With the Cardinals off Thursday, my tuner stopped on the Yankees-Devil Rays contest. The first-place Bombers continue to play impressive baseball down the stretch, despite having already effectively dispatched perennial rival Boston.
Just like he has so many times before, Williams led off Thursday night and played his familiar centerfield position for the Yankees, going 1-for-4 at the plate with a run scored as his club won their sixth in a row and 89th of the season.
Williams, now 38 years old, is in 16th season with the club, having first come up to the Major Leagues in 1991. He is a five-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glover, plus owns a batting championship, one Silver Slugger Award and an American League Most Valuable Player Award from 1996. His career batting average coming into 2006 was .298.
Oh yeah, Williams also was a part of four World Series-winning clubs in six tries and has hit more home runs, driven in the more runs and scored more often than any other player in MLB post-season history.
All-in-all, a most impressive resume.
Yet, a year ago, Williams' future with the only team he had ever known was in serious jeopardy. He had reached the option year in a very expensive contract and the Yankees didn't want to pay an older player whose skills were clearly eroding $15 million this season.
After averaging 146 games per season in centerfield over the four years prior to 2003, Williams had dropped to an average of 108 games per year up the middle over the most recent three seasons. The loss of time in the field was due a combination of factors, including declining defensive skills, injury and the availability of the designated hitter position.
Though he had registered more than 100 RBI on five occasions, the last time was in 2002. In the three years after, Williams averaged just 66 RBI per season in what should be considered a typical late-career decline.
After paying Williams in $12 million each of the previous six seasons, the Yankees were prepared to send him off with a $3.5 million buyout rather than ante up that $15 million for 2006, a decision they were contractually obligated to make by last August 1st.
Pushed hard by the New York press all last season, Williams handled the awkwardness and uncertainty with grace and professionalism, stating repeatedly that the situation would work itself out soon enough. That couldn't have been easy, especially when Williams was replaced in center by none other than second baseman Tony Womack for 22 games during the 2005 campaign.
Yet, matters did clear up, as the Yankees announced on schedule that the 2006 option was declined, obligating them to pay the buyout. But, it wasn't over. The club trusted Williams enough to offer him arbitration in December, allowing both sides more time to hammer out a deal for this season, which ultimately was announced a few days before Christmas.
That's right. Despite having reputed tough guy Scott Boras as his agent, Williams didn't walk. He swallowed his pride and took a bargain-basement deal, with a low base and incentives, in order to return to the Bronx in what was expected to be a part-time role this season.
But, it didn't work out that way. Due to injuries to regulars Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield, Williams was pressed into regular duty in 2006. While not equaling his past glory, he has been a very productive player, delivering 56 RBI and a .277 average in 118 games.
With new centerfielder Johnny Damon on the 2006 Yankees roster and Williams slowed defensively in comparison to his prime, Bernie has appeared three times more often as a corner outfielder than in his old post in center.
Williams is playing this season with a base salary that is but a shadow of his 2000 through 2005 yearly mark. Specifically, Bernie is earning just $1.5M plus another $1.5M in incentives, of which he looks to earn all, on top of the $3.5M buyout payment he could have just pocketed to retire and stay home with his family.
When it is all added up, Williams' $6.5 million earned for this season is barely half of what he made in each of the previous six campaigns.
But, at this point of his career, Williams must realize money isn't everything. As a result of staying, Bernie has received the appreciative ovations of the Yankees fans time and time again over another 400 plate appearances and counting.
By now, you've probably figured out where I am going here. Cardinals' outfielder Jim Edmonds' parallels with Williams are numerous.
Edmonds, 36, is in his 14th season in the Majors, almost equally split between the then-Anaheim Angels and the Cardinals.
Along with four All-Star Game selections, Edmonds has received eight Gold Gloves and a single Silver Slugger Award. He finished in the top five in his league in Most Valuable Player voting twice. His career batting mark prior to this season was .291.
While averaging 144 games in centerfield over his initial three years in St. Louis, Edmonds has dropped to 119 games during the almost four since. Again, injuries and age have to be considerations.
Edmonds has put 100 or more RBI in the bank four times, as recently as 2004. But, his 56 this season will most certainly be his lowest contribution since his injury-plagued 1999 campaign.
And finally, like Williams, Edmonds' contract will soon be up, with only an overpriced option ($10 million) remaining for 2007, an option the Cardinals may very well decline. He is being paid $12 million this season.
Financial security should be no issue for Edmonds, coming off a contract where when all is said and done will have provided him 57 million dollars in compensation since 2001.
The Cardinals haven't yet chosen to put Edmonds and themselves under the public pressure that would go along with declining his option, instead likely holding out hope they can work out a new deal with the outfielder after this season.
But, will Edmonds' ego allow him to take a huge drop in salary in order to remain with his long-time club for 2007? Unlike Williams, he has moped about his contract situation on and off for several years now.
With precious little assured in terms of playing time or compensation, it worked out pretty well for Bernie Williams and the New York Yankees this season.
Here's hoping Jim Edmonds is paying attention, both to Williams as well as the admiring Cardinals fans who want him to accept a reasonable contract to come back and continue to soak up their cheers in 2007.
So, why can't Edmonds be like Bernie?
At this point, he can't win four, but wouldn't even one World Championship as a Cardinal be priceless?
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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