Ex-Yank Bernie still setting example

Ex-Yank Bernie still setting example

NEW YORK -- For about two hours Sunday, the Theater at Madison Square Garden sounded a lot like Yankee Stadium.

That's because with Bernie Williams on hand to speak at Iona College's graduation commencement, hundreds of fans turned up the volume to show their love for the veteran outfielder.

When the moderator first introduced him, the serenity of the proceeding was broken with a "Let's go Bernie," from a male student sitting in the first few rows. Then, as Williams approached the lectern, he waited for 30 seconds as about half the graduating students and hundreds of family members and guests stood up in support.

They were cheering, whistling, clapping and chanting the ever familiar -- BER-NIE ... BER-NIE ... BER-NIE.

It was almost as if the Bleacher Creatures were there.

On their way to get their diplomas, several students stepped out of their way to go over to Williams' seat to shake his hand, showing appreciation for 16 exciting seasons in the Bronx.

There were at least two hugs and a peck on the cheek from female students, and one more seeking an autograph.

It was all in good fun, and Williams, as well as the esteemed Iona faculty sitting with him, seemed to appreciate the frivolity mixed in with the pomp and circumstance.

"Don't be afraid to take risks. Make the most of your journey. Make it fun and exciting," said Williams, who talked for almost 10 minutes about the start of his baseball career as a nervous 17-year-old in the Yankees organization as well as his endeavors as an accomplished musician.

"My experience over 17 years playing with the Yankees, these are a few of the things that I've learned. You've got to have a plan of action," said Williams, who received an honorary doctorate of humane letters. "You have to stay focused on the things you can control, and don't get discouraged or distracted by the things you cannot control."

One thing he couldn't control much was a return to the Yankees -- the only organization he has ever played for -- for a 17th season.

The 38-year-old Williams contemplated all winter whether to come back and play in 2007, with teammates hinting he would only do so for the Yankees. But New York offered Williams only a Minor League deal with the opportunity to earn a roster spot in Spring Training -- which he declined.

Brought back in 2006 as a reserve, Williams played much more than expected after long-term injuries to outfielders Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield, hitting .281 with 12 home runs and 61 RBIs in 131 games.

But Williams is currently out of baseball, and after 287 home runs, 1,257 RBIs, a .297 average, five All-Star Games, four Gold Gloves, four World Series championships, a batting title and a great deal of postseason acclaim, the cheers he heard Sunday may have been a fond farewell.

So he offered these final words to Iona's graduating class of 2007:

"I know there's certain things regarding your job or whatever you may end up doing [that you don't like], but I'm here to tell you, don't let your job define who you are. Your relationships will define who you are," Williams said. "No matter what you choose to do in life ... you are going to be in a position to make an impact on somebody's life."

Peter Zellen is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.