Clock ticking on Bernie's future

Clock ticking on Bernie's future

TAMPA, Fla. -- The clock continues to tick nearer to midnight for Bernie Williams. The exact point of no return is not yet known, but it's approaching.

With no word from the 38-year-old outfielder and position players already filtering into Tampa on Sunday, the Yankees inch toward a future without Williams.

The longtime fan favorite has been sitting on a non-roster invitation to camp, but players polled this week were doubtful that Williams intended to accept.

While uniform No. 51 lies in waiting, Williams' corner locker has already been reassigned to reliever Jose Veras, and all indications were that the Yankees' 2007 Spring Training was set to carry on sans Williams.

Manager Joe Torre was pleased to hear from Williams when his cell phone buzzed after leaving the Yankees' complex last week, and the veteran skipper strongly urged the outfielder to consider reporting to Tampa.

Williams said he would, but since then, there has been no word.

Torre acknowledged that he probably owed Williams another call to check on his state of mind, but said he couldn't promise Williams much further without running the risk of out-and-out lying.

"I don't know what else I could do," Torre said.

Returning messages hasn't been among Williams' priorities lately. Attempts to reach Williams by several teammates have proved unsuccessful, and general manager Brian Cashman sent word Sunday that he has not spoken with either Williams or agent Scott Boras recently.

By all accounts, Williams continues to work out in Westchester County, mulling his choice of a potentially awkward month with the Yankees or the more daunting uncertainty of life without baseball.

"One thing about Bernie -- he's very honest," Torre said. "He's not going to pretend he understands something or buys into something unless he does. He's just very open.

"I sensed that on the phone Wednesday. The fact that he's been with the Yankees for all these years and now all of a sudden he's not on the 40-man roster, he's a little uncomfortable with it."

The Yankees refuse to put a deadline on Williams, and Cashman has said he has no intention of pulling the invitation off the table.

On Monday, though, Yankees players will unload their equipment in the clubhouse at Legends Field. They will renew acquaintances on Tuesday, the day they begin working out as a full unit. If Williams is not part of it, he and his chances may be left behind.

"He obviously has to be available to you," Torre said. "The more opportunity he gets to show what he can contribute in our situation, the better chance he has."

Williams' main issue seems to be with the unstable nature of the Yankees' invitation.

Cashman has acknowledged that Williams no longer fits into the current roster configuration, noting that the invitation was a courtesy and an acknowledgment of all that Williams has meant to the organization over the last 16 Major League seasons.

The other side of the scenario is that, after four World Series rings and countless great moments in pinstripes, Williams now wakes up each morning with the knowledge that he is no longer a member of the Yankees' 40-man roster.

"I think he's hurt, I don't think there's any question," Torre said. "He's a very proud individual. I think there's a number of players in this clubhouse who certainly feel for Bernie. But that's the nature of the game a lot of times -- there's still business to take care of."

As Torre said he stressed to Williams, anything can happen in Spring Training. Williams is on the outside looking in because the Yankees intend to carry 12 pitchers and also three first basemen, accommodating Jason Giambi's explosive bat but deteriorating defense.

"Giambi can't play first base anymore," catcher Jorge Posada said. "That's the thing. We really need a first baseman. That kills Bernie."

Perhaps Williams' only shot at carving out a role with the Yankees would be as the 25th man: pinch-hitting late in games, accepting an occasional start in the outfield, maybe a few more opportunities to pop out of the dugout and doff his cap.

It's a nice fantasy, but it's not reality.

"That's not the case right now," Posada said. "They're not telling him he'll be the 25th guy. To be here and fight for a job, that's tough when you're Bernie Williams."

The Yankees have other needs to attend to, and as Mariano Rivera noted, "All the room is basically filled up." Rivera raised the possibility that the Yankees may have already moved forward from the Bernie era.

"As a player, I want him here," Rivera said, "but I don't know if that's in the best interests of the team."

Still, no one can say with certainty that Williams wouldn't win a job by the time the Yankees zip up their bags and head to New York.

One thing appears clear. Unless Williams loads up his equipment and books a flight, there is little chance of him being a Yankee in April.

"The thing is getting here," Rivera said. "I hope he shows up. It's definitely a tough situation being in his shoes. It's a decision he has to make. Everyone will respect whatever he does."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.