Q&A with Bernie Williams
Most sports fans immediately recognize the name Bernie Williams. The former Yankees centerfielder spent 16 seasons in New York, winning four world titles, four Gold Gloves, a batting title and appearing in five All-Star Games. Williams, 41, has retired baseball, but not from the spotlight. Now he has embarked on a new career as a jazz guitarist. And his new career might turn out to be more successful than his old one. Williams second album, Moving Forward, was nominated for a Latin Grammy and his work includes collaborations with such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa and Jon Secada. Williams will appear Sunday night as part of the double-bill World Rhythms Tour with jazz singer Basia at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater at 7 p.m. For ticket information, call 727-791-7400 or by log onto rutheckerdhall.com or ticketmaster.com. Williams spoke with Two Cents' Tom Jones about his new career in music.
When did you first get the music bug?
Very early in my life, around eight years old. I used to hear my dad play his guitar and he taught me the first couple of chords I ever learned. And then I went to a performing arts (high) school. I didn't envision myself being a full-time musician. I thought I would get a degree in something else, and then baseball came along.
What kind of music did you listen to as a kid?
Everything. Growing up in Puerto Rico, it was a lot of Latin rhythm and Salsa and Merengue. But, also, because I went to a performing arts school, I listened and was taught in a lot of classical music. There was very intensive music reading and composing and music theory. So that seed was planted very early in life and kept growing and growing and I remember having a love affair with music almost from the start. So I had that background of the great classical music masters and then, when I was playing baseball, I was exposed to even more music -- rock-and-roll, jazz, blues. I basically have an eclectic taste for music. If it is well made, I'm going to listen to it regardless of the genre. That's what going to a performing arts school did -- it taught me to appreciate good music.
How important was music while you were playing baseball?
More important to me than I originally thought it was. I was playing guitar all the time in my free time. I realized it was something I wanted to do more seriously.
So how did performing and recording come about?
I was fortunate enough to play in some all-star games and while there, some of the players who play instruments would get together and have these jam sessions. It was all kinds of music -- a lot of rock and alternative, but blues and jazz, too. So I went to a couple of those things and from that experience, I got hooked. Loren Harriet, who is a music producer, put together that stuff for Major League Baseball. He saw a little bit of potential in me. So, I started working with him, put together some demos and (in 2003) when I was still playing, I came out with my first album, The Journey Within. Then I started touring on a limited basis because I was still playing baseball. But we had some great exposure. We went on David Letterman and Regis & Kelly and shows like that.
How nerve-racking was it to play before live audiences?
It was nerve-racking, but it was a lot of fun, too. I didn't get too caught up in the entertainment part of it, playing live. What grabbed me was the music-making aspect like composing and producing and all that.
Did being a major-league player help you in your music or was it a disadvantage because maybe people didn't take you seriously at first?
A little bit of both. The bad thing is you always have to fight the notion that you're just some novelty act. There's a little skepticism and that's perfectly understandable. But once people find out that I went to a performing arts school and studied at a young age and that I take this all very seriously and that I'm pouring my heart and spirit into it, then being a baseball player works in my favor. I'm not totally unknown. So now they might give me a listen and say, "Let's see what this guy has.'' And hopefully they're pleasantly surprised.
Are there any similarities to between playing music and playing baseball?
The amount of work you put in is definitely similar. When getting ready to perform with music, you spend a lot of time working on your skills, making sure your chops are good. I'm working hard so that the guitar is an extension of myself and that I don't look awkward when I'm playing. There's a lot of work that goes on before you even get to the stage. Same with baseball. You're always working on your mechanics, getting your swing down, taking batting practice, soft toss. You're working on mechanics all the time -- hitting, infield, running. You want to get to the point where you're not thinking, you're just reacting. And that's what I'm trying to get to as a musician.
Do you miss baseball?
Yeah, I definitely do. (Dodgers and former Yankees manager) Joe Torre said it best. We have a physical ability that we don't own. We just borrow it for a bit. And then that ability goes away. I miss baseball, but I'm certainly not able to do the things I could do 20 years ago. My experience had to end at some point. But I was lucky enough to play on that special team and win championships and batting titles and gold gloves. Who wouldn't miss that?
Has music filled the void?
That's definitely the case. It challenges me and that's what I love. I've have the chance to travel still and meet a lot of different and interesting people. To me, that's what is so great about the music -- the journey it takes you on. It's not about where I want to get to and what I want to have happen. It's all about the journey. The thing that's great now is I get to pick and choose what I want to do in my career and my life. It's not like baseball where you have to play a 162-game schedule. Now, I do what I want, take my career where I want to and my life where I want to.
And unlike baseball, you can do this the rest of your life, can't you?
Right. There are no limits. I can keep working and know that I'm only going to get better, that I'm only going to learn more.
Do you still follow baseball?
I'm still somewhat of a fan. I'm forever linked to the Yankees. I have a strong personal bond with not only some of the guys who still play, but many others in the organization, like front-office people and the trainers and clubhouse guys.
What are your thoughts on the Tampa Bay Rays?
You could see this coming a couple of years ago. They are fearless and they're putting it all together. They have a great group of young core players and I think it would be great to see them stay together for years to come. I hope they can keep that team together because it could be a great, great team for many years. And that's a wonderful thing for the city to look forward to each year, knowing they have a contender.
Finally, you're playing in Clearwater. You trained in Tampa for many years and you have a place in Clearwater. What's it like for you to bring your music to this area?
Great. I still spend most of my time in New York, but when the kids are out of school, we try to make it down here and it always makes me feel great to be in the Tampa Bay area. I love it there.