Outtakes from our profile on Matt Williams


(Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

In Sunday’s Post, we ran our first big profile of new Nationals Manager Matt Williams. Along with a dozen or so complementary interviews, I spent a good chunk of two days with Williams, interviewing him at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. As the story depicts, hopefully, Williams was thoughtful and open talking about how he got here.

Though the story ended up being long, there are still several tidbits, quotes and notes that didn’t fit into the piece or got left on the cutting-room floor. If you’re curious for more about Williams, here are some of them:

>>> Before General Manager Mike Rizzo called Williams and offered him an interview late in the fall, Williams had only interviewed for one other managerial job — the Rockies, last year. It’s was a unique job interview. The bulk of the time was spent discussing how Williams would adapt to the altitude at Coors Field. With the Nationals, it was different. He spoke with a room full of ownership and front-office officials, about 12 people in all, with Rizzo leading the questioning.

“They asked me questions not about the team, but about how I would handle certain situations,” Williams said. “Do you believe in the sacrifice bunt? Yeah, of course, I believe in the sacrifice bunt in the right situation. There’s a lot of things to think about in that regard. How’s the guy behind him been hitting? How’s he match up against that particular pitcher? Where are we at in a winning or losing streak? I was at least prepared for those answers.

“Beyond that, the Lerners asked me, what are your desires? What do you want to do? Is this a long-term commitment that you want to make? I want to do this. I want to be as good at this as I can possibly be. I’ll tell you that not many first-time managers are provided this kind of opportunity. Nonetheless, it goes without saying, I was excited about that. But how can I help make this team better? How can I help this team get to the pinnacle of our sport? Given the talent of our team, given what they already accomplished two years ago. They asked me questions about what my goals are, which was really important to me and really refreshing to me because they wanted to understand me as a person and what my desires were, what I wanted to accomplish. Specifics on dealing with players. How do I give guys days off? What would I talk about with the club? What would I emphasize with the club? It was probably three or four hours of talking. I tried to give answers that were honest to me and how I would approach it.”

Williams did not hear back from Rizzo until Oct. 25, the day the Nationals offered him the job. In between, there was “a lot of pacing the halls,” Williams said. Reports started to leak early that morning that the Nationals planned to hire Williams — but he says he had no idea.

“It was really funny,” Williams said. “That morning, I was asleep here. We’re [three] hours behind. All of a sudden, my phone starts to go, bing-bing, bing-bing, bing-bing, bing-bing. All these people are going, ‘Congratulations.’ I’m going, ‘What are you people talking about?’ I had no idea.

“I hadn’t heard from Rizz at that point. I didn’t talk to Rizz until later in the day. People are calling me. ‘Can we get a comment?’ I’m going, ‘I don’t know anything yet, that they want me to take the job or anything yet.’ ”

>>> Much has been made, rightfully so, of Williams’s attention to detail in his spring training schedule. He also wants to have a little fun with it. At the top of each daily schedule for spring training, Williams printed either a quote or a “word of the day.” The quote for the first full squad workout, for instance, is: “Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way.”

On other days, there will be a word of the day. Players may have to mix in, say, the word “violet” into interviews. Williams wants players to think in different ways and to embrace the long process of spring.

>>> On the first day we met with Williams, he wore a red polo with the Nationals’ logo. Somehow, it came up that Williams had gone online at the team store to buy a bunch of shirts and gear himself, as opposed to the Nationals sending him it for free. Not sure why I found that so amusing, but I did.

>>> Williams’s outlook on young players may be shaped by his own difficult acclimation to the majors. The Giants rushed him. They took him third overall in 1986. Williams played half a season at Class A and, by virtue of a clause in his contract, attended spring training in 1987. He played well enough that the Giants decided he would bypass Class AA and start the season at AAA Phoenix. In the first week of his season, the Giants’ shortstop blew out his hamstring. Williams received a call from Wendell Kim, his Class AAA manager. “Pack your bags,” he said. “You’re starting in Dodgers Stadium.”

