Matt Williams: Before the Washington Nationals, two jarring blows altered his path

One fall afternoon shortly after the 1996 baseball season, Matt Williams sat in the back yard of his Phoenix home, fishing out of the pond he stocked with bass. The life ahead of Williams seemed so simple. He had done the hopeful calculation of a 30-year-old ballplayer convinced of the order of the world. By the time he turned 40, his career with the San Francisco Giants would be winding down. His three young children would be out of the house soon after, off to college and jobs. He would travel with his wife to all the places he had never seen: Ireland, Asia, anywhere he wanted. “You have these thoughts and these plans,” he said.

Baseball had made him a star — he collected Gold Gloves at third base, made all-star teams and once threatened the single-season home run record. His searing intensity won him a nickname, the Big Marine, and uncommon respect — players he intimidated would later call him one of their favorite teammates. He devoted himself to family — “I could tell when I first met him,” his wife, Tracie, had told a Sports Illustrated reporter two years earlier, “that this was a family man.”

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Post Sports Live's Jonathan Forsythe talks with Nationals beat writer Adam Kilgore about the team's new manager, Matt Williams, and what his goals are for the 2014 season.

Post Sports Live's Jonathan Forsythe talks with Nationals beat writer Adam Kilgore about the team's new manager, Matt Williams, and what his goals are for the 2014 season.

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Now, as he fished, the phone rang. The Giants’ general manager, Brian Sabean, told him he had been traded to the Cleveland Indians. He remembers, in his shock, hearing Sabean ask whether he could get to Cleveland for a news conference.

That February, he reported to Winter Haven, Fla., for spring training. Tracie flew in later to meet him, walked through the door and said she wanted a divorce.

“She told me that she had fallen in love with somebody else and that she was going to go in that direction,” Williams said. “When you get word like that, what do you say?”

The jarring, one-two punch altered Williams’s path. He thinks often about how his hardest, darkest year led ultimately to all that he has now. He would never have requested a trade to Arizona. He would never have met Erika Monroe, his wife for the past 11 years and the mother of 10-year-old daughter Madison. He would never have become the fifth manager of the Washington Nationals, the job he will begin this week, when spring training opens in Viera, Fla.

“I learned a lot about myself that year, and how resilient you can be,” Williams said. “And I also learned how fragile people can be, too. All that helps me with regard to this job. I think that was a very big moment in my life and my professional career, and it intertwined — which it seems to always intertwine. People try to separate work and family, but oftentimes you can’t. It kind of meshes together.”

One day this January, Williams grinned as he welcomed two guests into his Mediterranean ranch house just outside Phoenix . “How do you guys like this weather?” he gushed. As he walked toward the kitchen, he saw the miniature bulldog he bought for Madison squatting in the hallway.

“Clementine!” he yelled, laughing.

The Big Marine grabbed paper towels, knelt and cleaned his dog’s mess.

At noon, Williams retreated to his office, where books fill shelves from ceiling to floor. He sat in a leather chair behind an oak desk. He called Mark Weidemaier, a close friend he hired to be the Nationals’ defensive coach. They had been talking for two hours daily, pinning down a minute-by-minute plan for spring training. Already, Williams had mapped out all 41 days, but details remained. He expects he will stay at Nationals Park until 3 a.m. some nights this season, worrying about the next day, or the next series, or the next month. He cannot sleep if he feels unprepared, a remnant from his playing days.

“Humina-ha!” he said into the phone, by way of greeting. “Let’s start through it. We’ve got to allow 15 minutes for the position players to sign autographs instead of 10. . . .

Thinking and planning occupy much of Williams’s time. He chuckles at how deeply he has considered ways to exploit the new rules concerning catcher collisions and replay reviews. He requested one idea remain private, because he wanted to run it by the players involved first. “They’re going to think, ‘You’re out of your freakin’ mind,’ ” Williams said.

His son, Jake, calls the piercing gaze that became part of his persona “the Marine Stare.” He scared teammates and opponents alike. “You’re not sure what’s going on behind those eyes,” said John Hart, the Indians’ general manager who traded for him. “You go, ‘I’m not sure I want to get lit up by this guy.’ ”

The stare comes from concentration, not intimidation. Erika sees it when he is trying to decide on the best way to replace a light bulb.

“I’m probably an introvert by nature,” Williams said. “I think a lot, and don’t necessarily verbalize.”

An enforcer and a friend

Sally Williams and her husband, Arthur, whom everyone in tiny Big Pine, Calif., called Sandy, had raised three boys when their fourth was born. They named him Matthew Derrick. “I was the ‘whoops,’ ” Williams said.

