Bernie Williams debuts in center (stage) with the New York Philharmonic

Bernie Williams with Gustavo Dudamel and the New York Philharmonic
This image released by the New York Philharmonic shows former New York Yankees baseball player Bernie Williams, standing left, with conductor Gustavo Dudamel as he makes his New York Philharmonic debut in New York on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. (Brandon Patoc/New York Philharmonic via AP)

Bernie Williams was in the center, just like the old days at Yankee Stadium. Only this time he was at Lincoln Center alongside conductor Gustavo Dudamel and making his New York Philharmonic debut.

After spending 16 years gaining fame while roaming the grass where Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle once trod, Williams was on the stage made famous by Leonard Bernstein and where guitar great Andrés Segovia once played.

Williams performed “Moving Forward,” a jazz-infused work he composed in 2009 that was newly arranged by Jeff Tyzik as part of the orchestra’s spring gala on Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall, a public exclamation of the former All-Star outfielder’s second career as a classical guitarist.

A day before the performance, he recalled going to the Manhattan School of Music from 2012-16 to learn his new trade and earn a bachelor’s degree.

“A lot of these people were running laps around me and I had to come to the realization that I had to work as hard as have I ever worked upon anything, including being a Major League Baseball player,” he said. “I had to put in the work, and none of that stuff that I did prior was going to help me here. I really had to reinvent myself. In learning all of the stuff that I learned being a professional baseball player, some of the stuff really helped me in performing under pressure, putting in the work in and being relentless.”

Dudamel, who becomes music director in 2026-27, gave Williams a glowing introduction that was repeatedly interrupted by applause as he recounted Williams’ background at an event to raise money for music education.

“Bernie grew up in Puerto Rico and I think that maybe he had some other opportunities outside music,” Dudamel said.

Wearing a dark suit and tie with patent leather loafers, Williams played his 4 1/2-minute composition backed by the Philharmonic, joined by student musicians.

Now 55, Williams signed with the Yankees on his 17th birthday in 1985, made it to the major leagues six years later and became a four-time World Series champion, five-time All-Star and the 1998 AL batting champion. He hit .297 with 287 homers, 1,257 RBIs and 147 stolen bases for the Yankees from 1991-2006.

This image released by the New York Philharmonic shows former New York Yankees baseball player Bernie Williams, standing left, with conductor Gustavo Dudamel as he makes his New York Philharmonic debut in New York on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. (Brandon Patoc/New York Philharmonic via AP)

He began playing guitar when he was 6 or 7 in Puerto Rico, learning from his mother’s friends, and listened to the guitar work of his dad, Bernabé. Bernie brought his guitar to the ballpark and played in the clubhouse lounge to MTV tunes picked by teammate Derek Jeter.

“When you’re on the road, there’s a certain amount of time that you spend in the room,” Williams said. “A lot of people play video games, a lot of people just watch TV. So I used to kind of like split time between watching TV, ordering room service and playing guitar between.”

He used to play in a paint room under the right-field stands at the old Yankee Stadium, where Ron Guidry had left a drum set that Paul O’Neill took over. Williams brought an amplifier, and they jammed after batting practice and during rain delays.

A particular thrill occurred before a game against Minnesota in 1998, when Bruce Springsteen walked into the clubhouse, spoke with some of the Yankees players and signed Williams’ guitar, writing: “To Bernie, If you ever get tired of baseball …” The two joined to play “Glory Days” at Joe Torre’s Safe at Home Foundation gala in 2007.

By 2003, Williams released his first recording, “The Journey Within.” His second, “Moving Forward,” earned a Latin Grammy nomination in 2009 for best instrumental album, and he’s contemplating his third, which he hopes will have more daring playing and writing.

“Anybody can enjoy a good piece of music and some of that music is able to move people in ways that nothing else can,” Williams said. “So understanding those emotions that come with being a musician I think has taken me in a great journey and it’s just such an awesome process to have in contrast to what I used to do in sports. It’s great to have an opportunity to do both things in one lifetime.”

His mother was adamant about him going to college. Williams received a degree in 2016 after the four-year undergraduate program. He studied guitar with Christopher Rosenberg, harmony, composition and improvisation with Garry Dial and writing with John Pagano. Williams now serves on the school’s board of trustees.

Ahead of this week’s performance, Williams spent from April 9-13 performing at the Café Carlyle, the celebrated Upper East Side nightspot where Bobby Short entertained New York’s high society from 1968-2004.

“Everybody’s so close and you hear a pin drop and everybody’s so attentive,” he said. “It’s such a unique experience, at least for me. I’m used to playing in front of 50,000 people, everybody yelling and screaming their hearts out. So it’s, yeah, quite a contrast.”

Philharmonic CEO Gary Ginstling said after Wednesday morning’s rehearsal that 30 orchestra musicians lined up to get balls, caps and shirts autographed by Williams as he posed for photos. Cellist Patrick Jee rehearsed in a Yankees jersey already signed by Torre and Jeter.

“I’ve never seen them all so giddy about one of our artists,” Ginstling said.