Obituary: Gerald Williams (1966-2022)

RIP to Gerald Williams, who had a 14-year career as an outfielder in the major leagues. He died on February 8 at the age of 55. His death was announced by Derek Jeter via his Player’s Tribune Twitter account. He posted the following message: “Gerald Williams passed away this morning after a battle with cancer. To my teammate and one of my best friends in the world, rest in peace, my brother. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Liliana, and their whole family.”

Williams played for the New York Yankees (1992-96, 2001-02), Milwaukee Brewers (1996-97), Atlanta Braves (1998-99), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (2000-01), Florida Marlins (2003) and New York Mets (2004-05).

Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel, May 20, 1990.

Gerald Floyd Williams was born in New Orleans on August 10, 1966, one of 14 children in his family. He grew up in LaPlace, just outside of New Orleans, and he was raised by his mother. Years later, when he was in the majors, he would return home and make it a point to talk to kids in his neighborhood who didn’t see a future and were turning to crime and drugs. He knew what they were going through, because he’d grown up in the same circumstances. “You try to teach kids to be above the circumstances. But they’ve heard a lot of different speeches,” he said in a 1995 interview. “I mean, sometimes our ideas as adults are honorable, but we don’t listen. A lot of kids just want somebody to listen. Just somebody to be a friend.” So Williams would go to their high school games, or he would talk to them or their parents on the phone when needed.

Williams went to East St. John High School in New Orleans before attending Grambling State University. There, Williams was a two-way threat on the baseball team. He was an Honorable Mention member of the 1987 All-Louisiana Collegiate Baseball Team, sharing the outfield honors with Joey Belle — better known as Albert — from Louisiana State University. That March, he led Grambling to a doubleheader win over Southern University with a triple in each game as well as a home run in the second game. He also threw 4-2/3 innings to pick up a win in the nightcap.

Williams was drafted by the New York Yankees in the Sixth Round of the 1987 June Amateur Draft and reported to Oneonta of the New York-Pennsylvania League. In 29 games be hit .365 with a pair of home runs and 6 stolen bases. His ascent through the Yankees’ organization was a slow one, as it took a few years for his bat to adjust to professional baseball. He hit under .200 in 1988 while playing for a couple of Class-A teams and batted .229 for Class-A Prince William in 1989, albeit with 13 home runs. Buck Showalter, one of his minor-league managers, said he was very raw, from a baseball standpoint, even with his college experience. “He only knew what we told him, so when we told him that you had to back up a base or run out a ground ball, he’d do it without question, thinking it was the only way.” The learning experience in the low minors could account for his early struggles, but the bright side was that it turned him into a tireless worker who hustled and practiced as hard any anyone in the game.

Williams finally put everything together — the power, speed, defense, and hitting ability — in 1990. He wowed the Yankees with 7 home runs and 19 stolen bases for High-A Fort Lauderdale. He then moved up to Double-A Albany-Colonie, and while his batting average dipped to .250, he hit 13 homers. He ended the year with a combined .265 batting average, 20 homers, 101 RBIs and 37 stolen bases. The Gerald Williams that the Yankees were hoping for finally arrived.

“When you have an all-tool player like him, you stick with him a long time,” said George Bradley, Yankees vice president, player personnel, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “He has range, an excellent arm. All Gerald had to do was put it together at bat. You wait a long time for people like that. All of a sudden, they get it together. The light bulb comes on.”

Gerald Williams at Baseball Almanac

The Yankees had another highly touted prospect named Williams — Bernie — coming up at the same time. Bernie was the one who drew the most attention, but the Yankees felt that Gerald had more tools, though he was two years older. Bernie reached the majors in 1991, because Gerald needed a little more time in the minors to cut down on his strikeout rate. He got his first taste of the major leagues in 1992, when New York called him up in September. Williams, whose cool demeanor earned him the nickname of “Ice,” made his first major-league start on September 16 against the Chicago White Sox. He singled on the first pitch he saw from Greg Hibbard, and he later added a double to finish 2-for-3 on the night.

Showalter, now managing the Yankees, wanted to give Williams more playing time, but the Yankees had a surplus of outfielders. He ended playing in 15 games, primarily because right fielder Danny Tartabull had a bad back and needed days off. Williams hit .296 and smacked 3 home runs in his short audition, but there were too many players and not enough spots in the lineup. Gerald Williams was considered the best center fielder on the roster, but the team had decided that Bernie Williams would get that job in 1993. Roberto Kelly was traded and Mel Hall was allowed to leave as a free agent to free up some room in the outfield, but Williams didn’t get much playing time in 1993 and struggled when he did. He rode the shuttle between the majors and Triple-A Columbus frequently, hitting just .149 with New York.

