By Paul Post
Nick Rychcik couldn’t have picked a nicer guy to get his first big league autograph from.
The 9-year-old, from Ballston Spa, N.Y., recently spent several hours with former N.Y. Yankees great Bernie Williams, including a fun bicycle ride through the aisles of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, part of a “Shop with an MLB Player” program sponsored by PepsiCo in Glenmont, N.Y.
During the event, Pepsi donated $10,000 to Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, which includes Albany Medical Center Hospital’s Melodies Center, where Rychcik is a patient undergoing treatment for a form of childhood cancer.
Williams, 45, always obliged fans with autographs during his All-Star career and has kept up the practice in retirement. However, events such as this hold a special meaning for him, especially considering its location just a few miles from former Heritage Park, where his career in pinstripes started out with the Eastern League’s Albany-Colonie Yankees, in 1989.
“I do remember a lot of fun times, a lot of frustrating times, (too), because one year I got sent down from Triple-A thinking I was going to make the team in Triple-A,” Williams said. “My time in Albany was a pivotal time in my progress as a baseball player, and eventually, I became a big leaguer. I attribute (it) to … a lot of growth in that time for me as a player and as a person.”
The entire Rychcik family turned out for his Wal-Mart appearance, including Nick’s father, Dave, who wore a Yankee jersey with Williams’ No. 51 on the back.
“We’re big baseball fans to begin with; huge Yankee fans,” he said. “Bernie was the man back in the ’90s.”
Hundreds of other fans obviously agreed, as they stood in line for a chance to get the former Bronx Bomber’s autograph, with Nick Rychcik at his side wearing a Yankee cap and a huge grin throughout the proceedings. Williams signed a large stack of colored 8-by-10 photos showing him at the plate.
John Brooks, of nearby Schenectady, N.Y., was first in line, carrying a jersey signed by many current Yankees that he purchased at auction.
“This would be the ultimate to have Bernie sign it in person,” he said. “I’ve been a Yankee fan for as long as I can remember. I used to watch Mickey Mantle play. I’m from New Jersey originally. We used to take the train over to Yankee Stadium.”
Nick Rychcik, of course, isn’t old enough to remember Williams, who retired in 2006 following a 16-year career filled with stellar accomplishments. He helped lead the Yankees to four World Championships, was a five-time All-Star, won the 1998 American League batting title (.339), earned five Gold Gloves and was named Most Valuable Player of the 1996 American League Championship Series.
In 1998, he was the first player ever to win a batting championship, Gold Glove and World Series ring in the same year.
These articles, along with his 2002 Silver Slugger Award, are among the most prized possessions in Williams’ memorabilia collection.
Next summer, another prestigious honor will be coming his way as the Yankees plan to honor Williams with a plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, where he’ll join teammates Tino Martinez and Paul O’Neill, who were enshrined there this year.
“It feels great; that’s an understatement,” Williams said. “It’s a testament to what we accomplished during that era from the mid-’90s to the early 2000s. We really made our mark as a team. To have your name mentioned with these other Yankee greats tells about the contribution you made not only to the team, but to baseball in general. For that I’m very proud.”
During his meeting with Nick Rychcik, Williams proved himself to be a champion of a different sort. Nick was given $200 to purchase whatever he wanted.
After getting introduced, the pair headed straight to Wal-Mart’s bicycle display where they picked out bikes for a test ride. Together, they started out in the sporting goods department, pedaled their way through produce and turned the corner into housewares before finishing their “Tour de Wal-Mart” in the electronics section where cheering fans chanted “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!”
It was a rare sight, watching the former Yankee turn corners and ride up and down aisles throughout the 200,000-foot building.
“That was very cool,” Williams said afterward, giving Rychcik a “high five.”
With money still left over, they went back to electronics, where Rychcik picked out his favorite Wii video game.
Williams is well-known for his charitable work. His other great love, besides baseball, is music. The former center fielder plays classical guitar and has recorded several albums.
He also supports a program called Little Kids Rock, a national nonprofit organization that works to restore and revitalize music education in disadvantaged U.S. public schools. In 2010, Little Kids Rock honored Williams with its “Big Man of the Year.”
Williams performed onstage with students during a Right to Rock event and signed guitars to be auctioned. With money that was raised, he donated instruments to a school in The Bronx and gave students music lessons.
“It’s very important to me as a former baseball player to still have an opportunity to give back to the community,” Williams said. “I’m very proud to be a part of this whole thing.”
Currently living in Westchester County, just north of New York City, Williams is originally from Puerto Rico. The Yankees began scouting him when he was just 16 years old and signed him to his first contract on his 17th birthday – Sept. 13, 1985.
Foregoing a possible medical career for baseball, Williams spent several years in the minors before making his big league debut on July 7, 1991. The next few years were somewhat bumpy as he tried to find his place in an outfield already filled with bona fide stars.
Williams was the subject of numerous trade rumors but remained in pinstripes. However, he had a breakout campaign in 1995, with a .307 average, 18 homers and 82 RBI. It was the first of eight straight seasons in which he topped the .300 plateau.
The following year, the Yankees won the first of four World Championships in a five-year span from 1996-2000. Williams won the 1996 American League Championship Series MVP Award by hitting .474 with two round-trippers.
Still, it took two more years before the Yankees rewarded him with a long-term contract, a seven-year $87.5 million deal. Williams proved his worth by helping the team reach the postseason each of those years.
Always a good hitter for average, as he matured Williams added power to his repertoire, too, by belting 21 or more homers for six straight seasons from 1996-2001, including a career-high 30 in 2000 when he also had a career-high 121 RBI.
Williams earned a Silver Slugger Award in 2002 by hitting .333 with 19 homers and 102 RBI. He reached the 100-RBI plateau six times and retired with a career .297 batting average, 287 home runs, 1,257 RBI, 1,366 runs and 449 doubles.
He’s one of the few players in the modern free-agent era to spend his entire career with one team.
It’s obvious, however, that some things are just as important to Williams as baseball, perhaps even more. That’s what he proved by taking time out for young Nick Rychcik, who is now one of his biggest admirers.
“This is a day he’ll (Nick) never forget,” Dave Rychcik told fans. “My son is my hero just like Bernie is a hero to you all. He inspires me to fight and stay strong.”
Paul Post is a regular contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.