Matt Williams as Washington Nationals manager is a leap of faith worth taking

Thomas Boswell
Columnist October 25, 2013

Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo has made many decisions, but few are as important — yet based so little on hard data and so much on intuition and chemistry — as the team’s choice to hire Matt Williams as manager. Rizzo and Williams clicked in Arizona. The GM wants a manager he admires, not just respects, and can envision being great, not just good. He got that in Williams.

If Rizzo and the Lerners are correct, they may have found their manager for the next decade, a skipper who could be the leader of a team that appears talented enough to reach a World Series and be in annual playoff contention.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

The Nats nudged Davey Johnson, 70, toward and then out the door because of their logical desire to find their Sparky Anderson, Cito Gaston, Tom Kelly, Earl Weaver, Ron Washington or Tommy Lasorda, the kind of man who stays in his first big league managing job for years and wins multiple pennants for the team that had faith in him.

Now for the word of warning: In the past 50 years, those are the only managers who won more than one pennant in their first MLB job. And most of them had experience managing in the minors. Though Williams had been a coach with the Diamondbacks for the past three years, often an acceptable apprenticeship these days, he has never managed anywhere except in the short-season Arizona Fall League.

Washington has become addicted to elevated sports expectations in recent years. That’s a nice novelty but disorienting. Acknowledging on the first day that rookie managers seldom win pennants before they get fired will harm nobody, including Williams. The truth is a decent starting point.

That said, the Nats got their man, the one Rizzo has focused on for months while waiting to make sure no experienced manager with rings suddenly fell out with his team and became available. Would Joe Girardi leave the Yankees or Mike Scioscia the Angels? Would Tony La Russa get antsy and want to return to the bench? Williams was never clearly behind any of these managers, who have won the World Series. But a team must explore alternatives before hiring a first timer.

Why? Managers don’t usually win pennants in their first big league job. Many of the best, like La Russa, Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, Whitey Herzog and Jim Leyland, never reached a Series with their first team but won it all later.

When you have Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper as your young core, you need a long-term plan, not a win-now, quick-hit manager.

Williams, 47, looks like a strong choice to be a manager who grows right along with his team. He’s tough but has a reputation for relating well to both stars and the less gifted. As a player, he was a bit menacing; for a century baseball has periodically picked these square-shouldered, crush-your-knuckles types — the so-called Peerless Leaders (Frank Chance) — to be managers. Some, like Chuck Tanner, Torre and Walter Alston, have done well because they understood the heart as well as the cold stare. One of Williams’s nicknames is “The Big Marine.” If there’s some Dutch Uncle in the mix, too, that can work.

Williams’s teams probably will have more edge than any here since ornery Frank Robinson’s chip-on-shoulder group in 2005. That’s needed. Williams is strict on fundamentals, something the Nats, slipshod for months in 2013, definitely need. And with four Gold Gloves and 378 homers, his much-hyped young talents can’t high-hat him. When one of them drives in more than 142 runs, they can pipe up.

Of the available candidates, I prefer him. It appears bench coach Randy Knorr, who may have been the runner-up choice, will stay with the Nats, too.

But “available” is a key word, too. Joe McCarthy and John McGraw are temporarily incapacitated. Managing is an everyday, eight-month test of a whole personality and baseball intellect. Coaching just hints at the weight. Brains are great and patter with the press helps, but cracks in character are always revealed, as the Red Sox discovered in Bobby Valentine. It’s a tough job that can take some seasoning, even some personality growth and self-reevaluation after a few firings, like Baltimore’s Buck Showalter.

La Russa, Torre, Herzog, Bruce Bochy and 20 others like Casey Stengel all won World Series titles, but they didn’t even reach a Series until they had been fired by one or several teams elsewhere. So be happy the Nats have such an impressive fellow in the fold. But hold your breath — for him.

The measure of how highly Rizzo values Williams is that he wants to get him on board before someone else does and is willing to overlook the lack of managing experience. Can it work? St. Louis just tied the World Series, and Manager Mike Matheny never even coached in the big leagues.

A few weeks ago, after praising both Williams and Knorr, Rizzo said: “There are a lot of people who’d love this job. I think we’ll get the person we want, though maybe not on the terms [salary and years] that we want.” That’s when you knew Williams fit the description. Knorr, despite parts of 11 years in the majors and two World Series rings as a backup catcher to Pat Borders in Toronto, wasn’t going to be demanding “terms.”

How plum a job did the Nats feel they held? They didn’t interview Dusty Baker, 64, who has finished first five times and said he was interested. They didn’t call Cal Ripken Jr., who made aloof musings about managing. They didn’t wait to see whether Don Mattingly and the Dodgers get back to lovey-dovey — and Rizzo preferred Mattingly several years ago, but the Dodgers wouldn’t allow an interview. The Nats didn’t try to dissuade Charlie Manuel or Jim Leyland, who both have won a Series, that they should not say goodbye to the game for good.

The Nats’ only internal concern about Williams — and it was not minor — was whether his appearance in the Mitchell Report, where he was named among dozens of players who had used steroids, should be a major negative. After reports he had purchased $11,600 worth of human growth hormone, steroids and other drugs from a Palm Beach clinic in 2002, Williams later said he used HGH on advice of a doctor to treat an ankle injury. Williams probably will have more to say. If there’s a gaffe, the Nats will have to take it.

The bigger problem is likely to be one that can’t be solved. No gold-plated Cooperstown-bound in-his-prime manager is available. There almost never is. Every manager, including the greatest, has to have his first major league job somewhere. And that always entails unexpected challenges, periodic team crises and personal adaptation.

The window is open right now for a Nats team that is still learning. Is Matt Williams, a manager doing his own growing, prepared to lead it through that? He seems to be the best available choice. Will that be good enough?

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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