Bernie keeping past glory in present
Not ready to let go, fan favorite visits Yankees in Tampa
TAMPA, Fla. -- A twinge of melancholy hit Bernie Williams this weekend, even at the so-called Happiest Place on Earth. Helping instruct children as part of a hitting clinic at Disney World, one of the best pure hitters of the 1990s and early 2000s picked up a bat for the first time in nearly a year.
In his words, it was "awkward, to say the least."
"I miss it all the time," Williams explained Wednesday at George M. Steinbrenner Field, where he was on hand for the day as a guest instructor. "I mean, who wouldn't?"
Even now, four years removed from his final Major League season, Williams refuses to make any concessions. He will not acknowledge that his professional baseball career is over, saying instead that he's "70 percent musician, 30 percent player."
He still feels a part of things at the Spring Training complex where he spent every February and March for nearly two decades, walking in Wednesday and immediately greeting a carousel of players, clubhouse attendants and legends. He shook hands with Reggie Jackson, then turned to a group that had clustered around him.
"I wouldn't be here," Williams said, "if I didn't still have feelings for the team and the organization and the atmosphere."
This is the second successive year Williams has showed up at Yankees camp, after a brief period of reclusion following the end of his career. Last year, he arrived at Steinbrenner Field with a more specific purpose -- to train for the World Baseball Classic as a player for Puerto Rico.
This year, he is here for the nostalgia.
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"This doesn't help," Williams said. "Coming here and saying hi to the guys obviously brings some of the old feelings back."
Last year didn't help, either. Working out with the Yankees at Steinbrenner Field, Williams spent his days convincing himself that he was still in Major League shape. When he ran sprints in the outfield, he was just a hair behind his old Yankees teammates. When he swung the bat, he could still hit.
Battling a quad injury, Williams had only seven plate appearances for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. But the time he spent training with the Yankees both tempted him and taunted him.
"That sort of gave me a lot of the old feelings back," Williams said, "knowing that I wasn't that far behind from them. I felt that I was going to get there as well."
Now, reality is beginning to creep into the brain of a player who turns 42 this summer. Though he continues to believe a comeback is possible, the window appears to be closing rather tightly.
Based on what he's heard from other players, Williams figures it should take about five years for him to truly put his old life behind him -- in essence, to finish grieving the loss of his baseball career, and perhaps to admit once and for all that he is indeed retired. He has nearly reached that threshold.
To speed things along, there is Williams' music career. Or, in his words, "the second half of my life."
"The key is trying to find something that can fill that void, as far as being competitive and being the best that you can be at something," Williams said. "And I think I found it in music."
His most recent album, the aptly named Moving Forward, features a collaboration with Bruce Springsteen and was nominated for a Latin Grammy. Williams began touring the country last summer and plans to do the same this April. Already, he has lined up a miniature tour in the tri-state area, featuring stops in northern New Jersey, Tarrytown, N.Y., and the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. And he is in talks to perform on Long Island, Buffalo, N.Y., and Toronto.
Substituting scales and arpeggios for outfield and batting practice, Williams leads a different life now. But a part of him still clings his old one.
Of those Yankees who were around for all four of the team's World Series championships at the turn of the century, only Williams and Paul O'Neill missed out on the team's 2009 title. And O'Neill ended his career much more cleanly, hanging it up after a productive 2001 season.
Williams left baseball only after declining a non-roster invitation to 2007 Spring Training, which almost assuredly would have resulted in big league job. It was a matter of pride back then, and even now, he dances around a possible return to the game. He wants to play. But those days are almost certainly finished.
Williams is beginning to come to peace with his new life as a musician. And he is even starting to embrace it.
"It's a lifelong journey for many people," Williams said. "I'm starting to catch up after 40 years of not doing it."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.