Yankees Magazine: Coming into his own

Bernie Williams hit his stride in 1996, and the timing couldn't have been better for the center fielder or the Yankees

Yankees Magazine: Coming into his own

The 1996 postseason brings back good memories for Bernie Williams.

"I couldn't play any better against Texas in the first round of the playoffs," he recalls. "I don't remember the numbers, but I do remember the feeling. It was unbelievable being in that zone, and I carried it over to the Orioles series."

The homegrown Yankees center fielder batted .467 with three home runs in the American League Division Series against the Rangers and .474 with two more homers in the AL Championship Series versus Baltimore. Williams took home ALCS MVP honors before cooling off somewhat in the World Series, although his pivotal two-run homer in the eighth inning of a 5-2 win in Game 3 should not be forgotten.

But three years before he would begin building his October reputation, Williams played his first full season in pinstripes, using the years leading up to his first championship to learn how to be a Major League player and navigate a changing clubhouse. Williams spoke with Yankees Magazine executive editor Kristina M. Dodge about the 1996 season and its impact on his career.

In the years leading up to 1996, the team was in the midst of a turnaround, finishing higher in the standings with each season and culminating in 1995 with an appearance in the postseason. What do you remember about those teams?

I would probably venture to say that much of the turnaround started in '93, when they acquired Paul O'Neill. The trade allowed me to play center and Paul O'Neill to play right. We still had a number of players that were coming through the Minor League system at that point that I thought paved the way for us, guys like Kevin Maas, Jim Leyritz, Oscar Azocar, Andy Stankiewicz. They probably didn't stick around as long as they wanted to, but I think it showed the front office that we had talent in the Minor Leagues that could be developed. And I think that sort of came to fruition when Mariano [Rivera], Andy [Pettitte], Jorge [Posada] and Derek [Jeter] arrived.

Outside of Stump Merrill in '91, Buck Showalter was the only Major League manager you had known. Were you concerned about having to play for a new manager when Joe Torre came on board in '96?

I wasn't really nervous, but I was kind of anxious. Buck Showalter was very influential to my career in the Minor Leagues. We talked about me becoming a switch-hitter; he managed me in the Minors. I thought he really knew me as a person and as a player, so I really didn't think I had to prove anything to him -- he knew what I was going to be -- as opposed to Joe. It's a new person. Obviously, you're going to try to impress him. So that was a cause of some anxiety.

Do you remember your first impression of Joe?

We had to work hard with both managers, obviously, but I think that Joe was more willing to be lenient in his schedule. I think Buck felt the need to be more in control of every aspect of the team, whether it was Spring Training, workouts, everything. We had basically the same schedule with Joe, but it felt like he was a little more relaxed.

The other thing I thought was a lot different was his attitude toward the media. Buck was a little bit more antagonistic [laughs]. Maybe he changed his ways 20 years later, but at the time, I always had the impression that Buck was trying to protect us from the media and warn us against saying something out of context that could be misconstrued because it would affect the chemistry of the team. Joe's attitude toward the media was also cautious, but a lot more accommodating. If reporters wanted a player to make some statements, they would look for the player, but I think Joe took a lot of the burden of being there for the media on himself. It left the players to focus more on playing.

Whenever anyone talks about the '96 team, they talk about the combination of youth and veterans. You were a couple of years older than the younger guys, but not quite at the point of veteran status. What do you feel your role was?

I never fit in! [laughs] I was kind of like that guy that was not old enough to be a seasoned veteran, but coming into my own as a player. The first time I hit .300 was in '95. I felt like '96 was the year that I was on my way. I think I had a good rapport with the young players, although I considered myself to be more of a loner. I wasn't really the guy that would grab people and say, "Let's go out to dinner." If I was left to my own devices, I probably would have been mostly hanging out by myself or in the room maybe playing guitar, I don't know. But I would turn into this different person when I would put the uniform on, and I was completely 100 percent in the game, doing whatever it took to help the team accomplish what we had to accomplish.

So is it fair to say that you were a loner off the field?

Actually, Derek said that I didn't talk to him for the first eight years of his career.

That can't be true!

That's what he says.

Do you agree with that assessment?

I slightly disagree. At least twice, I said "Hi" to him [laughs].

