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National Post

Yankee Picker: Though His Place In History Among Legendary Bronx Bombers Like Dimaggio Is Assured, The Yankees' Bernie Williams Has Discovered He's A Musician At Heart

By John Lott

22 September 2004
Copyright © 2004 National Post. All rights reserved. 

NEW YORK - The guitar came from Spain. Bernabe Williams Sr. purchased it during a stop on his travels in the merchant marine and brought it home to Puerto Rico, along with an instruction book, and taught himself to play.

He had grown up in the Depression years, "dirt poor," in the words of his son, and joined the merchant marine because "he wanted to make something better out of himself."

When he came home from his voyages, Bernabe Williams Sr. sometimes could not sleep, so he would rise from his bed and lift that Spanish guitar from its case and play the old bolero melodies that he loved.

In the darkness of his bedroom, his son would listen and wonder.

"When he couldn't sleep -- I don't know why, maybe he was having trouble at work -- he'd get out of bed in the middle of the night and go to the living room and start playing," says Bernabe Williams' namesake, the accomplished centre-fielder for the New York Yankees.

"I was eight years old. I didn't know how he was feeling or what playing the guitar brought to him. But when I started playing, I developed a love for the instrument."

The man known in the sports pages as Bernie Williams began tinkering with that same guitar soon after his dad's nocturnal melodies nudged him from sleep. Today, nearly a quarter-century later, melodies slither in and out of his consciousness, involuntary and comforting and challenging, sometimes insisting that he grab his own guitar and record them before they escape into the ether.

Yes, he may hold the records for post-season homers and RBIs, and he might even reach baseball's Hall of Fame, but Bernie Williams also has a well-received CD to complement his baseball resume. Just turned 36 and navigating the shoals of still another pennant race, he is starting to believe that his most fulfilling career may come after baseball.

Williams is sitting at his locker with an ice-pack on his shoulder. The famously reserved Yankee has talked about music, thoughtfully and passionately, for the previous half-hour.

"As I'm getting older, I'm realizing ..."

He pauses, as if about to admit something vaguely sinful, at least for a professional athlete. Then he grins.

"I'm a musician, man! Music is what I love to do. Not undermining my responsibilities as a baseball player -- I've worked all my life to do this, and this is how I make my living -- but music has been such a big part of my life since I was little. I've started to wonder what it would have been like to be a musician full time, playing from gig to gig and having that kind of life."

- - -

For starters, that kind of life would not guarantee a salary of US$12.3-million, which Williams is collecting this season to hit and catch baseballs. His athletic gifts inspired the Yankees to award him a seven-year contract after the 1998 season. He is firmly ensconced in Yankee lore, which is about as good as it gets in America's pastime.

He knows his baseball stardom paved the way for his CD, The Journey Within. Williams is a remarkably skilled guitarist, but he acknowledges that the opportunity to record with a group of the industry's best session players would not have happened without, as he puts it, his "notoriety" as an athlete. Still, the CD has earned mostly positive reviews. Sir Paul McCartney has signed him to a publishing contract.

The album contains seven songs that Williams wrote, including tributes to his late father, his wife, Waleska, and his son, Bernie Jr. Categorized more or less officially as contemporary jazz, The Journey Within reflects Williams' eclectic interests, from salsa, the primary influence of his youth, to blues, pop and the classics.

His sound is pure and his playing uncomplicated without being simplistic, reflecting a lead guitarist sufficiently accomplished to work confidently with far more experienced background musicians.

"Even though I think they're very simple ideas -- just a nice, melodic line, some nice chord changes and changes of rhythms -- I think they're clear," he says of the songs on his first CD. "For me it's a base to expand. From now on, what I come up with will probably be more elaborate."

- - -

Williams has always had good instincts. In 1987, he decided he could not excel in baseball and academics in the same calendar year. At the urging of his mother, a career teacher -- "academics were huge in my house" -- he had enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico, expecting to become a doctor or an engineer.

Yankees scout Roberto Rivera had another vision. Bernie Williams would make centre field in Yankee Stadium his own. But a year after turning pro, Williams confronted a choice.

"I was going into my second year in biology and baseball, and I was struggling in both," he says. "I was good, but I wasn't good enough in either of them."

He chose baseball. Ironically, that decision also led him to a destiny in music.

By happenstance, his tour through the Yankee farm system also exposed him to musical influences far beyond the salsa traditions and classics he had absorbed as a student in Puerto Rico. When he turned pro, he was 17, too young to join his teammates at the bars after games, so he stayed in his hotel room, eagerly soaking up blues and jazz and pop, picking out the tunes he liked most on his guitar.

"Some people read for fun. My fun was listening to CDs, anything I could get my hands on, from jazz to contemporary stuff -- anything. So I started to develop ideas about how to create music. I started to wish I had gone to a conservatory."

- - -

In the Yankees' 2004 media guide, Williams' achievements consume 10 pages, more than anyone else on the roster, more than Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield or Mike Mussina. Those pages attest to his 1998 batting title, five all-star selections, four Gold Gloves and .305 career batting average entering this season.

The pages also suggest that since his knee surgery last year, Williams is not the player he used to be. Last season he hit .263. This year, his average hovers around .260 as he alternates between centre field and designated hitter.

The numbers say his baseball skills have begun to fade.

He will hold on. He loves baseball and being a Yankee, and when October beckons, Bernie Williams tends to turn back the clock. In the post-season, he has more homers (19) and RBIs (66) than anyone in baseball history. Only teammate Derek Jeter has more post-season hits.

But he is also happily realistic. For many players, a looming terror accompanies the inevitable regression of skills that ageing brings. For Williams, when retirement comes, he knows he will still be young, with plenty of time for a new and equally fulfilling career.

He wants another World Series, to show he can still excel on that stage. But when he cannot, or when he chooses, one gets the feeling Williams will slide smoothly into his next career, which for him might spawn the same challenge, passion and satisfaction that he found as a Yankee.

"I still have fun playing this game. I try to have the best of both worlds, but sometimes it's hard. I know I'm not where I want to be playing the guitar, but I'm close to where I want to be playing this game. And I can't just show up and play. I've got to prepare myself to do everything I've been doing for the last 14 years, to make sure I stay at this level, and I can't do that thinking about a tune in my head."

Which raises a question: Are there moments, out in centre field, perhaps during batting practice or a pitching change in a blowout game, when a melody creeps up, delighting and distracting a mind bent on baseball?

Yes, he admits. Sometimes it happens just that way.

"The songs in my head," he says, "will never go away."


An excerpt from the National Post's review of The Journey Within when it was first released last summer.

"Appearing here alongside the likes of Bela Fleck, Ruben Blades, and, invariably, some guy named T-Bone, Williams proves himself to be a talented and spry plucker and, at the same time, becomes the first musician in the history of recorded sound to thank Bud Selig, Don Fehr and George Steinbrenner in his liner notes --both astounding accomplishments in their own right.

"In addition to covers of Billy Joel's And So It Goes and Kansas's Dust in the Wind, Williams performs a number of original, mostly instrumental tunes, borrowing heavily from his Puerto Rican routes, but also owing heavily to contemporary jazz and blues.

"No need to give up the day job quite yet, especially considering Williams is due to make a little over US$12-million this year (note: average annual salary for salsa-inspired jazz guitarists is approximately US$75.32). But worthy of much respect as something greater than mere novelty all the same."

Source: Aaron Wherry, National Post

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