On Westchester, His Music And, Oh Yeah, the Yankees
By Mitchell Stephens
As soon as I ask it, I realize how silly the question is.
Enthusiastic Westchester resident and accomplished guitar player Bernie Williams is scheduled to introduce a few songs from his first album in Chicago during baseball’s All-Star break, and I’ve just asked whether he’ll be nervous performing in front of people.
Nervous in front of people? This is a man who, for a dozen years now, has filled the most celebrated position on a baseball field: centerfield for the New York Yankees—the position Mickey Mantle played, the position Joe DiMaggio played. This is a man who has performed, during those years, in five World Series; who attempts the difficult bat-on-ball trick four or more times every night during the spring and summer in front of 40,000, 50,000 people, rooting intently for him to succeedâ€¦or fail.
Some succumb to the pressure—ending up back in the minor leagues or, at least, out of New York. Williams, who is now 34, has thrived under it, maintaining a career batting average above .300 and totaling well over 200 home runs. Nervous to perform in front of people?
But Bernie Williams is also a gentle and thoughtful man, so he replies that perhaps he will be a little nervous. After all, he normally only plays his guitar in public at his local church in northern Westchester on Sundays.
Williams, his wife Waleska and their three children, moved to Westchester four years ago. Before then they had been renting in northern New Jersey, with Waleska and the kids spending the school year back in Puerto Rico, where she and he are from. “We didn’t want to look for a house of our own here until I signed a long-term contract,” Williams explains, in a soft voice. After some tense negotiations, and a real chance that this Yankee centerfielder would end up playing in Boston’s Fenway Park, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner came through with the contract—seven-years, $87.5 million. The Williams family began to look for that house of their own in the New York area.
Why northern Westchester? “One of our friends, who works in the Yankee PR department, lived there,” Williams recalls. “He kept telling us, â€˜You gotta check out this place.’” They did. They bought, in Armonk. “Once we had an opportunity to settle in, we fell in love with the area. It’s very quiet. It feels like the countryside. It looks a little like the part of Puerto Rico where I grew up.”
Bernie Williams grew up in Vega Alta, a town about 45 minutes from San Juan. “Academics were stressed in our house,” he makes clear. His mother Rufina has worked as a high school teacher, a high school principal and a college professor. His father Bernabe, Sr., a former seaman who died two years ago, had taught himself to play guitar. Williams took his first guitar lesson when he was eight. The next year he was sent to a special music high school in San Juan and introduced to classical technique. The school, from which he would graduate, had no physical education program, no sports teams.
His brother Hiram, who plays the cello and contributes to a couple of the songs on Williams’s new album, also commuted to this high school. “We were very busy,” Williams explains. “We would wake up at five to travel to the school, and we didn’t return until four-thirty or five in the evening. Then we’d attend track or baseball practice in our town.”
The sports obviously went well. Track, to begin with: Williams was considered among the better young 400-meter runners in the world. And baseball: although he hadn’t played as much as many kids his age, the tall, thin, long-legged outfielder—the way he glides, with knees reaching high, after fly balls has to be among the more graceful sights in the game—had three of the five “tools” scouts look for. He didn’t have power (though that would come); he didn’t have a strong arm. But this teenager was as fast as anyone on a baseball field; he could hit for average; and he could field. (Williams often talks about how “fortunate” or “blessed” he has been.)
Williams signed with the New York Yankees on his 17th birthday. (His education was not entirely interrupted: he did go on to take courses in biology at the University of Puerto Rico.) He played his first game at Yankee stadium in 1991, when he was 23—and settled into centerfield for good two years later, just as the team was about to embark upon its latest remarkable run of success.
Williams’s musical training had also gone well. Baseball locker rooms are generally filled with rap, heavy metal or rock ’n’ roll. the Yankees’ centerfielder is known to sit in front of his oversized, corner locker (exclusive clubhouse real estate, which Williams inherited from Don Mattingly) with his guitar, playing quiet, sometimes classical, pieces. “It is hard to find time to play enough between baseball and my family,” he says. “But music is a very important part of what I do.”
At Yankee Stadium, and many other parks, the home-team players get to select the song that will be played as they step to the plate. One indication of how seriously Williams takes music is what is now played when he comes up: nothing. “My request is that they not play any music. It distracts me a little bit.”
