The decision already had been revealed, but the Nationals finally could talk about it Thursday. As Washington made official its hiring of Matt Williams, General Manager Mike Rizzo explained how he and ownership arrived at the decision and hailed Williams as a strong communicator with intelligence to match his famed intensity.
With the completion of the World Series and the lifting of Major League Baseball’s news embargo, the Nationals officially named Williams their next manager. While several reports and multiple people close to the Nationals believe Williams had been Rizzo’s choice all along, Rizzo insisted Williams separated himself from a field of at least four others only after a lengthy interview process.
“We went with the best candidate available,” Rizzo said in a conference call with reporters. “We had several internal candidates that were extremely good candidates, and we just felt that Matt’s message, the way he communicates the message and his demeanor and character was kind of the difference-maker for me and a guy that we feel is going to take the organization and take us to the next level.”
The Nationals will formally introduce Williams during a news conference Friday afternoon at Nationals Park. In attendance will be popular bench coach Randy Knorr, who will return to the Nationals’ coaching staff even after the team bypassed him. Rizzo hinted the rest of the Nationals’ staff will remain largely intact, which suggests Williams will not choose his own staff.
“We’re going to try to keep some consistency,” Rizzo said.
“But the coaching staff is here because they’re good coaches,” he added. “They’ve proven how they can make players better.”
Knorr, the choice among Washington players to succeed Davey Johnson as manager, said in a phone conversation he will serve the same role for Williams. The sides are still working out contract terms, but both General Manager Mike Rizzo and Williams have been in contact with Knorr since news of Williams’s hiring leaked last week.
“If I don’t have a managing job in the big leagues, there’s not a job in baseball better than the bench coach for the Nationals,” Knorr said in a phone conversation. “Matt’s a good dude and everything. I have no problem working for him.”
Knorr’s presence could be seen as a strange dynamic — players openly lobbied for him to become the manager, and now he will be present as Williams works to mold the team in his image. But Knorr’s personality will help alleviate that concern. He is not the undermining type, and he does not expect any awkwardness.
“I appreciated like you wouldn’t believe that they were for me and behind me,” Knorr said. “It makes me feel great that those guys are backing me like that. But I think when it comes time to go play, they’ll all mesh together.
“I’m the bench coach. I don’t look in the past. I look in the present. I’m good with it. I’m fine with it. Let’s go. I’m looking forward to working with [Williams] and winning a championship.”
Pitching coach Steve McCatty, the longest tenured coach on the Nationals’ staff, declined comment about his status, but Rizzo’s comments suggest he will return, too. Hitting coach Rick Schu, who came to know Williams when he coached Arizona from 2007 through 2009, is also expected to return.
Rizzo has known Williams since 1999, when he was Arizona’s scouting director and Williams played third base for the Diamondbacks. He targeted Williams as a candidate because he believed Williams would be a “players’ manager” and for his well-known competitive streak.
“What struck me about Matt Williams that maybe I didn’t realize as much is he’s extremely intellectual,” Rizzo said. “He’s extremely articulate. He communicates in a manner that is extremely effective. His knowledge of our organization and of our roster and even our minor league system was impeccable. He was extremely prepared, extremely articulate in his interview process.”
Williams’s commanding presence also struck the Lerner family. Rizzo said the front office and ownership were “on the same page” in hiring Williams.
“Matt has a wealth of knowledge and experience as a former player and coach,” owner Ted Lerner said in a statement released by the team. “But what most impresses us is his ability to understand and ably communicate situations and strategies in a disciplined, forthright manner. We think he is the right leader for a Washington Nationals team ready to compete for a World Series championship.”
Williams’s only managing stint came last year in the short-season Arizona Fall League and for five weeks in 2007 at Class AA. Williams’s dearth of experience never gave Rizzo pause.
“Here’s a guy who has made a lot of money as a player and doesn’t need to get into coaching or managing,” Rizzo said. “But because of his passion for the game and his love for baseball, it kinda feeds him. He wants to be in it. He’s a guy who was a manager-in-training as a player. . . . There are different routes to the manager’s office. I think experience is important, but you can get experience in many different ways.”
During his interview, Rizzo asked Williams about his ties to performance-enhancing drugs as a player and inclusion in the Mitchell Report. Williams will become the first manager who has admitted to PED use.
“It certainly was something we discussed,” Rizzo said. “We didn’t agonize over it. It was certainly brought [up]. In the interview process, we asked about it. . . . Matt was extremely candid about the Mitchell Report and owned up to it. He certainly showed accountability for it. He wants to only be judged by his coaching and managing going forward.”
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