Where Bad Sports Journalism Came To Die

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Saturday, February 10, 2007


Classy Toes

Buster Olney seems like a nice guy. He's got a very pleasant on-screen persona. I would like to have a beer with him. But my goodness, does he love them Yankees too much.

For now, it appears that Bernie Williams' time with the Yankees is over, with the center fielder leaning against taking a minor league invitation to spring training, and this morning I was trying to think of some defining moments from his career. He hit a big home run off the Orioles' Randy Myers in 1996, and Bernie caught the final out of the 2000 World Series, gloving Mike Piazza's long fly ball and then dropping down to a knee in prayer.

From a Red Sox fan's point of view, allow me to say that I am thrilled that the guy is retiring. He was never the guy you most feared in the Yankee line-up, and yet he did seem to have a knack for getting key hits in key situations. (I am not saying he was "clutch," so erase the e-mails you ahve already started writing. I am merely saying that he was a solid hitter who hit solidly all the time, and he walked a ton, and I hated it when he came up in big moments. That's all.)

Let's see what Buster thinks of him.

But what I'll always remember about Bernie, as a player, is his reaction to his failure in his at-bats. There would be runners on base and Bernie would sometimes pop up, or hit a lazy fly ball to left field, and for an instant, his chin would tilt downward in disappointment: Oh, damn.

Yes, the trademark Bernie Williams "disappointment in popping up." Unlike most other players, who celebrated making outs with runners on base, Bernie would always show: frustration. That is what separated him from the pack.

Then the base integrity to how he played would kick in. He would drop the bat and begin running to first base, moving with the grace of a sprinter, only his toes and the front part of his feet nicking the ground.

"Base" integrity is a very funny phrase, if you speak the English language correctly and know how to use adjectives. (I assume Buster means "fundamental" or "basic; innate" or something.) Beyond that, however, why does everyone insist on talking about how "graceful" and "elegant" Bernie Williams is/was? To me he looked really awkward when he ran -- his pants were too high and his hands were weirdly in that completely flat planar pose, and his arms pumped up and down like he was a robot.

Also, what is the difference between one's toes and the "front part of" one's feet?

Every time. Not just when the weather was nice, not just when the game was nationally televised, not only when he felt like it. Every time.

And he would take a wide turn at first base, doing it exactly the way Babe Ruth League coaches tell you to do it, and then hit the bag, conducting himself as if he had every expectation that the ball would drop and he would be in position to take second base.

So, you're saying...when he made contact, and hit the ball into fair territory, he...ran to first base. Like baseball players often do.

I covered the team for four years and never saw Bernie or Derek Jeter fail to run out a ground ball, each racing through the bag on easy groundouts, and I'll always believe that their consistent effort and respect for the game -- along with the effort of players like Joe Girardi -- was the backbone of the Yankees' dynasty of 1996-2001.

Really. Well. I didn't cover them for four years, but I did watch a lot of their games when I lived in New York, and contrary to this revisionist history, I saw Bernie jog to first on pop-ups, I'd say, exactly as many times as I saw other guys jog to first on pop-ups. I know this because around 1996 people started talking all the time about how Bernie Williams never jogged to first on pop-ups, and I would always note when he did, just for my own satisfaction.

Also, I specifically remember one game where he hit a little nubber down the first base line that was spinning like crazy just over the line in foul territory, and he didn't run at all, and it spun back fair and the first baseman picked it up and tagged him out about four feet in front of the on-deck circle. The reaction shot of Joe Torre was fantastic.

I am not saying Bernie was lazy. He did play the game "the right way," I think, in that he put together great at-bats, and he compensated for below-average skills in some facets of the game by playing smart, heads-up, alert baseball. Admirable. But please spare me the "He never ever ever ever never once ever for one second jogged to first base" crap. It's simply not true.

A talented team with hot pitchers can win one World Series, but for a team to win four championships in five years, it must be comprised of players who compete relentlessly. A dynasty must be built around players who understand that no matter how many Gold Gloves or batting titles or championship rings they have won, they still have the responsibility to run out an easy fly ball, even when they're frustrated and having a bad day and they've stranded runners.

I guess you're not going to spare me that crap about never jogging to first base.

Also, for the record: Bernie won a batting title. He was a very good hitter. Lots of years of OBP above .400. Lots of long at-bats. But his fielding was always overrated. In the four years he was awarded the Most Meaningless Award Anyone Cares About, the Gold Glove, he was a combined -11 FRAA. For his career he's -50.

Because Bernie and Jeter run hard every time, everybody else on the team wouldn't think of doing anything other than running hard every time. That basic integrity with which Bernie played was reflected, mostly, in the way the Yankees have played during his tenure.

Let the hagiography begin. My word.

Bernie Williams lasted 16 seasons with the Yankees, slugged 287 homers, collected 2,336 hits, 1,366 runs and 1,257 RBIs. In short, he doesn't have the kind of credentials you need for induction into Baseball's Hall of Fame.


But the man has played hard every single game, has never taken the game for granted, for those 16 seasons. The group of players who can say that is as elite and as distinguished, in its own way, as the greats who are enshrined in Cooperstown.

You realize, don't you all, that this is the same argument that will be used, five years after David Eckstein retires, to support his candidacy. Prepare yourselves.

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posted by Unknown  # 6:41 PM
Hat tip to reader Jonathan for the Olney ref.
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