Center Fielder Bernie Williams Moves to Center Stage
Standing in centerfield felt odd. Like many times before, Bernie Williams looked towards home plate and then glanced up at a crowd of 50,000 screaming fans ready for a season opener. He had never played in this stadium, but that didn’t explain the surreal feeling. He felt odd to be in this place without the familiar feel of his nylon uniform and baseball cap. Looking down, he was wearing street clothes and holding a guitar, instead of a baseball glove. As he began to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” the crowd fell silent.
By the time of this pregame performance at the inauguration of the new Yankee Stadium, Williams had been retired from baseball for a couple years, and was well on his way to pursuing his other passion—music. It wasn’t something new to him, having played guitar since childhood in Puerto Rico, where he attended Escuela Libre de Música, a performing arts school in San Juan. In fact, Williams credits much of the success he’s had in life, including in baseball, to something he learned as a child studying music.
“I made the connection that, if I could put the effort and practice into it, eventually, I could play better and better,” he explains. “It was such a joyful thing for me. I started applying it to everything I did—sports, particularly track, baseball, and academics, too.”
No Short Cuts
The idea of hard work and focus didn’t come to Williams completely on his own. He credits supportive parents, who were strong believers in education, for insisting that he and his brother work hard at everything they were involved in, and that they become well-rounded individuals. Williams’ mom, an educator for more than 40 years, kept the kids on a full schedule of school, music, and sports that began at sunrise and ended with the siblings falling asleep over their homework.
“My parents designed our school schedule in such a way that we had absolutely no time to hang out with anybody,” he laughs. “We definitely weren’t the richest kids, and I think, more than anything else, it instilled the value of hard work. Everything worth having in life takes work; there are no short cuts.”
“There was always this sense of getting the work done and doing your best,” says Williams. “You may have talent, but that itself won’t take you where you want to go; you really have to work to make it your own. That’s what really makes a difference.”
And, he says, it’s because of that idea that he could succeed in such a difficult sport. “In baseball it’s that constant sacrifice and work ethic that can propel you to be on top of the game,” he says. “In the Big Leagues, you really need to have that.”
It was Williams’ father, a merchant marine, who introduced him to the guitar. “He brought a flamenco guitar home from Spain,” recalls Williams. “He sort of taught himself to play, learning a couple chords. He would sing folk songs and bolleros, and I would listen to him play before I would go to sleep every night.”
His mom believed schoolwork should always come first, and that a good education should include music. “She didn’t realize I would love it so much that I would make it part of my life,” he says.
The importance of a well-rounded education and the similarities between succeeding in athletics and music is the subject of Williams’ recently published book the Rhythms of the Game .
Recruited by the Yankees at the tender age of 16, he left Puerto Rico for the US, guitar in hand. Williams’ mother insisted he also pursue a college education. “The first couple years that I was playing baseball, I was doing a semester of biology as a pre-med student, and then the other semester I would play in the minor leagues,” he says. “Then, I realized it wasn’t translating well to baseball because my mind was split.” So, he dropped out of college to throw himself 100% into his baseball career, and it paid off. He worked his way to the Big Leagues at age 22 and rewarded himself by purchasing his very first electric guitar, a Fender Stratocaster.
Known for keeping a guitar in the locker room, music was Williams’ constant companion through 16 years in the Big Leagues. He recalls a time when teammate (and drummer) Paul O’Neil brought Bruce Springsteen on a clubhouse tour, and Williams had Springsteen autograph his guitar. The Boss wrote: “To Bernie, If you ever get tired of baseball … Bruce Springsteen.”
Though music was always a big part of his life, it was in the background; it wasn’t until his last couple years as a Yankee that he started to think of it in terms of a career. “That’s when I realized that my relationship with music was so strong that, even though I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I knew there would be music involved in it.”
He was still with the Yankees in 2003 when he put together his first album, The Journey Within, recorded during the off-season. “That recording was a compilation of ideas that I had worked through over the years, even from when I was a kid,” explains Williams. “Making the first album was a great learning experience; it was eye-opening.”
Even after retiring from baseball in 2006, then recording a second album, Moving Forward (2009), and being nominated for a Latin Grammy, Williams still has difficulty calling himself a professional musician. “I still feel awkward when someone asks, ‘How’s your music career doing?’” says Williams. “It’s what I love to do, man!”
“It’s been really hard for me to look at music as a profession!” he says. “With baseball, obviously, the three or four hours I spent on the field playing were fun, but there was a lot of preparation that had to happen before that moment. I never felt that way with music.”
