A king of diamonds – and hearts

Photographs by John Rizzo.

 

On the field, former New York Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams was known for robbing hitters of extra-base hits and stealing the occasional base. Off the field, the classically trained musician is known for giving back to the community — through his musical performances and programs, appearances and partnerships throughout Westchester and Fairfield counties.

That aspect of the multifaceted Williams was evident Aug. 30 during his annual charity softball game and guitar performance, featuring his All Star band, at the Ridgefield Playhouse.

Teams for the game were organized by Ridgefield Playhouse Executive Director Allison Stockel, and included Ridgefield residents — friends of Williams as well as several lucky area residents who won the chance to play through a contest by radio station WHUD, the event media sponsor.

The day began with the 1 p.m. game, which pitted a squad featuring Williams and his teammates against what could be seen as a group of underdogs, who pulled out a walk-off 17-16 win.

Several hundred folks, many wearing No. 51-inscribed jerseys or pinstripe gear, lined the perimeter of the East Ridge field to watch him cover first base, a far departure from his days in the outfield. Still, the day was more about charity than it was about a game.

Stockel says the day’s events raised more than $20,000, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Playhouse Arts for Everyone Program, which makes the performing arts available to the disadvantaged youth of Fairfield County.

“Having him come here every year is great because he’s such a charitable guy,” she says. “He’s a great guy and intense with commitment to his music but very approachable and personable.”

A portion of the proceeds raised from game tickets and auction items — including hats and other memorabilia signed by Williams — also went to Hillside Food Outreach, the Pleasantville-based nonprofit that delivers food to the needy in Westchester, Putnam and Fairfield counties.

Williams has been a supporter of the nonprofit for 14 years, and the organization plans on honoring him Nov. 7 at its annual gala and dinner auction. He was the guest speaker when the organization opened its Danbury office in September 2011 and performed at Hillside Food Outreach’s gala in January 2014.

Hillside Executive Director Kathleen Purdy says the event raised more than $5,000, and added that the organization would not have been able to expand as much as it has without Williams’ help.

“It’s very difficult for us to get support, especially in this area,” adds Purdy, whose son and grandson played against Williams in the August softball game. “People for whatever reason in these affluent areas don’t understand there are a lot of people going hungry. Bernie sees the need and is very diligent in helping us. His name has helped us tremendously in getting the word out.”

The partnership began after Purdy spoke at the Fountain of Eternal Life Church in Mount Kisco, and Williams came up to her after the event and said he wanted to get involved in the food delivery efforts.

A former Armonk and White Plains resident now living in Fairfield County, Williams began his work with the organization doing food deliveries in Westchester and now mainly does fundraising and serves as an honorary board member.

When he’s not helping feed the needy, Williams is taking his musical knowledge and imparting it to area youth. Earlier this year, he was selected to be a mentor-artist at Jettie S. Tisdale School in Bridgeport, where he works with students to introduce them to music.

In 2010, he was given the “Big Man of the Year” award by Little Kids Rock, a national nonprofit that works to provide underserved children with access to musical instruction. To celebrate the award, Williams donated guitars to a public school in the Bronx and performed with students in classrooms.

He learned classical guitar at an early age growing up in Puerto Rico and has proven that he is equally adept in the concert hall as he is on the diamond. His sounds combine elements of jazz with pop rhythms true to his Latin roots.

Since trading in a baseball bat for a guitar, Bernie has released two studio albums, “The Journey Within” and “Moving Forward,” which earned him a Latin Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Album in 2009.

“When I stopped playing baseball, I knew that I would become more dedicated to my music,” he said at the time of his Grammy nomination.

Stockel recognizes the dedication he puts in.

“Some people like to say, ‘I like to play music and guitar,’” she says. “He actually went to school and got a degree in music, then went back to school after baseball. He works as hard at his music as he did with baseball.”

Play-by-play announcing during the softball game was done by WHUD morning personality Mike Bennett, who has worked with Bernie and attended his annual dinner for more than 12 years.

He says this year’s crowd at the charity softball game was twice as large as last year’s.

“It’s extraordinary, the way he plays a game for charity then straps on a guitar,” Bennett says. “He has an incredible heart.”

The two shared a humorous dialogue during the game, in which Bennett asked Williams how many naps he was planning on taking between the conclusion of the game and the concert slated to begin just five hours later.

He flashed a quick “two” with his index and middle fingers.

But the swarm of fans — both gray-haired and baby-faced — mobbed Williams after the game, hoping for a photo or an autograph.

For each autograph he signs, he also signs the letters, “SDG” underneath his name. True to his unselfish nature, Williams says the acronym stands for “Solo a Dios la Gloria,” which translates to “Only to God the Glory.”

He’s always been one of the Yankees’ most beloved players, both during his playing days and since his last game in pinstripes in 2006. (Though he did not officially sign his retirement papers until this past April.)

It may be due to his clutch postseason hitting, his Gold Glove-caliber fielding in center or his four-syllable name that lends itself to a Yankee Stadium chant (“Ber-nie Will-iams *clap, clap, clap, clap, clap*).

Or it may be his cool personality and active presence in the community that makes him a fan favorite.

He spent his entire 16-year career in pinstripes en route to four World Series titles, an American League batting title and five All-Star game appearances. His No. 51 was retired in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park in May.

Williams showed flashes of the bat that won him the batting title in 1998, including a hard-hit single to left field in the seventh inning that sparked a brief rally.

“When you see him play softball,” WHUD’s Bennett says, “you’d swear he could go out there and continue playing baseball.”

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