NEW YORK -- It was a look of sheer joy that spread across the face of Bernabé Williams as he accepted his college diploma from Manhattan School of Music president James Gandre on Friday afternoon at Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan.
The look is not an unfamiliar one for Yankees fans. Williams, a four-time World Series champion and five-time All-Star outfielder who spent his entire 16-year Major League career in New York, wore the same expression on many occasions in pinstripes. It was there when he hit that 10th-inning walk-off home run against the Red Sox in Game 1 of the 1999 American League Championship Series, when he held up the 2000 World Series trophy and when he connected on that three-run homer in Game 3 of the '03 World Series. For Williams, though, Friday's feeling is distinctive.
"This is a little bit different," Williams said. "It's at a different level. When you get to academics and it's intellectual, it's certainly a great accomplishment for me. I'm representing my family well. My mom was a teacher for 40 years and she was always stressing our academics, so I really did this for her. In my house, you earned the right to play baseball and play music if you had good grades. That was the rule."
Williams' mother, Rufina, was at home in Puerto Rico, but Williams' three children -- Bernie Alexander, 25, Beatriz, 22, and Bianca, 20 -- were on hand to see him accept the diploma representing his Bachelor of Music in jazz guitar. Next week, Beatriz will graduate from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in art history, and there was initially some worry that both graduations would fall on the same day.
"I was going to be mad if he missed my graduation for his, but this is really exciting for all of us," Beatriz said. "It's cool for our family to have two graduations in the same week."
The 47-year-old Williams, who entered MSM in 2013 with enough course credit to begin as a sophomore, walked in the MSM cap and gown ceremony with 250 other students. Though most of them are 25 years Williams' junior, they treated him as just another student at MSM, but still gave him the loudest cheer of all as his name was read from the lectern.
"The kids make me feel young," Williams said. "I had to earn respect from my peers, even though they're only 18 or 20 years old. I thought I knew how to play guitar, and these guys were running laps around me. It was a great experience for me to realize how little I knew and how much I still needed to learn."
Williams says the hardest thing about going back to college full-time was the structure it required in his schedule. As a baseball player, he had a lot of free time, and he had to quickly adjust to 5 a.m. alarms and late nights rehearsing to accommodate his coursework at MSM.
"Graduation is always a magical day because it's such a celebration of everything the students have done," Gandre said. "Getting a music degree is somewhat different than getting another degree because you spend thousands and thousands of hours in the practice room, rehearsing and performing, and your week is 30 or 40 hours of classes and rehearsals, where a normal college student's is more like 15 hours in the classroom. It takes discipline and drive, so when you get in that room on graduation day, the energy is incredible."
Williams has demonstrated such discipline and drive since he was a child in Puerto Rico, when he learned to balance music, athletics and schoolwork. As an 8-year-old, he was as fond of his baseball bat as he was of the flamenco guitar his merchant-marine father, Bernabé Williams Figueroa Sr., brought home from Spain. The young Williams became one of Puerto Rico's best young athletes, posting record times in the 400 meters and becoming one of the island's most promising baseball prospects. He also attended the special performance arts school Escuela Libre de Musica at age 13.
"There is a great correlation between the work ethic you need to have playing music and playing baseball," Williams says. "The more prepared you are, the better you're going to be. If you know how to read and write music, you know how to communicate with fellow musicians anywhere in the world. It's the universal language."
And it is a language Williams has always spoken well. During his time with the Yankees, music was never far away, and his guitar was always within reach in the Yankees' clubhouse and on team flights. He also made time to record professionally while still playing baseball.
Williams released his first album, "The Journey Within," in 2003. It reached No. 3 on Billboard's contemporary jazz chart. His second album, "Moving Forward," was released in 2009 and featured guest appearances by Bruce Springsteen, Jon Secada and Dave Koz. The album debuted as Billboard's No. 2 contemporary jazz album and was nominated for a Latin Grammy.
Williams is as proud of his degree as he is of his Grammy nomination or his World Series rings. So much so that he's already thinking of collecting another one.
"I don't know exactly what's next," Williams said. "Maybe I'll come back for my Masters."