In the early part of my career, I remember those times as a combination of being overwhelmed, excited, nervous and anxious, not knowing what was going to happen year to year, but at the same time being excited about playing with the Yankees. I didn't really know too much about the history of the team until I got older. In fact, I was kind of resenting the fact that they were always mentioning the guys that played 30 or 40 years before us. In '91, '92, '93, we weren't as good. I remember the whole marketing scheme of the team was tradition, the excellence, and it was all Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle. It was like, "But we're playing in the '90s! What about us!?"

As I got older, I started understanding the tradition and feeling more of a reverence toward it. But it didn't happen right away. I was more of a rebellious child that didn't know better.

At what point in the '96 season did you and the team have a sense that you could go all the way?

That's a very hard question to answer -- because I don't recall most of the games until the World Series [laughs]. I do feel that overall we were underdogs. The odds were not in our favor playing any of those teams: Texas, Baltimore and Atlanta. We weren't really dominating. We were just relying on pitching, scoring a couple of runs, and then letting Mariano and [John] Wetteland do their jobs.

Were you comfortable with that strategy?

In hindsight, obviously, those guys were unbelievable. But being in the situation at the time, I always felt like it could have gone either way. There were games where we just barely got out of a bases-loaded situation or two-men-on situation with the game on the line. Wetteland would strike out the last guy and come in the clubhouse and say, "All right guys, Maalox on me!" Because everyone was on pins and needles. Nothing was for sure.

In Game 1 of the ALCS, Jeter hits a game-tying home run in the eighth with an assist from Jeffrey Maier, and Maier becomes a household name for Yankees fans. What do you remember seeing in that moment? Was it obvious then that it was fan interference?

This Date in History: 10/9/96

We saw the replay, and we were so thankful. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. And it was one of those situations that sort of reflected how the year was going for us. It seemed like at some point we had a situation and something would happen that would turn the tide in our favor. It was almost supernatural. We had to play the games and we had to put ourselves in the situation in which we could succeed or have an opportunity for things like that to happen, but it seemed like they always did.

That game remained tied at 4-4 until you led off the 11th with a walk-off home run. What were you trying to do there?

I remember playing defense the prior inning and thinking about having a good at-bat, getting on base, just trying to make something happen, so maybe somebody could drive me in or maybe we could score a run. I definitely wasn't thinking about hitting a home run. Randy Myers happened to throw a pitch right in my wheelhouse, and when I hit it, I knew it was gone. I just didn't know if it was going to be fair or foul. Once I knew it was fair, I couldn't believe it. I don't even remember running around the bases.

What do you recall about the way you and your teammates picked each other up after you dropped the first two games of the World Series to the Braves?

We had been getting pummeled by those guys, and they had arguably the best pitching staff at the time with John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and Mark Wohlers closing, throwing 99 mph. They had Andruw Jones crushing it as a rookie. But we never gave up completely, and I think they kind of took the whole thing for granted. Once they lost Games 3 and 4, they were like, "Oh, okay, now we've got a series." By the time they regrouped, it was too late.

What specifically do you remember about Wetteland getting that last out?

He was unbelievable. Seeing Charlie Hayes catch that ball was the best feeling ever. Like I said before, in all these series, I felt like we were the underdogs, and everybody criticized the decision to make Joe manager, and he was dealing with his brother's heart condition. To come up with the World Series championship was like, "Wow, I cannot believe this is happening." But it fed into my theory that nothing should ever surprise me in baseball. Anything can happen. Now, I'm smiling.

What comes to mind when you're smiling right now?

Seeing the Braves in disbelief: "What happened here? I cannot believe we lost to these guys!" The analysts going back on their words: "Oh my God, that was the biggest surprise ever. These guys were so resilient. They played as a team." And all of a sudden, Joe is the greatest manager on the earth: "We never doubted you, Joe." [laughs] And after that, he could not do anything wrong in New York. He was able to manage egos and willingness to play, and he got everybody believing in his philosophy. I, for one, would run through a wall for him.

What do you think the '96 World Series win, and the subsequent wins, did for your career?

They were a blessing. I would have been happy doing it with another team -- any team -- because being part of a championship team is quite an honor. But I do believe it makes it that much more special to do it in New York with the Yankees. I don't think I would have been noticed as much as a player had I not been part of this great dynasty. It established me as part of the Yankees in New York, I made New York my home, and I'm still reminded of the success that we had 20 years later.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Kristina M. Dodge is an executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.