The text simply asked: “Did you see about Gerald Williams?”
And less than 30 seconds later, Buck Showalter called and asked, ‘“What?” The Mets manager was then informed that it was just revealed on social media that Williams had died after a battle with cancer.
Showalter repeated, “Come on, man” four times. Then added, “That is just so sad, so sad. … I really liked him. My wife loved him.”
Williams was 55. He was, among other things, one of Derek Jeter’s best friends. And Jeter on the Players Tribune revealed publicly that Williams had passed away.
As for Showalter, he was Williams’ first pro manager at Rookie League Oneonta in 1987, then Single-A Fort Lauderdale in 1988, plus was Williams’ first major league manager with the Yankees from 1992-95.
Showalter still recalls how influential Williams was in learning how to be a manager in the minors. Williams was raw coming out of Grambling State, but had elite speed and arm strength and overall brilliant athleticism that helped him to be strong on defense. But Showalter was putting in reports that Williams had a split-grip, unsophisticated hold of the bat and inability to hit a breaking ball.
After one of the initial reports, the then Yankees head of minor league operations, Bill Livesey, called the direct line to the manager’s office. He asked Showalter, “Can Gerald run?” Showalter said like the wind. “Can he throw?” Yeah, he’s an 8 (tops on the 2-to-8 scouting scale). “Is he a great athlete?” Yep, best on the team by far.
At that point. Livesey laid into Showalter, “Sounds like we have the right prospect and the wrong manager.” Message received. Showalter immediately went on the field with Williams and began to teach him to take better leads and bunt and the other nuances of the game. Showalter learned it was his job to turn the raw clay into a better player — a lesson he has said he not only thinks about all the time, but has counseled other young managers to remember.
And Williams, nicknamed “Ice,” did become a better player, playing parts of 14 seasons for the Yankees, Mets, Rays, Braves, Brewers and Marlins. As Showalter said, “Gerald willed himself to become a good player. He could really do some things. He was the perfect fourth outfielder. He could run, throw, defend, really hit lefty pitching and if you needed him to start for a while he could do that. He was a key guy for us as we got better there in the ‘90s.”
Then Showalter added, “Oh, and a great teammate. If Gerald liked you, he was all-in.”
That is what Jeter felt — not just Williams’ friendship, but loyalty and a sense of having a protector when Jeter came up in 1995 and stayed up in 1996. Williams actually made one of the key plays in the 1996 Yankees championship season.
He started in center field on May 14 that season because Bernie Williams had an injured calf. Bernie won Gold Gloves, but it was understood within that team that Gerald was the superior defender. Darren Bragg led off for Seattle with a walk and Alex Rodriguez lined a ball toward the wall in straight-away center. Bernie had a particular issue reading liners over his head. But not Gerald. He retreated off the crack of the bat, turned one way, then the other, leaped at the warning track and threw up his glove to catch the ball. He then whirled and fired to first to double-up Bragg.
And that is how Dwight Gooden recorded the first two outs of his no-hitter.