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Missing: centerfielder, last seen in pinstripes

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 2000


NEW YORK -- There are men, and there are moments. There are players, and there are performances.

There are athletes, and it doesn't matter what the sport is, who walk to the center of the big stage and speak loudly. Such athletes assume stardom, and they dictate plot lines, and they dare the audience to look at anyone else. They use the electricity to fuel their swagger, the attention to mold their legacy.

Then there are the others, players who fill the ordinary days looking like extraordinary players, and then the extraordinary days come, and amazingly, they manage to turn ordinary.

Which leads us to Bernie Williams, and this question.

Has anybody seen this guy?

The World Series is chugging fairly well along, and once again, Williams is invisible. Rumor is, he is somewhere in the middle of this Yankees lineup, but you watch the games, and darned if Williams is in the middle of anything. You look in the lost and found. You look on the back of milk cartons. You look under the team's bench in the dugout. He is the Nowhere Man.

The numbers -- those on his resume, those on his contract -- say Williams is a star. The adjectives -- those by his teammates, those by the scouts -- go as far as to compare him with the legendary players who have patrolled the Yankees outfield before him. But if you've only seen Williams in the World Series, his greatness remains a mystery.

Williams reaches the World Series, and you can hear the crickets chirp. Were scouts really comparing him with Joe DiMaggio? Or was it Ralph Macchio?

It is the darndest thing. Bernie Williams spends his summers hitting like Babe Ruth, his division playoffs like DiMaggio and his ALCS like Mickey Mantle. Then the World Series arrives and he hits like ... Whitey Ford. The pitcher. There is something about the Series that has turned Williams from a quiet man with a loud bat to a quiet man with one that matches. Three more soft flies, and Williams is going to be heckled by Dave Winfield.

Yankees manager Joe Torre said something interesting the other day about the way players respond to pressure. "Certain players are born with the desire and need to be in the middle of something important," he said. For the record, Torre was talking about Orlando Hernandez and the way he has risen to the occasion. But he could have been talking about Williams and the way he hasn't.

It has become enough of a concern that Torre took Williams aside Wednesday, before Game 4, to talk about his swing.

"When he struggles normally, he's feeling for the ball," Torre said. "I thought he was pumped up too high (in Game 3). We chatted about turning it down a notch or two. He wanted to hit it into the parking lot instead of over the fence. I just think he's pumped up because he hasn't gotten a hit."

For whatever reason, Williams never has had a good Series. He entered this year's with a .151 batting average, and the average has gone down. Against the Mets, he was 0-for-11 going into Wednesday's game. He keeps coming up with runners on base, and he keeps tapping out weakly. When a team strands 37 runners through three games, the cleanup hitter becomes the prime suspect to what is wrong.

Teammates say Williams is frustrated. He doesn't show it, the same as he doesn't show a lot of joy. You do not see his pain. You do not see anger. Also, you do not see hits.

This is not what a man with a seven-year, $87.5-million contract is expected to do. He is supposed to turn into something dynamic when the season turns into something important. He is supposed to be Michael Jordan or Joe Montana or Kirk Gibson or, in particular, Reggie Jackson. Consider this: Williams has played in 17 World Series games, and he still doesn't have as many home runs as Jackson did in one. Overall, he is 8-for-64, a .125 batting average, two homers. He has gone quietly into a lot of good nights.

Why is this? You wouldn't think it was the pressure. In the first two rounds of the post-season, Williams has earned every penny. He's hitting .326 with nine home runs and 30 RBI. You wouldn't think it was nerves; Williams is among the calmest of athletes.

But there are certain players who seem to act as if they operate in the calm in the middle of the storm. With Williams, you wonder if there is a storm in the middle of the calm. If Jackson was Mr. October, and Winfield was Mr. May, then Williams is somewhere around, say, June 17.

The shame of it, if you are a Yankees fan, is how badly the team seems to need him. Compare him, if you will, with the Mets' Mike Piazza, who seems to be in the middle of every inning his team enjoys.

The Yankees could use a dose of that, too. They entered Game 4 still looking for some sort of leadership from the middle of the order.

You get the idea they were looking at Williams and hoping, finally, he would be something to see.

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