Right on schedule, new Manager Matt Williams opens Nationals spring training just as he planned

Thomas Boswell
Columnist February 15

Matt Williams’s job here is to tighten up the way the Washington Nationals play baseball, but not tighten them up as a team.

The rookie manager needs to bring structure to talent without sacrificing athletic arrogance. He must demand precise execution from a team that killed itself with nerves, sloppy fundamentals and lost poise last year. Yet he can’t damage the personality of a cohesive, hard-working team that has won 184 games in two years and is a preseason World Series contender. It’s a tough line to walk. After one day, how’s it going?

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Williams has planned every minute of all 41 days of this training camp. “I may be a little overboard,” he said sheepishly after the Nats’ first pitchers-and-catchers workout Saturday. “I’ve gone over it all 5,000 times in my head.

“My coaches say, ‘We’ve got it. Don’t worry. Go watch the pitchers.’ ”

Every time Williams uses the word “schedule,” his coaches fine him $1. Luckily, Williams earned more than $78 million in salary as a player, so he might stay solvent until the end of the season.

Williams wouldn’t confirm that “schedule” is actually the word he’s forbidden to say. That’d get him fined another $1; and he is already a few bucks down after just one day of camp.

Is “plan” the word that gets him mocked and hooted by his men?

“Very, very close,” Williams said.

How about “schedule?” “I didn’t say yes or no.”

Then, grinning, Williams raises his hand as his confession.

That byplay may explain, in part, why Williams can be an obsessive detail freak, a high-energy maniac who arrived in the Nats’ clubhouse at 5 a.m. on Saturday, yet remains popular with players and normal humans. He’s kind of crazy but good crazy.

Williams understands this, acknowledges it, even makes fun of himself — but he never apologizes for his basic nature — because he is the boss and, after the laughing and the fines stop, things are going to be done his way.

“In his meeting before practice, you could see the conviction in him. You see the intensity. It’s not a dramatic thing. He’s understated. But there was an intensity to everything today,” said one Nationals veteran. “He has that ‘it’ factor. He grabs a room. Tough to explain what it is, but it’s fun to be around.”

What will this camp be like? The past two years they played for Davey Johnson, as close as baseball had to a pirate ship captain, long on swagger, short on regimentation. Now they play for a man who was nicknamed “The Big Marine” as a rookie, even though he isn’t especially big and had never been a Marine.

On Williams’s instruction, defensive coordinator Mark Weidemaier hit “comebackers” to the Nats pitchers from 55 feet away that players described as “missiles.” Weidemaier then followed up with trash talk, comedic curses and a frenetic pace. A normally boring spring drill had suddenly became limb-threatening, exciting and, apparently, perversely enjoyable.

“They brought their spikes and their gloves,” Williams said of his order to turn comebackers into assault weapons. “In a few days, we’ll have some ‘games’ built around that.” Who can field their position, who can’t and who’ll live to tell about it?

“Things are different. Lot of energy,” reliever Drew Storen said. “There is a fun way to work hard.”

The Nats’ practice was scheduled for 10 a.m. “Tyler Clippard was the only player who was actually right on time,” Williams said. “But he was also the last to arrive.

“So, we all gave him a standing ovation.”

On time, thus late: welcome to Williams’s world.

But this may also be a regime where things work both ways. Williams noticed that, every day, the Nats walk back and forth to the practice field from Space Coast Stadium, a total distance of a mile-and-a-half while carrying their baseball bags and signing autographs as they trudge.

Every Nats manager has assumed this annoyance was simply a condition of life here, consistent with the inconveniences of one of the game’s most remote and generally inefficient spring training facilities. What is 60 miles of wasted spring trudging when you ask your players to take three or four-hour round-trip rides to exhibition games?

Williams changed that, making “transportation” by cart or van mandatory for every Nats player. The manager even called it his “biggest concern” on the first day, would the carts run on time or be a mess. They worked.

Did the team cheer when this change was announced at a team meeting. “Internally, we all did,” Storen said.

“It was a good idea,” added Stephen Strasburg. “Keeping everybody together, not just getting bogged down, walking down the street there, get crushed before we even make it to the field.”

For stars such as Strasburg, who’ve already signed autographs as they leave the field, that walk is one more opportunity to be nagged to sign and sign. Williams, who hit 378 home runs, understands, not that he’d put it that way.

“It’s just efficiency,” said Williams, using those pointless unpopular walks as a symbol of his intention to imagine what players experience, then adapt their routine so its effective, not wasteful. The Nats have a lot of introverted, analytical and diligent personalities. Williams’s studious structure may suit them.

“They talked about doing bunt plays and having all of us play positions, just so we know what every guy is doing. I thought, ‘That’s genius,’ ” Strasburg said. “I would like to know, ‘What’s the shortstop thinking in this situation? The third baseman?’ That’s just baseball IQ that, being only a pitcher, you forget all those things. So I’m looking forward to doing that.”

They say the devil is in the details and that baseball is the ultimate game of detail. Williams may be a test case: “genius” or “reductio ad absurdum?”

Consider the ear-piercing air horn. It begins every drill, letting players on several fields know when the next 15-minute session begins. For the season’s first drill (a side throwing session), pitching coach Steve McCatty intoned “Flame on.” Another coach yelled, “Fire in the hole!” All motivational and sweetly silly like February baseball.

Then the horn sounded like a strangling duck.

“Salary cut,” players and coaches started yelling at the offending horn-blower, Bobby Henley, the third base coach.

“Bobby was in full uniform in the clubhouse when I got here [at 5 a.m.],” Williams said. “But that horn. . . . ” No, just not up to snuff.

“It’s like everything else in this game. It’s not what happens that matters. It’s how you react to it,” Williams said with that mix of earnestness and baseball twinkle in the eye that may be one of his defining traits. Henley tried another horn. “By the end of the practice, we had him carrying six horns,” said Williams, grinning.

But that sixth horn was loud and clear.

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

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