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The Record, Bergen County, NJ

Swing And A Hit Bernie Williams; THE FLIP SIDE OF BERNIE BASEBALL; This Guy Can Play; New CD By Yankee Outfielder Proves It


March 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Record, Bergen County, NJ. All rights reserved. 

TAMPA, Fla. -- Bernie Williams gets a kick out of those who think he's merely a baseball player dabbling in music.

"I'd say it's the other way around," said Williams. "Baseball is a good escape from music. I know that sounds weird."

Actually, the more one gets to know the Yankees' All-Star center fielder, the more the lines blur. Weird becomes normal. The unexpected becomes commonplace. Athlete becomes musician.

Trained to play classical guitar from an early age, Williams has devoted more time to music in recent years. And the music world soon will learn the magic Williams can make sitting behind his guitar. He recorded an 11-cut CD in January at New York's prestigious Globe Studios, where the likes of Sheryl Crow have produced hit tunes.

The CD, with a working title of "Journey Within," is scheduled to hit the market in July, coinciding with the All-Star Game. The Los Angeles public relations firm of Rogers and Cowan and music producer Loren Harriett are in negotiations with a major record label to back the project.

Williams, 34, wrote seven of the cuts on the mostly instrumental CD, which Harriett says includes the help of several "special" musical guests whom he would not name.

"It's jazz-oriented but mainly it's a great melodic record," said Harriett. "It's a big thing because of the people assembled to play with Bernie.

"This is a record that when people hear it, they're not going to believe it. It's so good. This guy can really play. He's a ballplayer but he's a musician, too."

In many ways, Williams was destined to be both. His mother, Rufina, was a longtime educator in San Juan, Puerto Rico, who encouraged her sons, Bernie and Hiram, to focus on the three "A's" - - academics, athletics, and the arts.

Williams' father, Bernabe, served in the Merchant Marines and first met Rufina in New York, where she was teaching on an exchange program. They married and returned to San Juan, but Bernabe continued to sail the high seas. He picked up a guitar in Spain, taught himself to play it, and returned home to perform for his two sons.

"It was just for his own enjoyment," said Bernie. "He would play chords and we'd dance when we were little kids. I started learning on his guitar, and I decided I wanted to take lessons."

Williams was 8 at the time, and like many youngsters in his neighborhood, spent as much time as possible playing baseball. But each night he returned home and picked up that guitar, and it wasn't long before neighbors realized that little Bernie had a gift for music.

To foster that talent, Williams enrolled in the Escuela Libre de Musica (Free School of Music), a high school for budding musicians in San Juan. The curriculum included traditional subjects such as math, science, and English, but the primary focus was music.

The second half of each school day was devoted solely to music, and students were prodded to concentrate on one instrument. Williams considered taking piano lessons but followed the advice of his tutors and stayed with the guitar.

As Williams became a more accomplished musician, his teachers figured he would follow the same path as other students and attend a conservatory.

"At that point, I'm thinking I'm going to be a concert musician and play the guitar," said Williams, who on Wednesday returned to Puerto Rico for a few days because of a death in the family. "Obviously, I had a long way to go, but that was my thinking."

Williams' parents had other ideas. As thrilled as they were to see their oldest son hone his musical talents, they considered a career in the arts a bit too frivolous. Perhaps you could be a lawyer or engineer, they suggested to Bernie.

"They thought the arts were good for making me well-rounded but not good enough for making a living," said Williams, smiling at that notion.

As it turned out, that philosophical debate was moot. Though Williams separated himself from many childhood buddies by attending music school, he still found time to join them in athletic endeavors when classes were done.

Built for speed with a lean yet muscular frame, Williams became a track star, setting Puerto Rican records at 400 meters and winning four gold medals at age 15 at an international meet. But he was equally gifted on the baseball diamond, and major league scouts soon took notice.

"I was just trying to be a kid," said Williams. "I wasn't really thinking about the future. I didn't see myself as special. I was just trying to be well-rounded, like my parents wanted me to do."

Whether he realized it or not, Williams had baseball in his blood. One of his uncles played professionally and another set amateur offensive records throughout the island. More and more, Williams began to realize that a baseball career was not beyond his reach.

Even beyond music and baseball, the plate of life is full for Williams. He dabbles in sketch art whenever there is spare time and also rides motorcycles, though he tries to keep a lid on that endeavor because it makes club officials nervous.

And through it all, Williams has avoided the trappings of baseball stardom.

He remains the most unaffected player in the Yankees clubhouse, much more comfortable talking about music and other interests than his exploits with the most famous sports franchise on the planet.

"For a guy who's been around as long as he has and accomplished as much as he has and is making as much money as he is, he's like a raw rookie every time he shows up at the ballpark, and that's wonderful," said manager Joe Torre.

Derek Jeter has been a Yankee teammate since 1995 and still can't figure Williams out.

"He's in a world of his own most of the time," said Jeter. "He goes to sleep, he wakes up, he shows up and plays, and then he's gone before you know he was here.

"We ask him all the time if he knows where he is. He's out there a little bit."

A couple of years ago, Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Tino Martinez exited Fenway Park after a game with the Red Sox to look for a taxi. As they walked quickly down the street, a large pack of autograph- seekers followed. The trio finally hailed a cab and jumped in, only to look back and see Williams blissfully strolling through the crowd, hands in pockets.

"He's in the middle of all these fans and nobody knows who he is," said Jeter, shaking his head. "We yelled to him to jump in the cab with us. It wasn't until then that they knew who he was."

Torre also has a favorite "That's Bernie" story. It was back in 1996, Torre's first year with the club, and the manager was sitting in the dugout before the start of a game.

"Bernie sits down next to me and says, 'What do you think?'-" recalled Torre. "I said, 'I don't know.' I had no idea what he was talking about. He said, 'Do you think my hair is too tight?' He had just had his hair done.

"I said, 'You're asking the wrong guy about hair.' But that's Bernie. I love it. He's so refreshing."

"I spend a lot of time thinking about music," Williams admits. "Not always playing, but thinking about melodies and rhythms. It's something that stays with you for the whole day, not that I'm singing a tune out there in center field or anything like that."

There's also the full-time job of being husband to wife Waleska and father to son Bernie (12) and daughters Beatrice (8) and Bianca (7), who have artistic pursuits of their own. Put it all together and you have Bernie Williams, baseball's Renaissance man.

"It's an extremely good gig, playing center field for the New York Yankees, having a wonderful family, enjoying my music," he said.

"You can't really ask for anything more."

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