Bernie Williams has lived the dream: he spent years honing and showcasing his skills, often flanked by superstars, winning admiration from fans and consideration as one of the very best at what he does.
I’m describing, of course, Williams’ career as a jazz guitarist.
Williams fell in love with the sounds of flamenco guitar as a boy, according to his official website, and played the instrument throughout his days as a Yankee.
In 2003 he released his debut album, titled The Journey Within, which displayed his distinct blend of jazz, rock, and Latin influences. The album received praise from critics, and reached #3 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart.
Williams followed up with a second album in 2009 called Moving Forward. Headliners like Bruce Springsteen (or “The Other Boss,” as Yankees fans might know him) and Jon Secada appeared on the album, which held the #2 spot on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart for five weeks running. It featured two Billboard #1 singles, Go For it and Ritmo de Otono, and was nominated for a Latin Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Album.
His success onstage is an extension of the unique path he charted as a player in the Bronx. Even as he helped lead the Yankees through one of their finest eras, Williams was in some ways a man apart.
Once he’d staked his claim as the starting center fielder — and one of the best ever in pinstripes — his quiet demeanor still kept him a safe distance from the spotlight. His occasional defensive lapses also earned him a reputation as something of a space cadet, though the label was applied lovingly by many fans.
And after a central role in four World Series wins in five years, he wasn’t included as a member of the Yankees’ “Core Four,” a moniker bestowed upon Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte.
While the nickname didn’t take root until the Yankees’ title in 2009, three years after his departure from baseball, it’s instructive that the achievements of the mild-mannered Williams got lost in that narrative.
Even now, he pursues a passion outside of the game while many of his old teammates — Jeter, David Cone, Paul O’Neill to name a few — are still deeply involved in high-profile baseball roles.
But from a certain perspective, Williams’ present career doesn’t seem so different from his prior one. Both pursuits demand the discipline needed to master a physical skill. The switch-hitting outfielder’s ambidexterity and athletic prowess are natural siblings of the focus and coordination needed to play guitar.
Williams himself embraces this interconnectedness. In 2011 he co-authored Rhythms of the Game: The Link Between Music and Athletic Performance, a book that “examines the symbiotic relationship between musical artistry and athletic performance through the eyes of a man who has mastered both,” according to his website.
And just as important as the connective tissue between sports and music is the joyful energy Williams has applied to both endeavors. He performs with passion, even if it often lies internalized under the surface. It seems no coincidence his first album was titled The Journey Within.
Watching the video below, I see the same intensity in Williams rounding the bases as he exudes when he’s jamming out onstage.
The vibe might be different in each, but at their core both performances are celebrations of the same special qualities that have endeared Williams to Yankees fans and jazz aficionados alike.
If we’re lucky, some of us find a single passion we can dedicate our days to. Bernie Williams, then, is doubly fortunate that he found two callings that move him. And for all the good memories and excitement he has brought to Yankees fans, he more than deserves his second act.