Williams wrote seven of the 12 songs on his first album, which is being released this month on the GRP Records label. He describes the music as “a little jazzy, kind of easy listening, with a little of a Latin beat. A lot of great studio musicians play on it,” he notes enthusiastically. They include the keyboardist David Sancious and the drummer Kenny Aronoff. Ruben Blades sings on some of the cuts. “People hearing a baseball player has come out with an album might think it is sort of a novelty project. I think they will be pleasantly surprised.” Certainly, the quality of this centerfielder’s guitar picking will surprise those who have not before heard him play.
One wonders how his teammates will react to his album?
Bernie Williams IS an unusually
quiet man—not always easy to track down for an interview (including for this article), not that easy to get to know. When he first reached the major leagues—on a much less mature, less accomplished Yankee team—he was teased (Mel Hall was the main perpetrator) and tagged with an unfortunate nickname: “Bambi.” The young, Spanish-speaking outfielder was serious, reserved and educated on a team where those traits were not all that common. “With his background and personality, he was, without a doubt, a rarity in a major league clubhouse,” notes New York Times sports writer Jack Curry who has covered the Yankees about as long as Williams has been with the team. Some mistook Williams’s calm for indifference.
But the team changed. And the team won and kept winning. And it was impossible to overlook the role played by the young centerfielder from Puerto Rico who didn’t say much: Williams was named the most valuable player in the championship series that propelled this group of Yankees to the World Series for the first time in 1996, and he has been selected to the All-Star team four times.
“Outwardly, Williams has a very, very mellow personality,” Curry explains. “But inwardly he is very driven. I don’t think the guys in the clubhouse look to Williams to say, â€˜C’mon guys, let’s suck it up.’ He doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve as [retired leftfielder] Paul O’Neill did. But he leads in different ways. Last year, for example, he took cortisone shots in each shoulder in order to keep playing and help the team. He’s a very sincere, very thoughtful guy. He is absolutely accepted by his teammates now and considered one of the leaders of the team.”
Still, baseball clubhouses—even a clubhouse run by that paragon of maturity, Joe Torre—are not always kind places, even to players who are considered leaders. “If the album doesn’t go anywhere, I might get teased,” Williams acknowledges. A few of his teammates have already heard some of the songs, and so far, he reports, he has escaped unscathed.
nother silly question to ask athletes
is what they plan to do when their legs and coordination slow. “I haven’t really thought too much about retirement,” he says. “I’m focused on finishing my career and doing as well as I can.” (Williams—a notorious slow starter—got off to a great start this season, as did the team. He then slumped, as did the team, before arthroscopic surgery on his knee took him out of the lineup for more than a month.) “I’m fortunate enough so that I could retire pretty young,” he says. “I have a lot of options.” Music might be a possibility. “I would need to practice every day to be sharp enough to play classical guitar,” Williams explains. Might a role in baseball also be a possibility? He doesn’t say.
Watching TV and showing up at the occasional banquet hardly seems among the options. This is a man who believes in hard work. That’s the lesson he got from his parents. That’s the lesson Williams and his wife seem intent on communicating to their children, who range in age from eight to 12. “They have been put in a situation where they could have anything,” he acknowledges. “My wife and I are trying to teach them that if they want something, they have to work hard to get it.” All three kids attend public schools.
Will Williams stay in Westchester once he no longer is commuting to that expanse of grass in the Bronx? “A lot of my heart is still in Puerto Rico,” Williams makes clear. “My mom and my brother are still down there. But Westchester County has become our home also. We certainly don’t think it would be fair to move anywhere else while the kids are in school.”
Williams and his wife feel increasingly connected to the community. “A majority of our friends come from the church we go to,” he says. Does he feel being a person of color in a predominantly white suburb is a problem? “I don’t know how it works for others. We have been blessed to be in a position where we get looked at in a different light. I have high-profile work. My situation is different from other minorities. My experience has been a good one.”
Though his sharp features and lean, six-foot-two frame are familiar to any local baseball fan, Williams is not reluctant to do his share of family shopping at a store or the mall. And in the winter he and his wife have personally delivered food packages to needy households in the area as part of the Hillside Food Outreach program in Pleasantville. “Obviously, we get recognized when we go out,” he says. “But most of the people are very polite. They know what I do for a living, but there are other celebrities in the area. It’s not really much of a problem.”
What people say when they see him around town, Williams notes, depends on how the team is doing. He has undoubtedly gotten his share of “What’s-the-matter-with-you-guys?” this season. But playing this well, for a team this good, means that what Williams has been hearing most in the stores and malls of Westchester over the past four years has been some version of “Way to go!”
Mitchell Stephens, a professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at New York University, has been following the Yankees since the Dodgers moved.