CLEVELAND (AP) – The New York Yankees have decided not to pick up the $15 million club option for next season on Bernie Williams, their steady center fielder on four World Series title teams.

The club had until Aug. 1 to exercise their option on the 36-year-old, who signed with the Yankees in 1985.

“I’ve talked to Bernie and I think he’s comfortable with it,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said. “Emotionally, he is fine with it. It is just that the last day of July was the day it had to be done. It was in his contract.”

Williams wasn’t surprised by the move, and he didn’t rule out the possibility of returning to the only club he has ever played for.

“It’s something they felt they had to do,” Williams said during batting practice for Tuesday night’s game with the Cleveland Indians. “I’m still playing for this team and I’m going to do all I can to help this team win.”

Williams didn’t want to speculate about his future. The Yankees entered the series with Cleveland 21/2 games behind first-place Boston in the AL East and two games behind wild-card leading Oakland.

“It wouldn’t be fair to talk about it at this point in the season,” Williams said.

Torre said the club’s decision came at an awkward point in the season, and he would like to keep Williams around.

“He still has plenty to give, other than being a day-in, day-out player,” Torre said. “It would be unusual to face him in another uniform, but it is unusual for him not to be in the lineup everyday, hitting second or third, too. Things change.”

A five-time All-Star, Williams holds the career postseason records for homers (22) and RBIs (79) and games (115). He entered the season with a .301 career average, but he’s struggled in 2005.

Entering Tuesday’s game, Williams was batting just .245 with seven homers and 39 RBIs in 88 games.

The Yankees have been searching for a long-term replacement for Williams for most of the season, and started infielder Tony Womack in center field for their opener against the Indians.

“Bernie will probably be in there the next two days,” Torre said. “We’re going to use a lot of combinations in center field. We look at numbers and try to put players in the situation that gives them the best chance to succeed.”

Williams signed a seven-year, $89.5 million contract after the 1998 season. That year, he won his only AL batting title, hitting .339 with 26 homers and 97 RBIs.

AP-ES-08-02-05 1845EDT

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