Yanks CF Williams battles adversity

By Joe Rizzo
SportsTicker Contributing Writer

FLUSHING, New York (Ticker) - Monday marked exactly two years since Bernie Williams was put on the disabled list for what appeared to signal the downfall of his great career with the New York Yankees.

It was May 23, 2003 when Williams began his month-and-a-half stint on the sidelines to recover from arthroscopic knee surgery. He returned before the All-Star break, but has not been the same since.

The problem now is a weak throwing arm, his lost range in center field and a perceived lack of confidence at the plate. Yankees manager Joe Torre admitted Williams has had trouble adjusting to not being the everyday center fielder.

But when Williams smacked the game-winning double to help the Yankees beat the New York Mets on Sunday at Shea Stadium, suddenly he was again the toast of the town. No player in the visitors’ locker room dealt with a bigger throng of reporters.

But Williams’ mood changed when a reporter asked if his struggles resulted from lost confidence.

“From who,” Williams shot back, somewhat out of character. “Who was losing confidence?”

The reporter stumbled the way a boxer would after getting hit by Oscar de la Hoya’s left hook.

Williams, now 36 and showing some gray hair, clearly is doing his best to put the first month-and-a-half of this season behind him. Getting the game-winning hit Sunday may be just what Williams needs to become a major factor for the Yankees again.

Alex Rodriguez was particularly pleased that Williams’ hit saved him from having to talk about another fielding miscue. Rodriguez’s error on a slow roller led to two unearned runs for the Mets.

“Bernie’s incredible,” Rodriguez said. “His career speaks for itself. I always tell Bernie that even if he’s struggling, 1-for-10 or 1-for-20, every time he steps in the box I feel like something good is going to happen for the Yankees.”

Rodriguez’s belief in his teammate is due to a standout career that kicked off in 1991 and featured eight straight years of hitting over .300. That run ended in 2003. Williams finished that season at .263 and followed last year with a .262 mark.

Heading into the Yankees’ series in Detroit, Williams is hitting a pedestrian .236 with two homers and 15 RBI in 34 games. He is hitting a mere .197 at Yankee Stadium.

Why all the hype for a guy who is 2-for-13 since May 11? Because this is Williams and those two hits were game-winners. Besides the one that beat the Mets, he hit a grand slam to sink the Seattle Mariners on May 16. He faces Tigers left-hander Wil Ledezma on Tuesday, and is hitting lefties at a .325 clip this season.

What happens in the near and distant future has something to do with Torre, but more to do with Williams. Torre would seemingly do anything to keep Williams in the lineup every game. June is the player’s best career month. If he gets on track, Williams will have his spot back.

“I think it’s a situation where Joe (Torre) had to make some moves,” Williams said of being benched. “Obviously, it’s a tough decision because there are so many good players playing for this team. But I think the most important thing is to remain ready at all costs.”

Quelling some of that doubt, Torre took advantage of knowing Williams better than any player on the team. Through the years, Torre and Williams have built a mutual respect and friendship off the field. It became an important part of the manager’s handling of Williams.

“I got the benefit of the doubt when it happened,” Torre said. “He has good support here. There are people he trusts here.”

The message has gotten across, loud and clear.

“At this point in my career I’m just concerned about making a contribution to the club, making the best out of the opportunity I get and just go from there,” Williams said. “Tino (Martinez) worked himself into the lineup by hitting and by producing. I usually start slow and right around this time I start to get my swing right, in my groove, so to speak.”

It’s about time he turned around two tough years and took back some of his old glory.

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Updated Tuesday, May 24, 2005