It’s not everyday that you get an opportunity to talk baseball with a Yankee great. So when Don Povia of HHR Media Group and Taylor PR invited me, along with a number of other bloggers, to speak to Bernie Williams, I couldn’t say yes faster. The roundtable discussion was sponsored by MasterCard, which is currently running a Reserved by MasterCard promo. Just go to Facebook.com/mastercard to find out more.*
A big thanks to Hugging Harold Reynolds, which has a video of Bernie talking about the Yanks-Sox rivalry.
With Bernie Williams it would seem that two topics are appropriate. We were all there because of Bernie the Yankee, but there is also Bernie the musician. He’s had no modest music career — last year he was nominated for a Latin Grammy. Those were the two obvious discussion points, and for much of the time our questions centered on those topics. But towards the end we hit on a related topic, George Steinbrenner. While Bernie was comfortable and affable the entire time, he really shined when discussing Mr. Steinbrenner. You could tell he meant a lot to Bernie, not necessarily by the content of the stories, but by how animated he became when telling them.
One of the bloggers started the afternoon’s discussion with a question about Bernie’s music career, asking him how he’s handling the change from baseball. As he did with every question Bernie gave a thoughtful response. I was impressed by his humbleness. He admitted, without prompt, that he isn’t as skilled as many other popular recording artists. But it seemed more like he was expressing a desire to continue improving. He was also honest about how audiences receive him. Yet he’s not just some ballplayer who used his fame to start a different career. That plays into it, of course, but unbeknownst to me until yesterday afternoon, Bernie attended a performing arts high school.
Still, as interesting as Bernie has made his musical career, I was more interested in his amateur efforts. In the late 90s I remember reading in the papers that Bernie and Paul O’Neill used to jam in the clubhouse. O’Neill played drums, so it was only natural that the two would get together and pass the time playing their instruments. I was kind of skeptical — did they really jam? — but Bernie took right to the topic. They jammed plenty, he said: after batting practice, in rain delays, and even after games. Sometimes O’Neill would bring in some of his buddies and they’d jam with four, five instruments going.
O’Neill wasn’t the first Yankee to hammer at the skins. The kit he used, according to Bernie, was actually Ron Guidry’s. It was set up in a storage closet near the clubhouse, making for easy access. Bernie did mention that he developed an affinity for rock and the blues in high school, which I’m sure helped him meet O’Neill stylistically — I can’t imagine O’Neill being into the kind of music Bernie enjoys now. But it’s clear that Bernie has a passion for music. It makes me glad that he was able to find his niche in the industry following his baseball career.
Bernie might talk about passion in music, but he really shows it when he talks about his upbringing with the New York Yankees. This was a topic that always interested me because, in the same way as many other Yankee fans at the time, I didn’t warm to Bernie at first. He came up as an injury replacement for Roberto Kelly, at the time one of my favorite players, and he did’t exactly hit well in his stead. Bernie, though, says he was just happy for the opportunity, and didn’t feel the additional pressure of filling in for a popular player. It’s not like he had many fans in the Stadium to impress.
He was surprised, he said, when the Yankees ended up trading Kelly. He thought he was the one to be traded. That’s an understandable position, given how the Yankees operated in the 80s. They routinely traded young talent for established veterans. But when they traded Kelly and decided to keep Bernie, he thought they were changing philosophy; and they were. The decision to hang onto Bernie came when George Steinbrenner was banned from baseball, a period when the Yankees hung onto a number of young players who would become the core of their championship teams.
The other major point he hit on, one that we discuss frequently in the comments, is the ability to succeed in New York. It’s true, he said. Some people have an attitude conducive to surviving and succeeding in New York. He described it as even-keeled — the ability to weather some bad play and realize that when you’re yourself and performing well, the fans will love you. Bernie clearly has that attitude himself. I did ask, without getting names or specifics, if Bernie had come across a player or two who had the requisite attitude but just had a few bad years in the city. He clearly wanted to bring up an example, but held back. His response, though, led to the Yankee Attitude Matrix, which we’ll debut later today.
Towards the end of our time together we started asking questions about Bernie’s relationship with George Steinbrenner. He had two stories that illustrated what the Boss meant to him, and both were his most elaborate moments of the afternoon.
The first involved his contract negotiations after the 1998 season. After being tied to the Yankees for so long, he said, he wanted to test the market. He received interest from a number of teams and, as we know, a large offer from the Red Sox. His agent, Scott Boras, and Brian Cashman were talking about a deal, but Bernie didn’t feel they were getting it done the way he wanted it to be. So he reached out to Mr. Steinbrenner.
Bernie recalls that he called Mr. Steinbrenner and told him that he wanted to remain a Yankee. That, apparently, is what Steinbrenner wanted to hear. His response, according to Bernie, was, “OK. What do you want?” Bernie mentioned Mike Piazza’s seven-year, $91 million contract, and George said he’d do what he could. This was at a time, remember, when the Yankees were looking at Albert Belle — wining and dining, Bernie said. But George came back hours later with a seven-year, $87.5 million offer. That got the deal done.
At some point during his tenure in pinstripes, though he can’t remember which year, the team apparently cancelled a family day for the players. This is when they can bring their kids to the park and let them play on the field. This dismayed Bernie, but more importantly it dismayed his wife. He called up Mr. Steinbrenner and asked him to reconsider family day, saying how important it had become for his kids. The answer, “I’ll think about it,” turned into a yes later that day. Bernie thinks it’s because the Yankees won. I don’t doubt that.
The afternoon was nothing but enjoyable. How could it not be? It was a bunch of fans sitting around and asking questions of a guy who helped deliver four World Series titles. Bernie had plenty to say, and he certainly gave us elaborate answers to each question. Major thanks go to him, Taylor, and MasterCard for hosting the afternoon. If you want a different angle on the event, you can check out Emma Span’s write-up at Bronx Banter. Amanda Rykoff at The OCD Chick will have a comprehensive recap up later in the day. Which is good, because I surely didn’t get in everything.
* Brought to you by Carl’s Jr.