With April 14’s Moving Forward, former New York Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams returns to his second great passion: jazz guitar. The classically trained instrumentalist called the Music Mix today to chat about his new album, which includes everything from “an introspective, pensive version” of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” featuring spoken vocals from veteran Yankee Stadium announcer Bob Sheppard to a live recording of Williams performing “Glory Days” on stage with Bruce Springsteen, an experience he calls “a dream come true.” Read on after the jump for Williams’ thoughts on the relationship between music and baseball, how his guitar playing used to annoy Yankees team captain Derek Jeter, and whether he’ll ever return to the diamond.
Williams has worked hard to hone his craft in recent years by studying music at SUNY Purchase, comparing the process to his years of intense athletic training. “When you play baseball at the level that we played in the big leagues, you have to do everything in your power to be ready through repetition,” he says. “You play catch, hit the ball, do all the drills, because you can’t call time-out in a big situation — game tied, bottom of the ninth inning, down two runs, bases loaded. In music, you have to do your scales and practice your arpeggios, in the same fashion. If you are performing in a concert, in the middle of an improvisation, playing through some chord changes, you can’t stop the band and start over again.”
Yet despite his lifelong love of music, Williams was the rare major-league hitter who didn’t have a signature pop song played over the stadium speakers when he stepped up to the plate. “It was kind of distracting to me,” he says. “I’m trying to concentrate, to hit [a pitch from] a guy throwing 95 miles an hour. I don’t want to be thinking about Clapton or B.B. King in the middle of the at-bat. And in old-school baseball, I never heard that Mickey Mantle had a favorite song coming up to bat.”
What’s more, Williams says his fellow Yankees didn’t always appreciate his musical stylings back in his major-league days. “I used to bring my guitar all the time on plane rides and the bus,” he laughs. “I happened to sit behind or in front of Derek [Jeter]. He used to tell me to shut up. I’d drive him crazy! I would try to serenade him, but he would have none of it after a game. Everybody’s sleeping, and I’m trying to play some blues right in his ear.”
Though Williams says he may never formally retire from baseball — “I’ll be 75 and still think I can hit out there,” he jokes — music is undeniably his primary focus now. “I have a lot of ways to go as far as my music knowledge is concerned. But it’s a lot more relaxing than going through a grueling 162-game schedule and trying to produce and be part of that great Yankee legacy.”
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