The long tentacles of Bernie Williams' former life as a Yankee never fail to pull him in and squeeze tightly. Not a day goes by without someone – a friend or, more likely, a stranger – reminding Williams about his personal renaissance in the Bronx, when hitting a home run in the postseason was as automatic as drawing a breath.
If Williams wasn't a machine in the late '90s, he was close enough, as he finished higher than .300 eight years in a row. Even more impressive were the 22 home runs Williams blasted in October, second on baseball's all-time list and the most ever by a Yankee.
Williams is only 44, young enough for him to believe baseball could still be within his grasp. Yet the graceful centerfielder has been retired for nearly a decade, and he admits there's little in civilian life that simulates the communion between an athlete and a roaring crowd. That heightened state exists nowhere except in a sold-out stadium on a chilly autumn night.
Unlike most former athletes, however, Williams has found a new identity – his bat and glove exchanged for the subtle beauty of a guitar. The macho shorthand heard in the clubhouse has turned into smooth jazz, a hobby Williams has nurtured into a successful second career, if not an obsession.
Those who knew him back in the day – including his Fort Lee neighbors who watched him make the short commute to the Bronx every afternoon – aren't entirely surprised by the transition. Williams has always loved his music: He was trained in classical guitar growing up in Puerto Rico and continued his studies at SUNY Purchase the year after retiring. No wonder Williams' friends believe his horizon is limitless.
"When all is said and done," says Steve Fortunato, Williams' agent and booking manager, "I think Bernie is going to be as good a musician as he was a baseball player."
Williams already has two albums to his name: The Journey Within (2003) and Moving Forward (2007), which was nominated for a Latin Grammy Award. He'll soon return to the studio for a third album, which should be released in 2014. To anyone who has had trouble keeping up with the change, Williams explained it all in his 2011 book, Rhythms of the Game.
He uses most of the 193 pages to illustrate the spiritual connection between baseball and music, with a foreword by Paul Simon and a sprinkling of sidebars from peers like Cal Ripken. Yankees fans sniffing around for juicy stories about Derek Jeter were disappointed, but the breakdown of Williams' methodology is nevertheless brilliant.
"I'm having the time of my life, making myself work at something that's completely different than baseball." Williams says. "I don't think many people have the opportunity to do that in one lifetime. I'm forging this other journey, and it's been very rewarding to me."
Indeed, Williams approaches music the same way he poured himself into baseball: with punishing discipline. His message is spelled out on page 25 of his book.
"When you're 7 years old and realize that musical instrument you're holding in your hands empowers you to do whatever you want in life," he writes, "it's a breakthrough moment. My parents never had to tell me to practice – nor did they ever have to tell me to put my baseball uniform on, either."
Today, Williams and His All-Star Band spread the word in live performances around the tri-state area, including at bergenPAC. He often speaks at colleges, charity events and corporate gatherings. Businessmen in particular hope to crack the code of Williams' success – how he and the Joe Torre-era Yankees were able to win four World Series in five years when the rest of the American League was gunning for them.
The lesson cuts across every demographic, even to those struggling in today's lean economy. They find inspiration in Williams' words; they see his retirement as a layoff of sorts, and a springboard to that second career, that second job. Reinvention is a precious commodity, and Williams serves as a living, breathing billboard that anything is possible.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that an icon is the one delivering the sermon. Fortunato isn't far off when he says, "People just love Bernie, they always have. I still don't think he understands how much. Or if he does, it's only dawning on him now."
That cocoon has historically been a core element of Williams' charm. Not only did he prosper without an ego as a Yankee, he was nowhere as hip as Jeter, nor as meticulous as Mariano Rivera. And he certainly wasn't as volatile as Jorge Posada, a fellow Puerto Rican. Williams existed in his own, dreamy universe – at least until it was time to lock in, eliminate the wall of noise in the ballpark and deliver a dramatic base hit when the Yankees needed it most.
Williams admits it would be a lie to say he doesn't miss being a ballplayer.
"Things don't look the same from the other side; [baseball] is a profound thing," Williams says. "A good chunk of the world has its eyes set on you, what you do or don't do. Either way, you remain relevant. Hitting a home run in the World Series is a moment that lasts for just a moment, but people will be talking about it for years and years. Anyone would have a hard time letting go of that."
That's why Bernie feels a twinge when he sees a game on TV or hears that Rivera and Andy Pettitte, both in their 40s, are still playing. Williams likes to think he could still hit a 90 mph fastball, although, with a self-deprecating laugh, says, "I'll probably feel that way when I'm 80."
The wave of nostalgia inevitably recedes, though, and Williams reconnects with the important work ahead. He's been busy raising money and bringing awareness to arts and music in the classroom. For once, Williams isn't too shy to say "look at me." His connection to music as a child was the bridge to a fuller life. Today, Williams says government cutbacks threaten the very opportunity he was once given.
"Children exposed to music and the arts will become well-rounded adults and individuals. They go hand in hand," Williams says, hoping to protect the future, even if in his case, the past still clings tightly. Those tentacles aren't ready to let go.