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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Bernie Williams trading Yankee Stadium for the New York Philharmonic

Bernie Williams performs at the Nearness of You concert, to support cancer research at Columbia University, in New York, Jan. 28, 2019. (Amy Lombard/The New York Times)

By Daniel Brown / The Athletic

For Bernie Williams, grabbing a bat was easy. He would pull out the same trusty 34-1/2-inch, 33-ounce Rawlings model for all occasions during his New York Yankees career, whether that was in spring training or the playoffs, whether he was facing a flamethrower or a knuckleballer.

Music, however, is different.

“Choosing a guitar is about the gig,” Williams said. “It’s about the sound that you want to create, and it’s about the music that you’re going to play. You need the right instrument with the right gig, and that varies with time.”

Such is what vexes the former outfielder as he prepares for a second big-league debut, this time in the arts. For the first time, Williams was to play guitar with the New York Philharmonic, at its spring gala on Wednesday — an epic milestone for a five-time All-Star and four-time World Series champion now deep into his second act.

So, which guitar? The acoustic steel string? The archtop? Williams said he might even choose to go electric “for that sort of Santana-like sound,” although he added it “might just be too over the top for that environment.”

Williams, who spent his entire career with the Yankees, from 1991 to 2006, has rebranded himself as an accomplished musician, ordained with a Latin Grammy nomination and critical acclaim. Still, at age 55, the thought of stepping into the spotlight at another hallowed New York venue — think Yankee Stadium, but with better acoustics — gives Williams butterflies.

On Wednesday, he will play one selection, his 2009 piece “Moving Forward,” as newly arranged by jazz artist Jeff Tyzik. Famed conductor Gustavo Dudamel will be at the helm.

“I expect to be as nervous as I’ve ever been on any kind of stage,” Williams said. “But I think it’s going to be no different from playing a seventh game of the World Series, you know?”

There is no one else in baseball history poised to compare the experience of baseball’s Fall Classic and the Philharmonic’s spring gala. No one else has played in “The House That Ruth Built” and in the concert hall Leonard Bernstein christened by conducting on opening night in 1962.

Williams’ distinction means much gnashing of teeth for the president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic. Gary Ginstling is an ardent New York Mets fan.

“This is a deeply difficult decision for me, I have to say,” Ginstling cracked during a phone interview. “I did scour the landscape for any retired Mets. But no one could hold a candle to Bernie Williams.”

This experience is enough to give Williams flashbacks to his first big-league at-bat. The switch hitter was 22 years old when he stepped to the plate in the third inning at Yankee Stadium against left-handed junkballer Jeff Ballard on July 7, 1991. It was hardly a soaring opening note: He grounded out to third.

The outing got better. Williams drove in a run with the sacrifice fly in the fifth and brought home another run with an infield single in the ninth.

“I remember being really nervous,” Williams said of that debut. “I remember being in this place where there was a lot of uncertainty about my career and my own ability to stay in the big leagues. All I wanted to do was to get an opportunity to be able to show people what I can do.”

Now he’s showing people what he can do with a different instrument. His lifelong musical journey is part of what appeals to the New York Philharmonic. The spring gala is a fundraiser for musical education, and Ginstling wants the younger crowd to be inspired by Williams’ scholarly dedication to his craft.

Williams’ first instructor was his father. Bernabé Williams, an able seaman with the merchant marine, returned from Spain with a gift for his 7-year-old son. It was a guitar that the young Bernie never put down. The family then found a guitar teacher in its neighborhood in Puerto Rico, and by the time Bernie was 9 years old, he had performed on a local radio station with other star pupils.

Williams kept playing throughout his baseball career, then studied guitar and composition for a year at the State University of New York at Purchase in preparation for his first album, “Moving Forward.” That release strengthened his bona fides thanks to 14 solid tracks including collaborations with Bruce Springsteen, Jon Secada and Dave Koz.

But eventually, Williams formalized his expertise. He enrolled in the prestigious Manhattan School of Music en route to a bachelor’s degree. “I tell you what, none of the home runs that I hit in the postseason helped me there,” Williams said. “I had to really reinvent myself. And in a very strange way, I had to earn the admiration of the kids that I was playing with, because they were all virtuosos in their own instruments by the time they got to the Manhattan School of Music.

“I was the old guy in the back of the room. I was asking all the questions and asking that no one erase the blackboard until I was finished writing all the notes.”

Williams wasn’t chasing a diploma for the sake of the paper. The experience signified his graduation from ballplayer to artist.

“I think the school gave me a great perspective on the reasons why I wanted to be a musician and the responsibility that we have as music makers to make sure that we make this world a better place,” he said. “The joy and the power of music is just an incredible thing to use for the good of the world.”

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