NEW YORK -- There was no shortage of dynamic stars when the American League playoffs opened last week. Albert Belle is always an awesome presence. Roberto Alomar was in the headlines daily. And Juan Gonzalez quickly showed why Texas is called The Lone Star State.
In such company, New York Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams figured to blend into the woodwork as he has all year, quietly going about the business of being one of the best -- and most underrated -- players in the game. If he had, the American League Championship Series might be opening at The Ballpark in Arlington tonight instead of Yankee Stadium.
Williams didn't have the most home runs or RBIs in the Division Series, but he dominated the final two games and propelled the Yankees into tonight's ALCS opener against the Orioles. If they gave a Most Valuable Player award for the first round of the playoffs (they don't), he would have won it, even in the wake of the amazing five-homer show put on by Gonzalez.
It's not the first time. Williams also was the most dominant offensive performer in the Division Series against the Seattle Mariners last year. If he weren't so reserved, the New York tabloids might be comparing the switch-hitter to Reggie Jackson by now, but he carries himself with such a quiet confidence that manager Joe Torre had to go outside the sport to find a suitable comparison.
"I never met Arthur Ashe, but from everything I've read and heard about Arthur Ashe, I'm reminded of Bernie Williams with that quiet dignity," Torre said.
Chances are, there were a few thousand people in the stands for Game 3 who were muttering "Bernie who?" one inning into the first postseason major-league game ever played in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, but they would figure it out soon enough. Williams quieted the crowd with a home run in the top of the first, then reached over the center-field fence to steal a homer from Rusty Greer in the bottom half.
The fourth and final game of the series turned out to be another personal showcase. Williams singled and stole second base to start the rally that narrowed the Texas Rangers' early four-run lead. He homered to tie the game and homered again to provide an important insurance run in the ninth inning. He would finish the series with a .467 batting average, reaching base nine times (including two walks) in 17 plate appearances.
Who was that masked man?
The same guy who quietly held the Yankees' offense together all year. Williams, 28, batted .305, scored 108 runs, hit 29 homers and had 102 RBIs. Those numbers didn't stand out in an American League season of unprecedented offensive production, but his performance both in the field and at the plate established him as one of the league's best all-around players.
"Bernie is becoming a big-play guy," Torre said. "I don't think he knows what he's capable of."
Rangers manager Johnny Oates called him the most improved player in baseball the past three years, and that was before Williams took over the Division Series in Arlington.
"I certainly feel that I have improved a lot," Williams said, "but mainly it is my mental approach to the game that has improved over the past three years. I'm still learning the game. I would like to improve a lot more.
"I definitely feel the best years of my career are ahead of me. That's what's going to push me to get better and better."
The physical tools already were there, but according to Torre, his sixth-year center fielder was more prone to take a bad at-bat to the outfield with him or a bad defensive play to the plate in previous years. If he truly has conquered the mental game, he just might be the sport's next major star.
"He has made a lot of strides in that area," Torre said. "There is a lot of fire there. He gets pretty angry inside if he makes a bad play and has a bad at-bat. But there's a lot that doesn't show up when he walks by and says hello."
There may not be a lot of AL MVP votes cast his way -- because the Yankees won the East more on the strength of their pitching -- but he will be a strong candidate for the postseason version of that award if he stays hot in the ALCS.
It doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to visualize that. Williams batted .367 with four home runs against the Orioles during the regular season, reaching base 31 times in 62 plate appearances (.500 on-base average).
"Bernie Williams is one of the best players in the league, as far as I'm concerned," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson. "He's been outstanding both offensively and defensively. He's one of the great young players in the game. When you try to figure out how to beat the Yankees, you have to figure out how to stop him."
The Yankees will need more than one big bat to get through a best-of-seven series. The Rangers other than Gonzalez were polite enough to keep quiet offensively, but the Orioles have power in every slot in the lineup.
If the Yankees can get representative performances from Cecil Fielder, Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill, it would magnify the clear pitching advantage they carry into the late innings.
Pub Date: 10/08/96