Bernie Williams' Journey Within

Baseball player plays deep on debut record

If you've ever seen Bernie Williams take off a bit late after a fly ball, you'll have to excuse him -- he has music in his head. And, besides, it's not like the Gold Glover has had much trouble making up the ground.

When he's not roaming centerfield for the New York Yankees, Williams often has a guitar in his hands. And, actually, growing up in Puerto Rico, he thought that music was going to be his calling, until his knack for hitting a baseball got in the way.

Now, after winning four World Series, Bernie Williams, the jazz guitarist -- with the help of an all-star cast of session musicians, including keyboardist David Sancious, drummer Kenny Aronoff and bassist T-Bone Wolk -- makes his recording debut with The Journey Within. The title is an apt one, as it's a glimpse inside one of sports' quietest figures . . . one who's a bit of a throwback to another Yankee centerfielder.

When did it occur to you to take your music from the clubhouse to record stores?

I've thought about materializing all the ideas in my head and putting them in a format that everybody could listen to. But it wasn't until this year that a lot of people said, 'Hey, you should do this.' I've been working with some great people, some of the best players in the world, and they're just picking the stuff like it's candy and really making it sound the way that I want it to sound.

How far is your guitar from you at any time?

Not too far. I always take it on road trips, I have one or two in the clubhouse -- my teammates always tell me to shut up [laughs]. They always want to listen to their rap and other stuff.

What did you listen to growing up?

A lot of salsa. I went to a Catholic school, and they had a lot of American influences, so I heard the rock stuff -- Kiss, Journey, Queen. And then I went to a music high school and they started teaching me about Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. And then I picked up an electric guitar and started playing, and putting effects on it, and playing rock chords and playing the blues. Now I'm a lot into the jazz and blues, the fusion. A little classical here and there, a little Latin, some rock . . . I like Creed . . . but mostly jazz.

Speaking of hearing American rock stuff, how did you come to do a version of Kansas' "Dust in the Wind"?

I think I heard that one in high school too. A lot of guitar players would get together and figure out how to play things, and that was one of the first things that I learned how to play. It was cool 'cause it wasn't really classical or something that you have to study for, and it sounded really great. It's one of things I always play when I'm trying to get my chops together, trying to play the arpeggios really fast.

Talk about a track that has special significance for you.

The one that gets me kind of emotional is "Para Don Berna," the one that I did for my dad. It's a melancholic, slow tune, but it sort of resembles all the things that I was going through during my father's sickness and eventually his passing.

I heard you wrote that the very next day. Do you often use your guitar to help you express your feelings?

I do. I kind of think in musical terms -- notes and chords -- and I can express anger, joy, frustration all through my guitar. You put me in front of a group of people and I cannot talk to them; I get so nervous. But if I have a guitar in my hand I can relate to them much better.

Do you have those notes and chords running through your head when you are out in centerfield?

Yeah, [laughs]. It's very hard to turn it off. But sometimes it's the thing that gets me through.

I understand that, unlike another Yankee centerfielder, Joe DiMaggio, who didn't care much for Paul Simon's work, you and Paul are actually friends.

Yeah, he's a great Yankee fan, and he goes to the games a lot. And he and I are involved in this children's fund. Paul Simon has been in the clubhouse a lot of times and I actually got to play in some of his rehearsals for his Broadway play The Capeman -- me and [former Yankees infielder] Luis Sojo [laughs]. One of the great things about playing for the Yankees is that I have the opportunity to meet so many of the people that I have admired through the years. I feel like a fan. Actually, I had my Telecaster in the clubhouse a few years back, and Paul O'Neill brought Bruce Springsteen down to the clubhouse. I shook his hand, and then I was like, "Listen, I have a guitar there, will you sign it for me?" And he wrote, 'To Bernie, if you ever get tired of baseball . . .' It was such a great guitar, but I don't use it anymore because he signed it.

OK, a few baseball questions: After winning the World Series three years in a row, how much does it really suck to lose?

It really does. I'm one of those guys where the game goes through my head a hundred times over and over again after it finishes -- maybe if I had done certain things different the outcome would not have been the same.

During that monster series you had against Texas in the 1996 playoffs, how big was the ball?

It's kinda a blur to me now, but it was real big. It's still big! At one point or another in the season it gets big like that. But it's great when you get in one of those zones where you can't do anything wrong.

This one's been bugging me for years: Why doesn't Joe [Yankees manager, Torre] bat you third? You're a prototypical three hitter and he bats you everywhere but there.

I have no idea [laughs]. I think it's a product of hitting between two lefties. I don't think it has anything to do with the fact that I'm not a power hitter, even though hitting fourth I am supposed to be a power hitter. They want to keep that switch hitter between the two lefties.

With the legends of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle to contend with, playing centerfield for the Yankees is not just any other position in baseball . . .

To tell you the truth, the first couple of years that I was playing, I didn't realize the impact of that position in the whole of baseball. And it has only been the last few years that I played the position and that I've thought to myself, "This is a great gig."

In comparison, what was the best part about your recording gig?

Not a lot of people have the opportunity to have their dreams recorded by the best musicians in the world.