Beyond Baseball

Bernie Williams, Baseball, and Guitars

If you ask baseball players what they would do if they couldn’t play baseball, many of them would say they would be in a rock band. Ask musicians what they would want to be doing if they couldn’t play music, and many would respond that they would want to be an athlete. Some are fortunate enough to have the ability to do both and some excel at their second career.

One of the most accomplished athletes who has embarked on a successful musical career is, of course, the Yankees’ Bernie Williams. Bernie Baseball stood at the plate for his last Major League at-bat in 2006 and then traded in his Louisville Slugger for a guitar. But, long before Bernie hung up his baseball spikes, he had become an accomplished musician.

Bernabé Williams Figueroa Sr. had exposed his namesake and his younger son Hiram to the world of music. The elder Williams returned home from work one day with a surprise for eight-year-old Bernie. It was a flamenco guitar that Bernie immediately fell in love with. Bernie kept asking his father to teach him how to play the instrument and eventually attended a special music school in his native Puerto Rico.

The Yankees signed Bernie just before his 17th birthday and his next 21 years were primarily dedicated to Yankees baseball. Bernie was busy with baseball and music thereafter. During his sports career, Bernie continued to hone his craft and played for relaxation before and after games. At times, he and teammate Paul O’Neill, a drummer, held jam sessions in the basement of the old Yankee Stadium.

Bernie signed a deal with Paul McCartney’s publishing company and released his first album, The Journey Within, in July 2003.  The GRP Records release was a jazz/pop mix that included the classic rock song “Dust in the Wind”. Studio musicians included sax player Mark Riviera (Billy Joel), former E-Street Band member David Sancious and Latin music icon Ruben Blades. The album cut that meant the most to Bernie though was “Para Don Berna”. It’s a tribute to his father, who passed away in 2001. The disc reached #3 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart.

Bernie’s second album Moving Forward included a live version of “Glory Days” with Bruce Springsteen. Former NBA star, the late Wayman Tisdale, also an accomplished musician contributed to the album as well.

The new collection of music made it to #2 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart. And, two of the songs, “Go For It” and “Ritmo de Otono” were consecutive #1 singles. Since then, Bernie has gone on to perform with a number of other top musicians.

Ben Broussard didn’t have the baseball career that Bernie Williams had, but he too has musical talent. The onetime first baseman (CLE, SEA, TEX) has released a pair of albums as well. The guitarist/left-handed hitter released a self-titled debut in 2005 and followed it up four years later with Renovated. When Broussard couldn’t catch on with the Yankees and White Sox in 2009, he became a full-time musician.

Music was a regular part of Broussard’s life in baseball. “My guitar went everywhere with me. I always had one in the clubhouse and on every flight”, recalls Broussard. “It was my constant; my love of playing wasn’t influenced by my baseball performance or teams. I definitely felt more relaxed and focused when I was playing guitar and writing regularly.”

“All my songs came from my experiences traveling the countryside playing baseball. I can remember sitting on a park bench in Chicago one summer- that day I wrote a song about this odd man sitting close by who resembled Einstein. In Seattle, the equipment room was where most of my songs on the last album Renovated were written. My teammates were my audience; I had the unique opportunity to get feedback on how my tunes affected them.”

Like many athletes, Broussard has played at a number of fundraisers, including Woodjock, which pitcher Jake Peavy initiated in 2010. Peavy is another guitarist who can carry a tune. The former NL Cy Young Award winner with the San Diego Padres also put together the Ten Sixty Five music jam in his native Alabama last year, after the original music festival ran out of money.

It’s one of the ways that Peavy, a devoted “dead head”, gives back to the community. Peavy has covered Grateful Dead songs along the way as well as played with members of the longtime band. Not bad for a guy who only picked up the guitar in 2002.

Bronson Arroyo became an instant enemy of Yankees Universe when he plunked Alex Rodriguez in a 2004 matchup between the Yankees and Red Sox. The pitch instigated a fight between A-Rod and catcher Jason Varitek. Arroyo’s musical side may be even more intense.

Arroyo is a huge Pearl Jam fan and he has been greatly influenced by their music. He’s also covered a number of songs by other artists and released “Covering the Bases” in 2005. On it, Arroyo performs songs ranging from Vertical Horizon’s “Best I’ve Ever Had” to the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Let it Slide”. Then-Red Sox teammates Johnny Damon, Kevin Youkilis, and Kevin Millar chipped in on Arroyo’s cover of the Standells’ “Dirty Water”.

The album found some early success on the Billboard’s Top Heatseekers chart. Arroyo, who will be 40 in February, will be attempting to make his return to MLB after missing two years.  He sat the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. A torn rotator cuff suffered in Spring Training ruined his 2016 season. He’s hoping to make a comeback this year but doesn’t know if his arm will hold up. If he can’t give it a go, Arroyo will turn his attention to the music biz for the foreseeable future.

Former White Sox and Yankees pitcher Jack McDowell won the AL Cy Young Award in 1993 at the same time he was making music. The alt-rocker put out a half dozen albums between 1991 and 2003. His band V.I.E.W., which included former players Lee Plemel and Wayne Edwards, toured with the Smithereens in 1992 and released two albums. McDowell’s last four albums were with the group Stickfigure.

Former player and coach Tim Flannery has been playing music for much of his 55 years. He’s the most prolific artist of the baseball-musicians. Flannery developed a hard-nosed style as a player with the San Diego Padres and he has that same dedication to his music.  His recordings lean towards country, but he’s sung pop and rock with others and performed in a number of fundraisers.

Three years ago, Flannery and Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir sang the National Anthem before Game 3 of the NLCS. Flannery and his band, The Lunatic Fringe are polished musicians. They toured parts of California last year and are on the road again in the new year.

Others that have or are trying their hand at music include former Cy Young winner Barry Zito, reliever/punk rocker Scott Radinsky, one-time umpire Ed Montague and current catcher Chase d’Arnaud.

Bernie Williams and other MLBers may not make it to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but perhaps one of them will end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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