Williams says that this could mean that music is, and has always been, his true calling. “Music has always been more like a steady, very enjoyable process. Every skill I acquire has opened the door to discovering more things, whether it’s harmony, rhythm, tone—it’s such a joyful experience,” he says. “I think your true calling in life is something that, even if you didn’t get paid, you could still do it.”
He thanks his performing arts school for instilling an early appreciation for many genres of music. “I listen to all kinds of music,” he says. “If it’s well made, I have my ears open because I can draw ideas and discover different things. Lately, I’ve been gravitating more towards jazz because I like the freeing sensation of improvisation.”
Likewise, Williams’ compositions, which have a strong Latin influence, are not easy to categorize. “I think my music is pretty eclectic,” he says. “It takes from my background in Puerto Rico. I’ve always found rhythm very intriguing. There are so many influences—at the performing arts school I listened to classical, and since coming to the states I’ve become more familiar with blues and rock, and eventually jazz.”
He says that inspiration for his own compositions can come from anywhere, anytime—water dripping or the sound of the windshield wipers. “Sometimes, I wake up at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning with a melody in my head,” he explains, adding that other times it comes from a deeper place. “Sometimes it comes from the emotions and experiences I’ve had, like the passing of my father. I come up with a melody to explain it to myself. To me, that’s the real art of it. I use melodies, rhythms, instrumentation, timbre, and dynamics to express a mood or emotion. It’s kind of cool when people listen and they can tell what I was feeling.”
Lessons from the Game
Williams credits baseball for helping him be better able to manage certain aspects of a music career. “Playing music is great and fun, as long as you’re not playing in front of 500 people,” says Williams. “There’s a completely different aspect to music that has less to do with music and more with performing under pressure, and that was one thing I was able to draw from baseball.”
Williams explains that performance anxiety, in sports or music, is something that never goes away. “It never disappears but you find the tools to handle it. My work was basically dealing with that on a daily basis for 16 years,” he says. “Playing in front of 50,000 people, when the game is on the line, and you are the last hope, and you have to produce … Well, everything is a walk in the park after that, if you find yourself mentally prepared.”
“Another thing I was able to draw out of my baseball experiences was muscle memory,” he adds. “Like when you are facing a pitcher and he throws you a pitch that is down and low. Your body takes over—wait, hit it where it’s pitched, and drive it the other way. That mental process comes automatically because you’ve done it so many times before.”
“To translate that to the stage, I work my skill level up to the point where I don’t have to think about what I’m playing,” he says. “I don’t think about the scale, just the concept because I’ve done it so many times.”
Though Williams points out his music career is still young, he’s had some amazing experiences so far. Among his favorite moments have been those performing with top-notch musicians. Some of these encounters have happened at baseball great Joe Torre’s annual Safe at Home Foundation fundraising dinners. At those events Williams has performed with James Taylor, Paul Simon, Garth Brooks, and even Bruce Springsteen, about 10 years after The Boss signed Williams’ guitar.
“Playing ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ at the new Yankee Stadium inauguration was a pretty cool highlight as well,” adds Williams. “When I started playing, you could hear a pin drop, everything stopped. After I finished playing, it was just craziness again.”
When asked about where he hopes the music will take him, Williams says, “There’s a personal goal and there’s more of a humanitarian goal. I understand how powerful music is as a language and how you can change peoples’ attitudes and do a lot of good, especially influencing kids.”
“It’s really cool to be a part of organizations like NAMM,” says Williams of the association that promotes recreational music making across the country and invited him to lobby Congress this year about the importance of music education.
“Because of the profound impact music has had on my life, I feel it should be a part of every kid’s experience growing up, if they choose it,” he says. To that end, he also volunteers time building awareness for Little Kids Rock, a national program to boost the music instruction in public schools by providing donated instruments and money to fund music departments.
On a personal level, Williams says his goal is to “become a better musician every day and be able to take my skill and music everywhere in the world,” with the ultimate goal of becoming a versatile musician.
“You see all these great musicians who are able to transcend their genre of music and play all kinds of music, with all kinds of people,” says Williams. “I want to be able to play the Concierto de Aranjuez with the Spanish National Orchestra, and then go to Newport Jazz Festival and play with Chick Corea, or go to Puerto Rico and play with a salsa band. To be able to relate to music in all those aspects would be really cool.”
Williams plans to release another album in the first part of next year. However, as far as touring goes, after 16 years traveling with the Big Leagues, he’s likely to take it slowly. “I want to keep the freshness in this,” he says. “I don’t want it to be a drag. I do love it, but I don’t want it to become work.”
-If you like this story then check out our other feature on Steve Martin. Click Here.
-You can also read our story on Victor Wooten here.