“What?” Williams replied. “What the [expletive]?”

Wearing a No. 60 uniform with no name across his shoulder, facing Orel Hershiser, Williams felt overwhelmed. He hit .188 that season and .205 in 1988 as he toggled between the majors and minors. The reps he should have been receiving in Class AA or AAA instead came in the majors. Whereas Davey Johnson voted for aggression in promoting players, Williams’s experience may make him a more conservative voice in that regard.

Williams also had a rough start because of the pressure he applied to himself. He realizes his career may been smoother had he not beaten himself up after failure, but he knows, too, that he could not change his personality. The easy way was not his way, and he understands, as a manager, that he cannot force his players to take on new personalities. He has to work within the framework of each individual.

“In reality, it is who they are,” Williams said. “So you have to work within those guidelines and try to nudge them one way or the other. To make wholesale changes, people just can’t do that. It’s their personality. It’s what makes them who they are.”

>>> Before Williams’ family moved from tiny Big Pine, Calif., to less-tiny Carson City when he was 9, his mother, Sally, was a cop. She became the first female deputy in Inyo County. As part of her duties, Williams said, she processed the female members of the Manson family after authorities discovered their compound in Death Valley, which is located in Inyo County. “Kinda cool,” Williams said.

>>> As a sophomore in high school, Williams’s high school coach added him to the varsity team. But he played him at shortstop and chose to use the designated hitter for him instead of the pitcher. Williams’s father threatened to move the family to Reno. The Williamses ended up staying, and as a junior Williams won Nevada’s state player of the year award.

>>> Williams decided he wanted to manage shortly after his coaching career began. When the Diamondbacks’ third base coach job opened after the 2010 season, Williams was aggressive in letting Arizona manager Kirk Gibson know he wanted to shift from first base to third base. Gibson agreed. Immediately after the year, Williams made a rare decision: he traveled every day from Phoenix to Tucson, 90 minutes each way, to work as a third base coach in the Diamondbacks’ instructional league. That’s very much a Matt Williams anecdote. He has something like a compulsion in wanting to be prepared.

“Not many guys would do that,” Arizona GM Kevin Towers said.  “He’s an animal. If I had to define Matt Williams, it would be A-N-I-M-A-L.”

>>> The first Nationals player Williams named in our conversations was Danny Espinosa. We were talking about learning different personalities on the team and how he views his role as getting close to players. This is what he said:

“When I get down there, I need to spend a little bit of time with Danny Espinosa. Just got to spend some time with him. Not talk to him about his swing or anything like that. I just, I got to spend some time and understand him. So if there’s something that we need to do during the course of spring or during the course of the season or whatever it is, then I have some reference and I can talk to him man to man. I think he needs to be and I think he’s going to be a very important part of our team.

“I talked to Bryce. We all know Bryce. He’s on Twitter. He’s got his UFC belt and all that stuff and he takes the picture and his arms are huge and he’s working out like a crazy man. Got to love that. But I also pick up the phone and talk to him. He opens up, and it’s like, you realize this dude’s only 21. He’s in this bubble. Everybody expects great things from him — he’s going to be this Hall of Fame player, all of that stuff. I want to just help him get through all of that so he can go play. That’s my job. The intricacies of all the little stuff, I can’t deal with anymore. Because I just don’t have time. I got to take care of my guys. These are my guys. I got to make sure I’m there for support. I’m there to give advice if they want. I’m there to help them be as good as they can be. I struggle with that still. And that will be a process.

“It’s a very unique situation he’s got. But I also played with some guys that have that type of bubble. I played with Bonds. I played with Johnson. Randy Johnson cannot hide anywhere. He can’t go out to a restaurant. He’s 6-10 for crying out loud. Randy has been forced to put this wall up a little bit, because he just can’t get away. Barry was the next Willie Mays from the time he left the womb. That’s hard. I’ve had experience with guys that have had to live that. Bryce is a little bit like that. Stephen [Strasburg] is a little bit like that. There’s a lot been put on them at a very young age. I think they’ve both handled it very well. My hope is to help them get through that and just go play. When they do that, they’re really good.”

