Ex-Yankee Williams plays jazz guitar

Thursday September 23, 2010

GREAT BARRINGTON -- He went from center field to center stage.

Bernie Williams, a former All-Star outfielder for the New York Yankees, swung a big bat over his 16-year career in the big leagues. On Friday, he takes a different piece of wood to the Mahaiwe Theatre as lead guitarist in his jazz band.

If you think playing on one of the biggest stages in baseball helped him prepare for a career in music as a guitarist, you'd only be partially correct.

"It's different in the sense that the stage is smaller, so I have a lot more interaction with the crowd," Williams said in a phone interview. "In baseball, I never really had to look into the stands, never had much meaningful interaction with the fans [while playing the outfield]. It's different in music because everything is original and part of my emotions and how I feel. It's more intimate."

To date, Williams has put out two albums -- 2003's The Journey Within and 2009's Moving Forward, which climbed as high as No. 2 on the U.S. jazz chart. Moving Forward's "Go For It" has been nominated for Song of the Year by the American Smooth Jazz Awards.

Williams said he didn't expect the nomination, much as he never banked on being a five-time All-Star, four-time World Series champion or four-time Gold Glove winner.

"I have the same mentality that I had when I played baseball," he said. "If you put the work in, good things are going to happen."

In terms of musical success, Williams has already blasted two homers in the form of No. 1 singles, most recently "Ritmo De Otono."

Just as he came up through the baseball ranks, Williams, now 42, had to learn the music industry. Before The Journey Within, Williams didn't know much about making a record.

"I had no idea what I was doing," he said. "I had a few compositions and then a recording opportunity was presented."

Instead of hand-picking supporting musicians for the record, Williams' label, GRP, rounded up a group of people who came into the studio ready to lay down the tracks, which Williams said was a great learning experience.

He took a very different approach to the second album.

"I was more hands-on. I chose the musicians, and it was really cool to watch it all come together," he said.

He got his first taste of the big stage during Major League Baseball's 2003 All-Star Game in Chicago, where he performed. That turned out to be an eye-opener.

"It was bizarre playing [guitar] in center ield," he said. "I'm more used to being out there with a mitt, not a guitar and a monitor. The stadium was just packed."

In 2009, the Yankees unveiled their new stadium and asked Williams to play a rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the first seventh-inning stretch.

Williams also has semi-local ties, as he played for the Albany-Colonie Yankees, a Class AA affiliate, for parts of 1989 and 1990. After games, players would hang out and autograph memorabilia for fans, adding a personal touch much like an intimate concert.

Jumping to the major leagues was a grueling process, he said, but it ties into his current profession.

"[Back then] I was able to develop personal relationships with fans," he said. "I wasn't sure if I'd make it, but you do it because you love it and hopefully you'll get that chance."

Many new musicians have to play small bars and clubs for years before getting some sort of break. Not the case for Williams, whose stature has provided him with more opportunities than the average person.

Don't be fooled, though. The guy who lit up Yankee Stadium all those years with his electric smile, dashing defensive abilities and clutch hits doesn't take anything for granted.

"I realized my popularity has been a positive," he said. "It has opened so many doors, but by the same token it's good to keep those doors by having substance. The door can shut if you don't perform, so I really need to deliver if I'm going to stay afloat."

And he'll continue to focus on himself and not those around him.

"When I was playing, I wasn't comfortable talking about others and how they were playing," he said. "I can only look at myself. I'm the first to say if I struggled."


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