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Stick Michael had to fight hard for Bernie Williams

Every Friday I’ve been releasing ‘A Brief History’ podcast about the Yankees. It started as a way to stay sane during quarantine, but evolved into something that I look forward to researching each week.

The most recent episode was about how Gene Michael built the 1990s Yankees dynasty — starting with his early tenure with the Yanks in the 1980s all the way to the key moves he made in the early 1990s that set the building-blocks for a dynasty. One key player Michael fought for multiple times was Bernie Williams.

No clear path

Williams was signed by the Yankees as an amateur free agent in 1985. Like most players he had his ups-and-downs in the minors but it was clear by the early ’90s that he was ready to be promoted to the big leagues. There was just one problem: the Yankees actually had a pretty good outfield and there was no clear path for Bernie.

Players like Roberto Kelly, Jesse Barfield, and Danny Tartabull prevented Bernie from being an everyday player in 1991 when he was called up at the age of 22. That season he played in 85 games and in 1992, despite producing a 114 OPS+, played in just 62 games. It wasn’t until August that he won the centerfield job over Kelly — a controversial move by Buck Showalter at the time because Kelly was thought to be the Yankees’ next superstar. Kelly would be sent to Cincinnati that offseason for Paul O’Neill in Stick Michael’s best trade ever, securing right field for the remainder of the decade.

Trade rumors

Because the Yankees outfield was crowded in 1991-92 and Bernie was developing slowly (too slowly for George Steinbrenner’s liking), trade rumors surrounded him. Even though Steinbrenner was “banned” from baseball operations, he still meddled, and by ’93 his ban was lifted. Steinbrenner constantly pestered Michael to explore trading Bernie. Stick’s standard response was that he called every GM in the league and nobody wanted Williams. While this was a lie to get Steinbrenner off his back, there were a few instances where Bernie could have been moved.

The first real rumored deal would have sent Bernie to the Angels for Jim Abbott during the ’92 season before Bernie won the starting CF job. That obviously never happened and the Yankees ended up acquiring Abbott in December of that year.

The second rumored deal came a year later, when Bernie to Montreal for Larry Walker was discussed.

This deal has me scratching my head. Walker was 26-years old at the time and Bernie was 24. Walker was primarily a right fielder and the Yankees just acquired O’Neill. Bernie was a more versatile defender despite his weak throwing arm. Walker already had a top-5 MVP finish under his belt and Bernie had yet to play a full season, so you can argue Michael should have made this deal, but I’m glad he didn’t.

Walker wound up in Colorado where he posted ridiculous offensive numbers en-route to the Hall fo Fame. For the next ten years starting in ’93, Bernie roamed centerfield in the Bronx and slashed .313/.397/.511 with a 136 OPS+. Not as gaudy as Walker’s 147 OPS+, but good enough to be cumulatively the best player on a team that won 4 championships in 5 years. I think Michael got this one right even though Walker had the better career.

Amazingly, there were more rumors. In ’95 Bernie to the Giants for Darren Lewis was talked about, and in ’97, because Bernie was going to be a free agent the following winter, Bob Watson almost traded him to Detroit for two pitching prospects that wound up busting.

A cliche that certainly applies to Bernie’s career is sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make.

Clubhouse issues

Not only was Bernie’s path on the field difficult, but Mel Hall and others in the Yankees clubhouse made life difficult for the youngster in what went way beyond harmless rookie hazing. Hall called Bernie “Zero” to his face because he thought that is what he would amount to, and other players nicknamed him “Bambi” because they mistook his reserved personality for weakness. Michael told Hall and others that the organization is behind Bernie and to cut the crap.

It’s obvious now that these players were jealous of Williams, a young player with great talent. But Michael realized the clubhouse needed an overhaul of personality in addition to talent, so he began rebuilding. Of the 39 players that Stick inherited when he took the job in 1990 only 3 — Don Mattingly, Jim Leyritz, and Randy Velarde — remained on the 40-man roster throughout his tenure.

A quote from Bernie after Michael’s passing in 2017 sums things up: “Gene Michael always supported me when I was a young up-and-coming player and, despite some struggles along the way, always believed that I would become a significant part of the Yankees organization. I never forgot that.”

A Brief History: How Gene ‘Stick’ Michael Built the Yankees ’90s Dynasty