Williams stayed in the majors for several seasons, but he didn’t always get playing time. The 1994 Yankees had Bernie Williams in center field and Paul O’Neill in right, so Gerald Williams, Luis Polonia and others shared time in left field. Polonia hit .311 and led the team with 20 stolen bases, so he played the most. Gerald Williams had a great spring training and was out of options, but the starts just didn’t come.

“I can’t control what’s going to happen,” Williams said in the spring. “If they call on me, I’ll be ready. But then again, I’ve felt that way for several years.”

Williams hit .291 in 57 games, playing mostly as a left fielder but logging time at every outfield position. He had 2 of his 4 home runs on July 18, when he took Randy Johnson deep twice as part of a 9-3 win over the Seattle Mariners. “For me, two things are going to happen,” he said about facing the intimidating Johnson. “You’re either going to get hit or you’re going to get a swing. You try not to think too much.”

Source: Daily News, April 10, 1995.

Williams’ value went beyond his on-field abilities. He was a good personality in the clubhouse, and he began a lifelong friendship with Jeter when he helped the 18-year-old rookie adjust to the big leagues. Jeter was being bullied by an older infielder in danger of losing his job to the hotshot prospect, but Williams stepped in and put an end to it. Jeter, in a 1999 interview, called him a big brother. “He really took care of me from the time I was 18, my first spring training. He went out of his way to look after me and give me advice. He took me out to eat. First spring training, you’re sort of wide-eyed, looking at all the players. Gerald is the one guy who went out of his way to make me feel comfortable.”

Williams saw regular action with the Yankees for the next year and a half. He appeared in 100 games in 1995 and 99 games in 1996 through August 23. About half of those games were starts, primarily in left field. He hit .247 with 6 homers in 1995 and .270 with 5 long balls in 1996. The Yankees reached the postseason in ’95, losing to the Seattle Mariners in the AL Division Series. Williams appeared in all 5 games, drawing a couple of walks in 7 plate appearances and scoring a run. The Yankees finished in first place in 1996 and won the World Series, but Williams missed that part. He was part of a big trade on August 23 with Milwaukee that sent Graeme Lloyd and Ricky Bones to the Yankees (along with Pat Listach, who never played for the Yankees). Bob Wickman and Williams went to the Brewers in return.

The Yankees had held off trading Williams for the longest time because of his skills, but the team just had too many outfielders. Williams had gotten off to the best start of his career in 1996 and was batting over .300 into late July. However, all of his playing appearances took away from veteran Ruben Sierra or rookie Ruben Rivera. Williams was the least likely Yankee to complain to Joe Torre about a lack of playing time, so that left him on the bench until he was traded. He barely hit over .200 for the Brewers through the end of the season, but his playing time dramatically improved in 1997.

Williams was in his age 30 season that year and had yet to be a full-time starter. He competed with Chuckie Carr for the center fielder job in spring training and ultimately lost it, despite having a better spring than Carr. “You could see the disappointment on Gerald’s face when I told him,” said manager Phil Garner. “But the thing that stayed with me is that he didn’t change his work habits one bit. He didn’t take even one day to slack off a bit and vent his frustration out on the field.”

Williams would take over the starting center field job after about a week into the season, and he didn’t lose it. He played in 155 games and had 566 at-bats, and he turned in a .253/.282/.369 slash line. He hit 32 doubles and 10 home runs while stealing 23 bases in 32 attempts. He also had a .990 fielding percentage in center field, and he was 5th in the AL in both putouts as an outfielder (357) and assists as a center fielder (8).

Williams adopted to his new role as a starter with characteristic professionalism. “The important thing for me is to stay relaxed and not to put too much pressure on myself,” he said. “There is a lot of pressure at this level, but I don’t help my performance getting too wrapped up in statistics or looking over my shoulder.”

