankee Stadium will be chanting "Bernie! Bernie!" again next year.
The Yankees announced Thursday that they had agreed to a $1.5 million, one-year contract with popular outfielder Bernie Williams, who has been in pinstripes since 1991 and compiled statistics that put his name alongside the team's greatest players.
"He ranks right there with the Gehrigs and the Berras and the Ruths and the Mantles," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said.
Williams' playing time will be reduced following this week's agreement with Johnny Damon, who takes over as the starting center fielder. The shaggy-haired and bearded Damon passed his physical Thursday and got a haircut, a Yankees official said, and the team called a Friday news conference to finalize his $52 million, four-year contract.
Williams had 485 at-bats last season, starting 99 games in center and 22 at designated hitter.
"There were no promises made in terms of certain amount of at-bats or where," Cashman said. "It could materialize as a pinch hitter, a DH, a pinch runner, an everyday outfielder, a defender whether it's left field, center field. It just remains to be seen."
Williams is now 37, but despite his diminished skills he remains a favorite of teammates and fans. He joins Yogi Berra, Frank Crosetti, Bill Dickey, Whitey Ford, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle as the only players to spend 16 seasons with the Yankees.
"I'm happy to have him in the fold. He's a gem," owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement.
Williams did not participate in the finalization of his contract, leaving it to agent Scott Boras, and Williams wasn't on the conference call to announce the deal.
"I know he's not an easy guy to track down in the winter," Cashman said.
Williams' contract allows him to earn an additional $1.5 million in performance bonuses -- $115,384.62 for each 25 plate appearances from 150 through 450. New York had declined a $15 million option, electing to pay a $3.5 million buyout that concluded an $87.5 million, seven-year contract.
Boras, who also represents Damon, said Williams could have gotten more money elsewhere.
"He took a lot less to come back to the Yankees because he values the Yankees tradition," Boras said.
Williams signed with the Yankees in 1985, took over as the regular center fielder in 1993 and helped lead the Yankees to four World Series titles and six AL pennants from 1996-03.
While he is a five-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner, Williams batted just .249 with 12 homers and 64 RBI in 485 at-bats last season, and his defense cost the team. Still, he is close to manager Joe Torre and his importance to the team goes beyond statistics.
Williams is taking over a reserve role held by Ruben Sierra since 2003.
"Quite frankly, he can do some things more than the individual who held that position the previous years," Cashman said.
Cashman said this agreement was "putting him in position to continue to hopefully remain only a Yankee for life and be one of those rare guys in this era to stay with one team."
"That," Cashman said, "is something extremely special and rare."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press