>>> The great what-if in Williams’s playing career is whether he would have set the single-season home run record if not for the strike in 1994. Williams had mashed 43 homers in 112 games when the season was shut down. Williams doubts that he would have made it to 62 — he actually thinks teammate Barry Bonds, who had 37 homers, had a better chance.

“It was interesting, because there wasn’t a whole lot of press about it, because everybody was talking about the strike,” Williams said. “Everybody thought, well, it’s not going to happen anyway, because they’re going to go on strike. So don’t worry about it. As it turns out, the strike happened.”

Let the record show: In the 162 games stretching from opening day 1994 and into 1995, Williams hit 62 homers — one more than Maris’s record.

“But I’m sure there would have been pressure,” Williams said. “I don’t know how I would have handled that.”

Williams doesn’t have any regrets about not getting the shot to break Maris’s record, largely because he didn’t think he was really having one of his best seasons. Despite all the homers, he had a .319 on-base percentage and just 16 doubles. He thought his homer outburst was fluky — and, indeed, he would never hit more than 35 in a full season.

“I’d hit the ball in the gap, and it would just be high enough,” Williams said. “I hit the foul pole I don’t know how many times.”

Williams looks back more ruefully on his 1995 season than the strike. That year, he said, he was hitting better than he ever had or ever would. In 76 games, Williams hit .336/.399/.647 with 23 homers and 17 doubles. At one point, he was leading the league in average. But his season was cut short when he fouled a ball off his foot and broke it.

“Man,” he said, “that could have been a good year.”

>>> The story of how Williams ended up in Arizona is amazing all around, one of the most fascinating trades in baseball history. Williams wanted to play for the Diamondbacks or retire because he felt the need to move close to his children after a surprise divorce. He asked the Indians to trade him. John Hart — who had gone into the offseason with a top priority of signing Williams to an extension — faced a high degree of difficulty. Williams had not only requested a trade; he had requested a trade to one specific team, and that specific team had yet to play its first game.

A lot of pieces needed to fall into place, and there were some nervous moments for Williams. Jeff Moorad, Williams’s agent at the time, was close with Joe Garagiola and Jerry Colangelo, who ran the expansion Diamondbacks. He quietly told them Williams could be had, and he urged them to draft specific players in the expansion draft who might be of interest to Cleveland.

As Williams waited for his future to be resolved, the Diamondbacks traded for Travis Fryman, a third baseman, from the Tigers. “Matty was crushed,” Moorad said. “Matty was like, ‘Am I done? Is this it?’ ”

It turned out the Fryman trade was actually a coup for Williams. The Diamondbacks flipped Fryman to Cleveland, the centerpiece of the trade that sent Williams back to his hometown.

Another incredible piece of trivia from the trade: Williams and Moorad flew to Cleveland to request the trade in person. The Indians sent an intern to pick them up at the airport. That intern was Josh Byrnes, who would become the GM of the Diamondbacks when Moorad owned a primary stake in the team.

>>> Williams has a monstrous basement in his home, which includes a wine closet, a movie theater with a dozen or so plush chairs and a game room with a pool table. The game room is where he keeps the mementos from his career, and he has some good ones — all-star jerseys, Silver Sluggers, a photograph of himself with Willie Mays. The items he tabbed as his most cherished reveal something about his defensive emphasis with the Nationals: He took the most pride in his four Gold Gloves.

>>> All the baseball people who played with Williams, played for him in Arizona or coached him believe he’s going to succeed. He seems to have a way that inspires confidence in him. “There’s no B.S.,” Towers said. “He’ll have a little bit of fun. But he wants to win in the worst way, man. His focus, the minute he walks into that clubhouse and the minute he leaves there, is all baseball.”

No one showed more confidence than Ron McNutt, Williams’s high school coach from Carson City. “I’m a gambling guy,” McNutt said. “I’ve already put 20 bucks they’re going to get to the end of the playoffs.”

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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