PHOENIX — On Friday afternoon, Matt Williams paced through the Arizona Diamondbacks’ clubhouse, setting his pregame agenda. “Pen, what time?” he asked third baseman Cliff Pennington. “Two-fifteen?” 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 opportunity potentially 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 the retiring Davey Johnson as manager of the Nationals. Washington 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. 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.”
Several people around Williams described him as an intense competitor who has mellowed unless 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.”
Rizzo has constantly declined to address the Nationals’ managerial situation. But in the spring of 2010 he said he wanted to build a team led by fiery personalities and used Williams as a prime example.
“Like we did in Arizona . . . 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.”
Nationals veteran Chad Tracy, who was a Diamondbacks prospect at the end of Williams’s playing career, said Williams was “one of those guys, as a young guy, you were kind of scared to cross paths with him a little bit.” By the time Tracy reached the majors, Williams had left the field but had taken a small ownership share of the team, served as a front-office special assistant and helped instruct players. In that role, Williams gave Tracy advice he has carried throughout his 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.”
Others also have seen Williams soften his edge as he transitioned from player to coach. He still will flash those piercing eyes when he has to.
“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.”
Williams may sometimes intimidate the opposition, but his own players praised him for his openness and his ability to communicate.
“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 hit more than 30 homers six times, won four Gold Gloves and once finished second in the MVP vote. But he 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,” said former manager Bob Brenly, now a Diamondbacks TV analyst. “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. 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. His current players 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.”