HARTFORD, Conn. — Bernie Williams knows the feeling of bringing down Yankee Stadium with a walk-off home run in October.
Twice, in fact.
He knows what it’s like to be on the field for the clinching of a World Series, four times over.
What can replace those moments when baseball ends as it did for Williams in 2007?
“I mean, I played the Blue Note last week, man,” said Williams, classically trained guitarist and Latin Grammy-nominated artist. “From (the) standpoint of being a retired baseball player, to go all the way up to one of the iconic jazz venues, not only in New York but in the whole world. Everybody who’s who wants to go to the Blue Note and play.
“I had an experience (in Connecticut in 2012) when I played in a tribute to Dave Brubeck, and his son Darius was in the band, and we were playing ‘Take Five,’ his iconic piece of jazz music, and it almost felt like an out-of-body experience, playing with those cats. And then the next day, I’m playing with Twisted Sister — ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ — on Long Island.”
Who else has played with Derek Jeter and Bruce Springsteen?
Williams, 52, a man of multiple muses, will gather his band, cross the border into Connecticut and play his expansive repertoire of jazz, rock, tropical rhythms — he can be full of musical surprises — in an outdoor concert at the Ridgefield Playhouse at 3 p.m. Sunday.
“We’ve been going there for a long time,” Williams said. “I’m very appreciative of what they’ve done, supporting my career after baseball.”
This time, the music will benefit a cause near to Williams’ heart, the Breathless Campaign, which raises awareness and funds research to fight idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, the disease that claimed his father, Bernabe Sr., in 2001. One of the songs he will perform has a special meaning.
“One of the tunes, I wrote for my father,” Williams said, “and we requested the public to submit (lyrics for) ‘Para Don Berna,’ and we chose a winner and we are going to perform the tune with the lyrics.”
Williams also works with several programs to promote access to music education, such as Little Kids Rock and the Turnaround Arts programs at Jettie S. Tisdale School in Bridgeport.
“You see in a tangible way how music and the arts are positively, exponentially, influencing the test results in these kids,” he said. “You cannot dispute how important arts and music are in the core curriculum. It’s so beneficial to these kids.”
The transition from baseball to another walk of life is a struggle for many. Even those determined to walk away end up back at the ballpark in one way or another.
For Williams, born and raised in Puerto Rico, music and baseball were always parallel passions. He was still playing for the Yankees when he released his first album, “The Journey Within” in 2003. His second, “Moving Forward,” which earned his Latin Grammy nomination, came out in 2009.
In explaining Williams’ introspective demeanor, manager Joe Torre often said he was an artist as much as an athlete. He played from 1991-2006, handling the center field covered before him by Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, hitting .297 with 287 homers and five All-Star appearances. Williams’ 80 RBIs in postseason play remains the MLB record. The days following 9/11 are among his most indelible memories.
The baseball journey, Williams delighted in recalling, came though the Hartford area at a formative time.
The Yankees were planning to sign him as he turned 17 in September 1985, but in the meantime had to hide him for a few weeks that summer. They arranged for him to attend a camp at Cheshire Academy, and he played a handful of games in the Greater Hartford Twilight League.
“They were the ones that started introducing me to the American culture,” Williams said. “It was a really beautiful time in my life, filled with excitement and uncertainty, being a little anxious. Playing in that league, I was not to be showcased too much. They wanted to keep me under wraps, but I didn’t understand it and I was frustrated, ‘Why don’t I get to play?’ “
When he became a Yankee star, Williams remembered being in awe of DiMaggio and worried that, given his rep for aloofness, he might shut down the new kid in center field. Williams was relieved when DiMaggio walked by his locker in 1996 and said, “Keep up the good work.”
Mantle, more gregarious, signed a ball for Williams inscribing it, “Bernie, you’re great.” With his No. 51 retired, Williams is a permanent member of the club of great Yankees center fielders.
Now he’s part of another club. The expectation of performance is there, but the interaction with musicians he admires, Williams says, provides the joy and happiness in his post-baseball life.
“The key is having a self-introspection to figure out, what is the thing that gives you butterflies in your stomach, the adrenaline that I felt when I was playing baseball?” Williams said. “It’s like living life 150 miles an hour and then returning and gong the school-speed limit. You’ve got to fill your days with things that make you feel excited and pumped up. Choosing to transition to music, I knew if I put in the work, I could become quite decent and open a world of possibilities. Maybe sports could help me to have that preemptive reputation, but at the end of the day you still have to play the music and you still have to show that you’re a musician.”