Not every professional athlete has a backup plan for after their playing career ends — especially if that career is cut short for one reason or another.
When Bernie Williams’ tenure with the New York Yankees ended after the 2006 season and his baseball career ended shortly after that, the five-time all-star outfielder was looking for a way to stay challenged and relevant, but ultimately, he wanted to still make an impact in his community.
Williams has always had a passion for music, dating back to when he was 6 and his father brought home a guitar from his trip to Spain as a member of the U.S. Merchant Marine. He even released an album by the time he stopped playing baseball. So naturally, the four-time World Series champion wanted to give music a chance as his full-time focus.
Fast forward to August 2018 and Williams has already released two albums and has a Latin Grammy nomination under his belt. Now he and his band, The Bernie Williams Collective, are en route to the Electric City to headline the Scranton Jazz Festival, which takes place Friday through Sunday at the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel. The multi-day event also features trombone master Delfeayo Marsalis and contemporary jazz ensemble Special EFX All-Stars among other acts.
“I’m very excited to be a part of it. I have a really great band and it’s collective, so we’re going to play a couple of original tunes and cover a few,” Williams said. “I think it’s one of the biggest challenges of professional athletes that are on their way out or retiring — trying to think as far as how to still stay excited about doing things that are meaningful in their lives and the lives of their families. It could be really difficult, that process of readjusting to — I guess what I’d call — more of a normal kind of lifestyle. It’s something that’s completely different from what you do as professional athlete.
“It’s really interesting because I’m having an opportunity to still stay challenged and not really rest on my laurels as a former professional athlete and try and do something completely different in many ways.”
Williams said the folks with the Scranton Jazz Festival reached out to him a year ago about the chance to perform. When he was approached to headline the world-class festival, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. And he’ll be able to visit the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, while he’s in town too.
“As a musician, this is what you want to be a part of — going into a new a scenario and trying to build a new audience. In my case, it’s not necessarily concern about what I did as a baseball player but what I’m doing now as a musician. That to me, that’s very exciting,” Williams said. “It’s also an opportunity to perhaps kill two birds with one stone, being able to visit the Triple-A stadium, where the Yankees are playing, to have an event there that will coincide with the music. It’s also great because I’m able to spend some time with the sports fans and contribute to a good cause.”
Williams’ stop at PNC Field in Moosic won’t be like most of the trips Yankee greats make when they visit. The 49-year-old is staying true to his words about his aspirations when he retired. He’ll be making an impact when he comes to town.
Williams will play the national anthem and visit with the RailRiders, but he’s also there to raise awareness of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. His father, Bernabe Williams Sr., suffered from the rare lung disease, and ultimately died from the condition in May 2001.
IPF has been a cause Williams has fought for ever since. That includes Sunday, when Williams will be at PNC Field for the team’s Breathless Blowout game, where fans together will blow a bubble to raise awareness and provide hope for IPF.
“It’s going to be, basically, trying to encourage everybody to do something that people with pulmonary fibrosis will find extremely hard to do,” Williams said. “That’s one of the most difficult things to do, blow bubble gum. It’s kind of like doing this group activity to honor those people and their families and everything that they’re going through. Hopefully we raise some awareness for it, a good cause, as well.”
Williams has had the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music and has studied at SUNY Purchase.
Now that he’s experienced all of this success and a variety of experiences musically, Williams wants to make sure the generations behind him have those same opportunities. That’s why he’s made numerous stops at Capital Hill to back music and arts advocacy with the National Association of Music Merchants.
NAMM plays a large role in “funding things that are geared toward enhancing the music and arts, especially with young kids,” according to Williams. Participation in music and the arts, Williams believes, can play a large role in success later in life.
While Williams has had opportunities to perform at all kinds of venues, big and small, and with artists of all levels of exposure and success, it’s the chances to give back that often stick out to him the most.
”There’s no question about the fact that I’ve been very blessed and very lucky to have that in my life from a very young age,” Williams said of his exposure to music. “A lot of my efforts are actually geared toward, sort of, perpetuating this experience for everybody to have that opportunity as well.
“It’s really important and … it has been proven that the opportunity to do arts and music at a very young age will serve them well, those kids, to have a better performance in all of those other subjects, like math and science and literature. Most people that are exposed to music have all these different connections in their neurons that enable them to be better students and have that sort of creativity, outside the box way of thinking, that a lot of companies and institutions are looking for.”
Ultimately, Williams isn’t exactly sure where this journey will take him. But he’s loving it every step of the way.
From his time backing Elvis Costello to his performances on both U.S. coasts, his time on Capitol Hill, playing the national anthem prior to Double-A’s Eastern League All-Star Game, and his Latin Grammy nomination, Williams wouldn’t change anything.
And yes, he’s currently recording a new album.
“It’s more like I’m having fun,” Williams said. “As long as I’m not losing money in this — it’s very enjoyable that part, but I think it’s one of the blessings about retiring from somewhere where you can still have the energy and passion to do something full strength and full-on, 100 percent.”