Amid Aaron Judge’s legendary season and murky future in New York, a Yankees legend who once stood in similar shoes offered his two cents.
Moments before the 74th Yankees Old-Timers’ Day ceremony Saturday afternoon — the Old-Timers’ Game was canceled due to injuries and vaccination statuses, the Yankees said — Bernie Williams conversed with fellow honorees in Monument Park, where his retired No. 51 and placard are proudly displayed. Though the star center fielder spent his entire 16-year MLB career with the Yankees, his divorce from the team seemed all but inevitable following the 1998 season.
On the heels of winning the American League batting title and a World Series championship — the second of his young four-year career — Williams entered that offseason expecting to be paid with the best of them. Just several months earlier, he had turned down a five-year extension worth $37.5 million. His general manager at the time, Bob Watson, did not take kindly to the rejection, asserting, “This is star money for a non-star player.”
When the rival Red Sox offered Williams a seven-year contract worth $91.5 million — more than $30 million above and two years longer than the Yankees’ best offer — it looked as though Williams’ days in New York were over. In one last move of desperation, however, the Gold Glove outfielder requested a meeting with owner George Steinbrenner on Thanksgiving eve to express his desire to remain a Yankee. Shortly after that, the club announced Williams’ seven-year, $87.5 million deal.
Much like Williams, Judge wants the respect of his team, and would like it to be reflected in the form of a monster payday. After rejecting the Yankees’ seven-year, $213.5 million extension offer in April, the 30-year-old Judge blasted 41 home runs in the first 101 games of the season, putting him on pace for 66 homers. He has shown no signs of slowing down since the All-Star break, either, with a .417/.500/.1139 slash line over nine games entering Saturday.
As Judge continues to dominate and offseason contract talks loom, Williams said he believes the slugging outfielder should enjoy the game he loves and let his bat do the talking.
“The moments that he has now to play the game … are his distraction from this whole scenario that is happening,” Williams said before the Yankees’ 8-2 win over the Royals. “I know that he, like myself, bet on himself to have a great year, to put himself in a good position to have leverage to negotiate a good deal. But that should never and will ever take precedent over actually playing the game.
“You know, playing the game is what everybody is here for. If you play well, and you take care of yourself, you’ll be here long enough, you’re gonna get paid, because the talent is there. But I don’t think that should be a priority for him, because his moments that he has now playing the game are moments that are going to come and go, and he will never have an opportunity to relive those things again, so he should have as much fun as he can playing the game right now. Let the business of the game take care of itself by what he does on the field.”
Tino Martinez, another Old-Timer’s Day honoree, thinks Judge’s reign with the team is far from over.
“Everybody knows his heart is in New York,” Martinez said. “He loves the New York Yankees. So we’ll go from there.”