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Former Yankees standout Bernie Williams finds calling in music, advocacy

Ex-baseball star will bring passion for music and a cause to Tampa Bay next week.
Former Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams, shown here playing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during a Rays-Cubs game at Tropicana Field in 2017, will perform at the Murray Theatre at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Monday. [Times files (2017)]
Former Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams, shown here playing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during a Rays-Cubs game at Tropicana Field in 2017, will perform at the Murray Theatre at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Monday. [Times files (2017)]
Published Mar. 8, 2019
Updated Mar. 8, 2019

TAMPA — Bernie Williams made a name for himself as the smooth-swinging switch hitter who patrolled center field for the New York Yankees for 16 years, a vital cog to four World Series-winning teams.

He might be the only person to have a batting title and a Grammy nomination, but Williams, 50, is unique in many ways.

Since retiring following the 2006 season, his focus has gone from becoming one of baseball’s best players to being one of the best musicians.

“I still need to work as hard, or perhaps even harder, to try to be at a level to be competitive with all the great talent that out there,” Williams said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Williams has released two albums, the first reaching No. 3 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart and the second receiving a Latin Grammy nomination for the Best Instrumental Album.

His life is still somewhat a combination of music and baseball. He will bring his unique Latin jazz sound to Clearwater for a performance at the Murray Theatre at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Monday and be back with the Yankees for their spring training game Wednesday in Tampa to visit, throw out the first pitch and perform the national anthem.

But there’s no question where Williams’ focus is these days.

Williams shies away from calling music his second career because he’s been focused on it since he was eight, when his father, Bernabe, gave him his first guitar growing up in Puerto Rico. Throughout his baseball career, he took his guitar everywhere, on bus rides, on flights and played it in the Yankees clubhouse.

“The music thing, to me, I’m now going at it as intensely as I did playing baseball, but to me, it’s just icing on the cake,” Williams said. “I’m working really hard to try to be the best musician I can be, but at the same time, it’s a lot less pressure than playing center field for the Yankees.”

He said the adrenaline he felt playing at Yankee Stadium is the same he experiences playing in front of a sold-out concert hall, and the same discipline that made him a five-time All Star and four-time Gold Glove winner is the same that he’s utilizing now in music.

“All the same elements, putting attention to detail, overcoming setbacks, working really hard and the whole timing thing," he said. "I was able to utilize a lot of the things that I learned by playing an instrument as a kid into training as a professional baseball player.”

Williams said evaluating his growth as a musician is more difficult than gauging yourself as a player. There’s no statistics to compare, so Williams grades himself out by the venues he’s been able to play at and the people he’s played with — an eclectic list that included Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Randy Brecker, Antonio Sanchez, the Puerto Rico symphonic orchestra and Twisted Sister.

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“By that standard, it’s been an incredibly successful stint,” Williams said. “Obviously, the fact that I’m a former baseball player, it gets the door open. It’s the icebreaker, but at the end of the day, you still have to play music. You still have to do all the things that are expected of you as a musician.”

This foray also gives Williams a forum in two different arenas — sports and music — and he is using that to raise awareness about Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF), a fatal lung disease that took his father’s life in 2001. Part of the proceeds from Monday’s performance will go to the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation.

IPF causes a permanent scarring of the lungs, difficulty breathing and ultimately gets to the point where the lungs can’t provide oxygen to supply other major organs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, a persistent dry cough, fatigue, clubbing of the fingertips, unexplained weight loss and difficulty sleeping. Life expectancy is about three to five years after diagnosis.

Williams' father was initially misdiagnosed, and by the time he received his IPF diagnosis, there wasn't much that could be done for him.

"He was our Superman," Williams said. "We had him with us for about three years after (his IPF diagnosis) and he was gone. ... The earlier you can be diagnosed the better chances to improve your quality of life and longevity. My dad, he was diagnosed at a time when they didn't have what they do now."

His father’s death came during baseball season. Despite rushing back home to Puerto Rico, he didn’t arrive in time to say goodbye. So Williams said being active in raising IPF awareness has allowed him to deal with his father’s death.

“I was able to revisit a lot of the emotions that I had back then when my dad died,” Williams said. “This whole thing has been able to allow me to process and put closure and at the same time bring awareness to a disease that is not well known. I started thinking about the way my dad would feel and I know he’d want me to do this no doubt.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

Bernie Williams live in concert

When: Monday at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Murray Theatre at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater

Format: The event will feature a Q&A session hosted by Yankees radio broadcaster Suzyn Waldman followed by the music performance by Bernie Williams and Friends

Tickets: $41. Also, a VIP package is available for $151 that includes a GA seat in a reserved section, a meet & greet photo opportunity, a limited edition Bernie Williams t-shirt, a signed 8x10 photo and a limited edition Bernie Williams musician trading card.

Tickets can be purchased by calling 727-791-7400 or online at RuthEckerdHall.com.

A portion of the proceeds from the event will go to the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation.