Bernie Williams bounds across the floor with a major league swagger. He is on the road again, only this time he’s armed with a jazz guitar instead of his trusted Gold Glove that made him one of baseball’s top defensive players four years in a row. Yes, the six-time All-Star Centerfielder for the New York Yankees is on another winning streak, scoring points first with Craig Ferguson during a television taping in Los Angeles, then lighting up the crowd in Sacramento, where his new musical release is generating buzz at Border’s Books.
From 1991 2006, Bernie Williams patrolled the hallowed grounds of Yankee Stadium, where he ruthlessly gunned down any runner trying to stretch a single into an extra base hit. But the six foot two muscular athlete is now "Moving Forward" into a successful musical career.
Williams’ first album made the Billboard Top 100. His second release on Reform Records features jazz legend Dave Koz, singer Jon Secada and a live performance of "Glory Days" with the Boss, Bruce Springsteen. But the inspiration for Moving Forward comes from somewhere else. The album "marks being in a sort of transitional period between being a professional athlete and just kind of segueing in this other career," Williams says. And the person who best personified that transition for Williams was another talented athlete turned jazz musician. Wayman Tisdale played Power Forward for the Sacramento Kings from 1989 1994, before launching his own jazz/funk career. Wayman teamed up with Bernie Williams on this album, playing bass on the title track in one of Tisdale’s last performances before he tragically died of cancer last May 15.
"He was a great influence," Williams reflected. "He was the person I guess who I sort of modeled myself after," he continues, "and the fact that he was a person who was very successful in sports, he made a very successful transition into the music arena. Then he was in jazz, even though he could probably play everything. And you know, I’d look at that example and I'd say 'Well, if he can do it, why can’t I?'"
If Tisdale was an inspiration for the aspiring musician, then Bruce Springsteen was his closer. The two stars met at Yankee Stadium following a game. Williams’ teammate, Paul O’Neil, brought Springsteen into the clubhouse where Bernie just happened to have his guitar on hand. "It was actually a brand new Telecaster," he recalled. "I had a pen and I said I would like for him to sign a ball, but you know, he might as well sign my guitar." Springsteen handled the request like a pro. "Oh this is great," he said. "This is kind of unusual to sign a guitar in a clubhouse, a baseball clubhouse," Then he wrote, "To Bernie, if you ever get tired of baseball Bruce Springsteen."
Williams and Springsteen would team up again a decade later, sharing the same stage, this time as dueling musicians at Yankee Stadium. "We were playing at the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation Dinner", Williams stated. "It was a charity dinner honoring former Yankee manager, Joe Torre, and Bruce Springsteen was the guest entertainer. What happened next took Williams by surprise. "He brought me over the to the stage, I mean we sat and played 'Glory Days,'" Williams gushed with emotion. "And, we asked for his permission to put it as a bonus track on the album, and he was nice enough to say yes, so he’s very proud of that." (You can now find the track on Williams’ new release).
Tisdale and Springsteen definitely helped advance Williams’ career, but it was Paul McCartney who actually loaded the bases for him. "I had an opportunity to meet with ‘Sir’ Paul one time, " Williams fondly remembered, "and he was at Yankee Stadium watching a game. He was an avid baseball fan, and I had an opportunity to say hi to him. Actually, it was after we signed a deal for his company to do the publishing of the record that lasted for about four or five years."
Williams is now with Reform Records, a company that he says was "interested in me as a person first and then my music second. The baseball aspect of it was a far third. When they heard the demos and they heard the music, they said, 'Well we believe we can work with this, with you as a music artist.'"
The praise from Reform Records rang true for Bernie. It was the affirmation he needed. Williams remembers the company saying, "'We don’t want to take anything away from the baseball side, but we think you have some potential here' and they decided to sign me up."
Bernie Williams has been performing all his life. Bernie grew up in Puerto Rico where he played little league ball and dreamed one day of making it in the bigs. Then when Yankee Stadium closed down in 2008 to make way for the new ballpark, it was Bernie Williams who gave the very last performance there, not as a ballplayer, but a musician. "It was the stuff that dreams are made of," he says. "For me, it was such a surreal situation. It was a nice, clear afternoon in the fall and the stadium was totally empty. It was a little chilly and I was in street clothes recording and taping some video of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame,' which is sort of melancholic." (You can find the song now on the new album).
Bernie was also there for opening day of the new Yankee Stadium this past April. He describes it as an amazing experience. "I was supposed to be there with pinstripes and a glove in my hand. Instead, I was with a big wedge speaker in front of me playing ’Take Me Out to the Ballgame,’ just kicking off the beginning of the new home of the Yankees over there in the Bronx." Unlike Williams’ previous performance when Yankee Stadium was empty, this time it was packed with "fifty thousand plus fans and they were New York fans," says Williams. "You know they get all crazy with reason, obviously, in celebration of the momentous occasion, but when that sun came out and I started playing, everything got quiet. It was such a great treat for me to see, among all that craziness, a moment of peace and quiet, and calm, in that Stadium." he says.
Give Williams the choice between performing in Yankee Stadium as a musical artist or a baseball player and there’s no contest. "I would have to say playing baseball," Williams states. "I mean, not a lot of things can beat being able to be the guy that saves the game you know? It doesn’t matter what game it is, whether it’s regular season or playoffs of World Series. I mean, it’s just a great treat to be able to be the hero of that particular game on that particular day." As for music, Williams says, "playing music is great and it’s more when you look back on it and you ponder on it. It’s like 'wow, that was really pretty special.'"
There’s no doubt his heart and passion are in baseball. "I don’t think there’s a lot of things that can beat playing centerfield for the New York Yankees for sixteen years, man no!" For Williams, the magic of baseball is "just the thrill and the rush of the competition. To go out there in some sort of a psychological battle. Me against the pitcher. From one at bat to the other, you can strike out three times or you can hit two homers in a game and be the hero of the game. You never know what’s going to happen. To me it’s living at about 100 miles an hour every day, for six months, or 162 games very intense, high intensity. They expect you to produce and you expect the best out of yourself. It was a very thrilling thing for me."
For Bernie Williams the thrill of baseball will never be gone, but now he is Moving Forward to the sound of a musical pitch.