Williams idolized his brothers. “My objective,” he said, “was to be them.” They played eight-man football in Big Pine, a 900-person town on the eastern slope of the Sierras, and they all won the high school’s award for best player. His youngest brother, Bart, was nine years older, so Matt spent time alone, like an only child, but also had an example to strive for.

Williams demanded of himself a purposeful, meticulous focus. He could not understand when others didn’t think like him.

“Even back in high school, he could basically — he didn’t have to say anything,” said Bob Ayrault, a high school teammate who briefly pitched in the majors. “All he had to do was look at you, and you either knew he was [angry] or you did something good. It was like at home with your dad.”

After Williams turned 9, Sandy’s work took the family to Carson City, Nev. His brothers by then had graduated from high school, and Matt had more time by himself, to think. He poured himself into sports. “When we were young, it was a one-McDonald’s town and one-movie-theater town,” said Charlie Kerfeld, a high school teammate who went on to pitch in the major leagues.

Fear, Williams said, drove him. Disappointing others worried him, so he berated himself after he struck out. Not being prepared gnawed at him, so he fielded extra groundballs until his legs ached and took batting practice until his fingers bled.

“I couldn’t let myself take a day off,” Williams said. “I used to get mad — really mad — when everybody else was itching for a day in the cage and not getting on the field. I’d get mad. All those fears would come to the forefront. I’d go, ‘I can’t take my groundballs, so I won’t be ready, and therefore I may make an error, and therefore we may lose the game.’ All that stuff started piling on.”

Early in his major league career, Giants teammate Kevin Mitchell told him to leave the batting cage. Williams kept hitting. The argument escalated until Mitchell told him to meet him in the parking lot. Once he finished hitting, Williams marched to the parking lot.

“Kevin was surprised Matt had showed up,” said Dusty Baker, then the Giants’ manager. “And then they became best friends.”

The pattern repeated: A teammate would be scared by Williams — and then bond with him. Williams never aimed to be a leader, but his consistency made him a natural clubhouse enforcer. He would yell at rookies for mistreating the Giants’ clubhouse attendant. And he would also yell at the best player in the game if need be.

Barry Bonds joined the Giants in 1993, and in an early season game that year, a right fielder named Mark Carreon dropped a flyball. Bonds chastised him. Williams approached Bonds, and by the time they reached the dugout, they were exchanging expletives.

“I stepped in and said, ‘Listen, this guy is pulling as hard for this team as you are. So knock it off. We’re not going to accept that around here,’ ” Williams said. “It’s one thing if he doesn’t hustle to first. But he misplayed a ball. It happens. I thought that was a little overboard, so I stuck up for Mark.”

Now, Williams calls Bonds a close friend. They lived near one another, and their children played together.

“Initially, there was an intimidation factor because of his intensity,” said pitcher Curt Schilling, Williams’s teammate for four years in Arizona. “He was probably one of my favorite teammates of all time, just because day in, day out, he never changed. He was always intense, but it was a good intensity.”

In his new role, Williams knows, he will need to alter his focus. He will want to be at every drill, pounding fungoes or throwing batting practice, but he understands he needs a wider lens. The time since his retirement as a player has already mellowed him. As a coach with the Diamondbacks, Williams learned to communicate more, to let his players know his thought process. When old teammates bump into Erika, they tell her, “Matt’s so happy.”

“I tend to take things very seriously,” Williams said. “I see people that are my friends or acquaintances that are just these happy-go-lucky folks, and I can’t understand how they do that. Because I can’t turn it on and off. When I show up to the ballpark at spring training at 5 o’clock in the morning, it’s all about that. I don’t deviate very well from the path. Maybe that’s it. Maybe I’m not happy-go-lucky in that regard. Probably because I have to concentrate on what I’m doing or I mess it up.”

He likes losing himself in his work or in his family. Plotting which outfielders will take flyballs after stretching on Feb. 21 may sound like drudgery. Williams loves it.

“That’s part of the joy,” Williams said. “Part of the joy is concentrating and being whatever I am at that point. When I played, I didn’t hear the crowd. Maybe that’s my comfort zone because I’ve done it my whole life. So maybe I need to get into the place to be comfortable so I can in turn do my job right, try to do it well, maybe be happy within it.”

Williams paused, sat back in a lounge chair next to his pool, and shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said, laughing. “I need to talk to a doctor about it.”

Quite a ride to Arizona

Williams has tamed his intensity, but as a rookie trying to stick in the majors, it nearly broke him. The Giants drafted him third overall in 1986 and only added to his natural propensity to apply pressure. The Giants’general manager then, Al Rosen, had been a star third baseman. In Williams he saw a protege, an odd relationship for a player and a general manager. Rosen ordered Williams’s bats himself — Model 016, the same Rosen used. When Williams struggled, he would yell at him personally.

