Friday afternoon, Matt Williams paced through the Diamondbacks’ clubhouse, setting his pregame agenda. “Pen, what time?” he asked third baseman Cliff Pennington. “2:15?” Pennington nodded. Williams nodded back and continued his loop around the room, setting more times to work with his players.
He remained focused on his current job, even as a bigger potential opportunity loomed across the field. Williams, formerly a star third baseman and currently Arizona’s third base and infield coach, has emerged as a strong candidate to replace Davey Johnson and become the Nationals’ next manager. General Manager Mike Rizzo came to know and admire Williams during his time as the Diamondbacks’ scouting director from 2000 to 2006, during which time Williams served as a player and an ambassador for the team.
Williams, 47, would not agree to an interview about his thoughts on managing the Nationals, or even his aspirations to manage in general. He said it would not be appropriate. Instead, he released a statement through a Diamondbacks spokesman: “I respectfully decline commenting on the Nationals’ managerial opening to remain focused on my duties as the D-Backs’ third base coach for our remaining games and out of respect for the Nationals.”
Plenty of people around Williams – former teammates, current players, an old manager – would talk about his credentials. They described an intense competitor who has mellowed until someone messes with his team, a fierce defender of baseball’s code, a gifted communicator whose voice gets through to modern players and a star player who failed just enough to understand a full spectrum of emotional baseball states.
“Matt played the game the right way,” former teammate Luis Gonzalez said. “That’s what he would demand from his players. They would be very fundamentally sound and hard-nosed at the same time. He’s from the old school era. You want guys that are going to play hard for you.”
Rizzo has constantly declined to address the Nationals’ managerial situation. But he has spoken in the past about his fondness for Williams’s intense style. Rizzo said in the spring of 2010 that he wanted to build a team led by fiery personalities and used Williams as a prime example.
“Like we did in Arizona — [shoot], the manager didn’t have to say a word,” Rizzo said then. “You screwed up, Matt Williams put you in a locker. And that was end of it. Mark Grace, Matt Williams, Jay Bell, Luis Gonzalez — those were the guys who gave the fines, jump peoples’ [rear], put a guy in a locker.”
Chad Tracy, now a 33-year-old veteran with the Nationals, was once one of those guys who feared Williams. At the end of Williams’s playing career, Tracy was a Diamondbacks prospect. In his first big league spring training, he knew immediately he needed to adhere to anything Williams said, or better yet, steer clear of him altogether.
“He was really tough,” Tracy said. “He’s one of those guys, as a young guy, you were kind of scared to cross paths with him a little bit. I think that’s kind of the way he played on the field. He was kind of no-nonsense.”
Williams refused to adjust his standards for his teammates, and it didn’t matter which teammate. During Williams’s tenure in San Francisco, Barry Bonds frequently miffed teammates with actions or words. Only Williams had the stature in the clubhouse to challenge him.
“Matty was one guy on the team that would put Barry in his place,” said Bob Brenly, who managed Williams in Arizona and coached him San Francisco. “If he felt Barry was out line, he would call him on it. Usually, Barry said, ‘You’re right, Matt.’ There were a couple of times we thought we were going to have to break them up. Ultimately, Barry realized whatever it was he had said or done, that Matty was right.”
By the time Tracy reached the majors, Williams had left the field but become ingrained in the franchise. He owned a small share of the team, served as a front office special assistant and helped instruct players. Before one game, Williams spotted Tracy throwing balls across the diamond for 15 minutes straight. Williams told him to pace himself – make 10 throws, not 30, just enough to get a feel. Tracy carried the advice through his whole career.
“He can give a look that can make people be quiet,” Tracy said. “But there’s definitely another side to him. Later on, I realized he was very caring, smart and really, really a nice guy. Very approachable. After he was done, him being back in the locker room, it was nice to have his presence there.”
Those around Williams have seen him soften his edge as he transitioned from player to coach. He will still flash those piercing eyes when he has to. Two years ago, Williams screamed at Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos from the dugout as he jogged slowly around the bases after a home run.
“I think he’s mellowed a little bit,” Gonzalez said. “At the same time, when certain situations happen, he knows how to get that intensity level back up. He can get very intense when things happen abruptly. I’ve seen him be the gentlest guy when he’s with a kid on the field. And then I’ve seen that animal that wants to rip your neck open when he sees someone not playing the game right way.”
Said Tracy: “He still falls under the category of a hard-ass to me. It’s one of those things where, as a non-player now, he’s always got that mentality when somebody pushes him to the limit. The rest of the time, I don’t want to call him a big teddy bear, but he’s a very, very nice guy. He’s a teacher.”
Williams may sometimes intimidate the opposition, but his own players praised for his openness and his ability to communicate. Williams managed Nationals rookie second baseman Anthony Rendon in the Arizona Fall League last year. “He’s a great guy,” Rendon said, “He’s a player’s coach.”
Pennington said Williams constantly speaks with him about on-field and off-field topics. He wants to get a gauge for how his players are feeling, both physically and mentally, Pennington said. Williams allows players to dictate how much work they need to prepare before games. If Pennington’s legs are tired, he said, Williams will let him take a day off from grounders to recuperate.
“It’s not like this hard-and-fast rule – ‘This is how we’re going to do it,’ ” Pennington said. “It’s based on how we’re doing and what he’s seeing. He’s communicating with you so he knows where you’re at.”
“Anybody is lucky to get him in any role,” Diamondbacks second baseman Aaron Hill said. “We’d love to have him. But where he’s going in his career, he’s going to be a manager at some point, so he deserves every opportunity to get out and have an offer or at least interview. I know everyone here wishes him the best. You never hear a bad thing about him. He relates [to players] really well. He’s very even-keeled. You don’t see a lot of emotions get to him at a higher level. Communication is a big thing with him. He’s got a presence about him.”
Williams’s career gave him stature. He hit more than 30 homers six times, won four Gold Golves and once finished second in the MVP vote. In 1994, he challenged Roger Maris’s home run record before the strike hit. But Williams also knew failure. He suffered through lower-back and leg injuries. In 1992, at age 26, he hit .227. His career ended when the Diamondbacks waived him midway through the 2003 season.
“He’s been a really good player, and he’s had some years where he struggled,” Brenly said. “I think that’s an important thing for any first-year manager. If you’ve been nothing but a superstar and had nothing but success all the time, it’s kind of hard to identify with a guy who’s in the midst of an 0-for-30. But Matty’s had 0-for-30s.”
Williams has left a major imprint with the Diamondbacks. In the middle of each game, the team holds a Legends Race, identical to the Nationals Park Presidents Race, with former Diamondbacks players rather than Abe, Tom, George, Teddy and Bill. One of the four mascots who dashes around the Chase Field warning track is Williams.
But he is ready to become a manager. He has picked the brain of Arizona pitching coach Charles Nagy in an effort to learn more about pitchers. He may soon become part of another organization as a manager, maybe even in Washington. His current players now will miss him whenever that happens.
“I’d hate to have him leave,” Hill said. “We love him here. Someone would be truly blessed to have him on their team.”