The Brewers traded Williams to the Atlanta Braves in December of 1997 for reliever Chad Fox. The outfielder didn’t see quite as much playing time in 1998 as he had with the Brewers, as Andruw Jones played almost every game in center field. However, Williams was a valuable bat for the Braves. He hit a career-best .305 in 129 games, with 19 doubles and 10 home runs. He hit a first-inning 2-run homer on September 19 against the Diamondbacks to give Tom Glavine all the runs he needed to pick up his 20th win of the season. The Braves were still in their long postseason appearance streak and swept the Cubs in the NLDS — Williams had a hit in 2 at-bats. They lost to the Padres in 5 games in the NL Championship Series. Their bats largely fell silent — Williams had 2 hits in 13 at-bats and struck out 6 times, including 4 strikeouts in Game Three.

Williams saw considerably more action in 1999 and hit .275 with a .457 slugging percentage, thanks to 24 doubles and 17 home runs. He returned to Yankee Stadium for an interleague series in July and cracked a 3-run homer off Andy Pettitte in an 11-4 loss to the Yankees. Though Williams never took many walks or had an extraordinary on-base percentage in his career, he was pressed into service as the Braves’ leadoff hitter from August through the end of the season. He batted .280 in the role with a .339 on-base percentage. “You can’t imagine what it does for your ballclub to have Gerald leading off,” marveled Braves manager Bobby Cox. “We talk about Chipper [Jones] and [Brian] Jordan a lot, and some of the other guys, but Gerald Williams is the guy that really got the club moving.”

Source: Honolulu Star-Bulletin, October 26, 1999.

The Braves reached the World Series in 1999, dispatching the Astros in the NLDS and the Mets in the NLCS. Williams was one of the hitting stars of the Astros Series, with a .389 batting average in 4 games, with 3 RBIs, 2 runs scored, a stolen base and a double. His production tailed off in the rest of the postseason, and the Braves fell to the Yankees in the World Series. Williams hit .176 with a triple and 2 runs scored against his former team.

Williams left Atlanta as a free agent and signed with Tampa Bay. He was part of a host of power hitters the Devil Rays traded for or signed, including Vinny Castilla, Jose Canseco and Greg Vaughn. Williams ended up having the best year out of all of them in 2000, as he slashed .274/.312/.427. He reached career highs with 21 homers, 89 RBIs, 173 hits, 87 runs scored and 34 walks. He went hitless in back-to-back games just twice all season long. Unfortunately, he and first baseman Fred McGriff were the only two regulars who put up consistent numbers, and the pitching staff wasn’t much good either, so the Rays lost 92 games.

Williams, entering his age 35 season, struggled to hit in 2001 and was released in June with a .207 batting average. Days later, he was signed by the New York Yankees, but once again, there was no room for him in the starting lineup. He spent the rest of the season as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement, batting .170 in 38 games. He did not appear in the postseason, as the Yankees lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the World Series.

Williams started the 2003 season with the Yankees but was infrequently used. He appeared in 33 games and was hitless in 17 at-bats, though he did score 6 runs, mostly as a pinch runner. He was released in June and spent the rest of the year playing in Triple-A for the Reds and Cardinals. Williams continued to make brief appearances in the majors through 2005, appearing in 27 games with the Marlins in 2003 and hitting .129 and the Mets in 2004 and ’05. He hit .233 in each season with the Mets and retired at the end of the 2005 season.

In 14 seasons, Williams had a .255/.301/.410 slash line, with 780 hits that included 183 doubles, 18 triples and 85 home runs. He drove in 365 runs and scored 474 times. He stole 106 bases as well. He was an above-average center fielder and played 453 games there, with a .987 fielding percentage. He had a total of 53 outfield assists at all three positions combined and was a part of 13 double plays.

One thing of note when looking over Gerald Williams’ career. He was widely admired by pretty much everyone — Pedro Martinez might see things differently, as he was decked by Williams in a wild brawl in 2000 between the Devil Rays and Red Sox. But aside from that, everyone who spoke about Williams loved him — managers particularly. And none of it seemed like the kind of generic boilerplate quotes that managers throw out when describing their players. It seemed like there was a genuine affection there.

Phil Garner, back when he managed Williams in 1997, said the following about Williams, and it sounds like his other managers and teammates would be quick to agree: “Some guys are quiet and they’re {jerks). Not so with Gerald. Nobody practices harder than he does, and I’m never concerned about him getting a jump on the ball or breaking the wrong way. He’s a pleasure to manage, that’s for sure.”

To give Williams the last word, this is how he described his attitude in 1999: “I have no disappointments in my life, everything is an experience. I have an appreciation for life always. I have to approach things in a positive fashion. I’m happy to have myself in a situation to have success. I play with the willingness and zest for the game. At least I hope I do.”

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