And Williams struggled. He played some 50 minor league games before the Giants, beset by injuries and infatuated with Williams’s potential, brought him up in 1987. He couldn’t lay off curveballs in the dirt, and his average remained under .200 all year. The Giants toggled him between San Francisco and their Class AAA team in Phoenix. The same shuttling happened in 1988 — Williams would be promoted to the majors, struggle, and find himself heading back to the minors.

In the spring of 1989, Giants Manager Roger Craig told Williams: “You’re going to be my third baseman. Don’t worry about it. I don’t care if you hit .150.” A month into the season, Williams was batting .130, and the Giants shipped him to Phoenix. After the flight, he called his parents. He considered walking away from the sport.

“I just don’t know,” Williams told them. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to be good enough.”

“Make them rip the jersey off you,” his dad said. “If you quit, you’ll never know.”

The reason it finally clicked still eludes Williams. Experience, he figures. When Williams returned to the majors that summer, he started to lay off curves in the dirt. Baker, his future manager but then the hitting coach, unlocked the power in his swing. In October, months after he told his parents he might quit, Williams played third base and shortstop in the 1989 World Series.

His career blossomed. He led the league in RBI in 1990. He won his first of four Gold Gloves in 1991. “He was the most sure-handed, accurate-throwing third baseman I ever had,” Baker said. By 1996, he had made three straight all-star games. The 1994 strike interrupted his bid to break Roger Maris’s home run record — he had blasted a league-high 43 homers in 112 games. He was a star, and he started to plan the rest of his life.

And then the Giants traded him and his wife left him.

“What are going to do?” Williams said. “In this game, one day you’re the hero, the next day you’re the goat. So you have to have a very short memory in everything. It’s different with family, of course. I just kind of took my baseball philosophy and moved forward. She wanted to go that direction. She decided to do that. What can you do about it, other than protect, as much as you can, your kids and your career? It wasn’t easy.”

Professionally, Williams cherished the Indians. He fit into the middle of a lineup that included Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, David Justice and Sandy Alomar. (“We [expletive] boat-raced people, man!” he said, leaping from his chair.) He separated the strain of his personal life from his performance.

“It was common knowledge there were marital issues,” Hart said. “When he walked in that door at 11, you never knew it. This guy was a consummate, true professional. He was a star with blue-collar qualities. You never worried about Matt Williams. He carried weight in the clubhouse, but he didn’t throw it around.”

Personally, the time away from his kids ripped him apart. Williams’s children remained in Phoenix with Tracie, flying to meet him on weekends. Alysha was 8, Jake was 7 and Rachel was 5. He felt a fierce need to protect them, to make them know the divorce was not their fault. His kids would land in Cleveland on Friday, usually after a game had started; Saturday raced by; by Sunday’s day game, they were headed back to Arizona.

“He wanted to make sure when we came to Cleveland to make us comfortable,” Jake Williams said. “When myself and my sisters were at the ballpark, he was still Dad. He wasn’t the third baseman for the Indians.”

As the Indians advanced to the 1997 World Series and his divorce was finalized, the struggle to balance his career and his children wore on Williams.

After Game 7 of the World Series lurched into extra innings and the Florida Marlins won on a walk-off single, Williams met agent Jeff Moorad at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach, armed with two yellow legal pads. He made lists of reasons to stay in Cleveland and reasons to leave. Before 6 a.m., when both men had to leave and catch flights, Williams arrived at a decision: He needed to go home.

Williams told Moorad he wanted to be traded to the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks. If not, he would retire.

“Here’s one of my all-star clients who, for all I knew, was going to make a decision to walk away from the game as well as a contract that was paying him $6 million a year,” Moorad said.

Williams will not offer every detail of why he felt so desperate to move back to Arizona. But a judge had been compelled to grant Williams — a ballplayer who traveled constantly — full custody. “There were a lot of reasons I needed to be there,” he said. “I had to come back here, because I had to protect the kids.”

Hart was stunned by Williams’s decision but agreed to try to move him to the Diamondbacks. On Dec. 1, after two months of maneuvering, Cleveland traded him to Arizona for Travis Fryman, a prospect and cash. Like that, the longest year of his life had come to a close.

“I think in times like that, you need to prioritize what the real goals are,” Williams said. “I don’t think it changed me. Maybe it helped me be a little more a leader. You have to take responsibility at that point. It might have helped. I wouldn’t recommend that for anybody to help them further themselves in their career. It was interesting, though. Everything was brand new all of a sudden. It was like a new chapter. Everything was new.”

