Bernie Williams to bring his guitar and his all-stars to Landmark Theatre, NBT Bank Stadium

Jun 11, 2014

Mernie Williams
Credit Steve Fortunato
  When Bernie Williams was growing up in Puerto Rico, he attended art school and acquired a great love for music.

He played baseball and displayed a great talent for the sport.

And his parents, hard workers who gave their children a steady lower middle-class life, stressed their wishes every day that they all attend college so they could shape careers and become more comfortable in life.

During a phone conversation Wednesday to talk about his upcoming trip to Syracuse Sunday, Williams said he was thankful for all of those things.

He was tying up some tasks, enjoying the 85-degree and sunny weather, preparing to visit his mother in her home.

Williams only gets back there about twice a year nowadays, he says, because he's a student at the Manhattan School Music, studying for his bachelor's degree. He's the only one of his siblings without it, he says.

That's because, any baseball fan will know, right after Williams graduated from high school, he signed a contract with the New York Yankees organization.

"College was still a fallback for me and my mother," Williams says.

He didn't need it.

Once he made the big leagues, Williams played 16 years for the Yankees. He was on four of the Bronx Bombers' World Series winners, including that 9/11-healing year when the Yanks topped the Mets, when both teams wore hats honoring the city's first responders, giving baseball fans a chance to honor those who had given the ultimate sacrifice that horrible day when the Twin Towers were toppled.

And he continued playing guitar after he signed with the Yankee organization, and often played in the clubhouse and on team flights. In fact, Williams released his debut album, "The Journey Within," in 2003, a fusion of jazz, rock and island rhythms, three years before he retired from the Yankees.

He says the idea to record the album came after he participated in jam sessions during all-star game get-togethers, and the session leader suggested he record.

"In hindsight, I wish I had waited," he says. "With more time, I could have had more input about the music and the recording and gotten more insight into the industry."

But he realized he could play for a living after he retired, he says.

Central New Yorkers can find out how that's turning out on Father's Day. Williams will appear in Syracuse twice. First, he'll show up before the Syracuse Chiefs take on Norfolk at 2 p.m. at NBT Bank Stadium. Williams will perform the National Anthem. And many baseball fans will consider it a wonderful thing to see this man back out on the green field in any way, shape or form.

"I try to stay away from performing at baseball stadiums, really," he says with a chuckle. "But I have performed the National Anthem at Madison Square Garden before several Knicks games, and at Continental Arena before a Nets game. Performing the National Anthem is like going to the free-throw line for two shots to win the game with no time left. You have to be perfect." At 8 p.m. Sunday at the Landmark Theatre on South Salina Street in downtown Syracuse, Bernie Williams & The All-Star Band will perform. Williams says expect a tight night from the outfit, directed by Richie Cannata, who used to work with Billy Joel. "We've been playing together five years, and get better every summer," he says. "We have chemistry and unity."

Tickets are from $35 to $70.

The show will open with a set by the Signature All-Stars, a group of Syracuse city scholastic players under the guidance of veteran city musicians Dick Ford, Edgar Pagan and Todd Hobin. Williams' group of all-star musicians may also work with the young musicians. Portions of the proceeds of stops on this tour have been earmarked to help city youth learn to grow through music, with models such as Ford's Signature Syracuse program.

"It goes right into my upbringing," Williams says, "about working hard."

Williams' second album, "Moving Forward," showed the circles he moved in. Celebrity musicians Bruce Springsteen, Dave Koz and Jon Secada performed on the album, which debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's Contemporary Jazz chart, where it stayed for five weeks in a row.

He said he was better prepared as a musician when it came out three years after he retired from the Yankees.

"I didn't have to worry about facing Pedro Martinez or Roger Clemens," Williams says.

"But still I wondered if I was taking advantage of my popularity," he says. "These musicians are big baseball fans. In my personal feeling, I still have a ways to go to feel like I belong as an artist. I still feel that way. I will always work hard."

As he comes to Syracuse on Sunday, though, Williams says he will also feel blessed that has found his second professional calling, while so many professional athletes struggle to discover something that fulfills their competitive drive after the sports days are gone.

"One of the great challenges is to find and outlet like this, to be challenged and engaged," Williams says.