Commentary

Williams trades guitar for bat, glove

Former Yankees star, at 40 years old, taking one more swing at the game

Updated: March 6, 2009, 7:16 PM ET
By Jorge Arangure Jr. | ESPN The Magazine

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Fatigued after a 10-minute batting practice session Friday, Puerto Rican outfielder Bernie Williams walked slowly toward the home team dugout for a cup of water. Beads of sweat dripped down his brow, and he panted with deep breaths when he reached for the water cooler.

A friend of Williams soon approached and asked how the veteran outfielder was doing as he sipped water from a tiny green cup.

"I'm just trying to fool them that I can still play," Williams said.

He then tugged on his cap and ran back out onto the field to continue what may be the final chapter of his 21-year professional baseball odyssey.

With hardly a chance at a major league job, Williams, who spent 16 glorious seasons with the New York Yankees, plays for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic for mere pride and because of a sense of responsibility.

"The motivation to play was to represent Puerto Rico," Williams said. "After two years without playing, I missed the game. I thought the conditions were perfect for me to play again. This will be a tournament with a high quality of competition."

[+] EnlargeBernie Williams
AP Photo/Steven SenneDetermined not to embarrass himself, Bernie Williams trained for two months, dropping 15 pounds.
Sometime during the fall, Williams quietly approached Puerto Rico general manager Lou Melendez, who also serves as Major League Baseball's vice president of international operations, about the possibility of playing in the World Baseball Classic. Melendez suggested to Williams that he should play in the Puerto Rican winter league to see if he was still in baseball shape. After all, during Williams' unofficial retirement -- he never formally quit after the Yankees did not offer him a contract after the 2006 season -- he spent the past year at home with his family in Westchester, N.Y., and also in the music studio recording his newest jazz guitar album.

Williams agreed to play for the Gigantes de Carolina.

"When Bernie Williams shows that kind of commitment," Melendez said, "you have to listen."

In his third game with Carolina, Williams rolled a solid ground ball up the middle. Thinking he perhaps had a possibility for an infield base hit, Williams ran hard to first base. Halfway through his sprint, Williams felt a jolt in his right quadriceps. After three games, Williams' professional baseball comeback was over.

"Coming to Puerto Rico, playing here in the winter obviously gave me, like they say, a wake-up call, made me see how poor physical condition I had and it obviously made me wake up in terms of that I was able to train," Williams said. "The good thing about the injury is that it gave myself a time to cure and luckily it cured in two months. And I had a chance to train strong."

Undeterred, Williams rested for a short time but then went back to work with trainer Rafy Oquendo, whom Williams had trained with for the last 10 years of his career. Five days a week, sometimes six, for two hours a day, Williams trained with Oquendo on a variety of drills.

Surely Williams was motivated by wanting to succeed, but he was also pushed by fear. He did not want to suffer the indignity of having to limp off that field as he did in his third Puerto Rican winter league game. The Bernie Williams fans knew played baseball elegantly and with pride. He was not one for sympathy, and he did not ask for it when the Yankees decided not to bring him back for the 2007 season. Williams decided to quit rather than to be a bench player. And Williams did not want to be a bench player during the WBC, either.

Surely nobody would forget Williams' 1998 season when he became the first player to win a batting title, a Gold Glove and a World Series (his second of four), but he also didn't want to be remembered for being a player who had to be carted off the field in his final game.

"He didn't want to get embarrassed," Oquendo said. "I think that's why he trained so hard."

Some days Williams swam in the pool. Other days he did agility drills in which he shuttled around small traffic cones. On the third day, he lifted weights.

The cycle repeated itself for the next two months. By the end of his two-month training stint, Williams had lost 15 pounds and was back in baseball shape. Nobody would ever say he looked like he did in his prime, but, hey, it was better than pulling a quad muscle again.

"We can't stop Mother Nature," Oquendo said, "but he was in as good a shape as he's been in a long time."

Nobody quite knows where this new chapter of the odyssey will end. Even Williams says he's unsure whether he would accept a reserve role at the age of 40, regardless of whether that was his only path back to the majors.

"I have too many things that are also more important than baseball," Williams said. "After two years away from baseball, it's given me a chance to react and really see the things that are important in my life, like my family, and the passions that I have, like music, things I didn't get to appreciate because of baseball."

Mostly though, you get the sense that Williams doesn't want anyone but him to dictate his future -- not the Yankees, not a quad injury and surely not some major league executive who wants to plant him firmly on the far end of a bench.

Prior to his sip of water during batting practice, Williams had gathered with Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado for a group photo.

"Bernie, come over here, we're taking a picture for a calendar. You can be Mr. May," Beltran joked.

Williams laughed at Beltran's joke and then joined the two for the photo. Afterward, Williams went back into the cage and lined several drives into the outfield. Several fans in the crowd began to chant his name. Williams had fooled them once again.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.