‘Not my finest hour’

Williams viewed leaving a contender for an expansion team as a significant professional risk. But from the start, it was a thrill. The Diamondbacks sold out most every night their first season. Owners poured money into the team, and free agents flocked. During Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, Williams was standing on deck when Luis Gonzalez floated Mariano Rivera’s cutter over the infield for the championship-winning run.

The year after the World Series title, Williams made a decision that, for a swath of baseball fans, sullied his career. During spring training in 2002, he was taking groundballs and his foot slipped and turned the wrong way. He dislocated his ankle and tore several ligaments.

During rehab, Williams bought $11,600 worth of human growth hormone, steroids and other drugs from a clinic in Palm Beach, Fla. In November 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle uncovered the purchase through business records. Later that year, Williams was named in the Mitchell report, baseball’s official documentation of the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the game.

Williams told the Chronicle he had tried HGH and steroids on the recommendation of a doctor. He also said he ceased using them after he did not like the side effects: Because his appetite increased and his injury made him sedentary, he got fat.

Williams said he tried the drugs only out of motivation to play again. He realizes that if people do not believe him there is nothing he can say to change their minds. He feared teams would not consider him for managerial jobs because of the incident, and he does not want his past steroid use to distract the Nationals.

He regrets it. He is embarrassed by it. He lives with it. He knows he will be referred to as the first manager — the highest-ranking on-field baseball official — to have admitted performance-enhancing drug use. He hopes, in time, he will be viewed as the man who led Washington to a championship.

“It’s documented that I’m in the Mitchell report,” Williams said. “It was 10, 12 years ago. It was certainly not my finest hour in baseball. I realize that, and everybody else realizes that. But I hope that in 10, 12 years, I’ll be just known as a good manager, and that will be something that’s in the past. I’m going to work hard every day to try to accomplish that goal.”

The next adventure

Neither of them wanted to be there. Erika, a news anchor and show host, had just finished a day’s worth of television, caked in makeup and cranky. Williams hated parties like this one, when you had to stand around and mingle with corporate sponsors. When Erika first spotted him, he was holding a glass of water and staring at his feet.

They talked for hours. She thought he was funny and articulate. He thought she was beautiful and smart. Williams left a voice mail the next day letting her know that he wanted to continue their conversation. She thought it was sweet, but she didn’t want to date an athlete.

“But Matt was persistent,” Erika said. “And we ended up finally, after a few months, going on a date. After that, it was over. It just took getting to that table.”

When Williams — with a brief, second failed marriage behind him — invited Erika to meet his kids for the first time, the home struck her as a sanctuary. She admired how he protected them, cared for them. She and Williams were married within a year of their first date, and in the 11 years since, Erika can count their arguments on one hand.

Once Madison was born, in 2004, Williams knew there would be no traveling the world. He had just retired, he was 38, and he knew nothing but baseball. The Diamondbacks hired him for front-office work and broadcasting. Once he started to coach, he knew what he wanted for a career. As a coach, he arrived at the park earlier and stayed later than as a player.

“It’s a grind,” Williams said. “I love the grind part of it. I love doing all that.”

The many phases of his career, Williams believes, prepared him to manage. He can relate to any player. He may never have had the raw ability of Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg, but he played with Bonds. Williams can be honest when he tells Danny Espinosa he knows what he’s going through. He has chased records, been sent down, gotten released and nearly walked away.

“I’m genuinely interested in them as people and how they do,” Williams said. “I want Bryce to become a Hall of Famer. I want Stephen to become a Hall of Famer. I want everybody on our team to reach every goal that they want. I can help them along way. Our staff can help them along the way. But I want to be there to experience that with them, too. The not-so-good times where you’ve got to make those decisions is going to be tough. But that’s part of the job, too. I’ll deal with it when I have to. But these guys have got to be our guys. These are our guys.”

Williams also wrestled personal demons and kept playing. The upheaval from his first divorce has never totally ceased. But his grown kids – now 24, 23 and 21 – have found colleges and jobs they like. He’s got a big house with a movie theater in the basement and a snoring puppy in the living room. Erika is busy and happy, and when Madison gets home from school, she rushes through the door and gives him a hug.

“Everything that happens in your life brings you to where you are now,” Erika said. “I think Matt’s been able to see that now.”

What’s next for Williams? He wants to win a World Series. He wants to make Washington home. He has never been to Europe, and he does not know if he will ever go, but Matt Williams doesn’t make those kinds of plans anymore.

 
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