The most eccentric executive in the NBA is here tonight. Only nobody knows it, not in this little ballpark near the edge of the Merrimack River. Pat Williams has traded Pete Maravich, bought Julius Erving and drafted Shaquille O'Neal. He is also the father of 19 children, has written more than 20 books and preached the Lord to tens of thousands.
Still, he is invisible in the aluminum stands, even when he walks in circles on the concourse, reading a book on Hillary Clinton one day, Walter Johnson the next. Nobody looks when he cranes his head toward the stadium speakers, hears Kenny Rogers and begins to sing along:
"You've got to know when to hold 'em, know wheeeeeeen to fold 'em."
He critiques the national anthem (too long), giggles at an inflatable crustacean named Clammy Sosa and proudly pulls on a Washington Nationals pullover jacket, a cherished gift from General Manager Jim Bowden because the label says "Authentic," which means it must be the real thing. He does all of this without drawing a hint of attention.
But in section 117 of LeLacheur Park, the executive vice president of the Orlando Magic is dying tonight. He has come here for three days to see his son manage the first professional baseball games of his life.
Only things aren't going well for Bobby Williams right now. He stares implacably from the third base coach's box with his cap pulled down low over his face, its brim stiff. His Vermont Expos, the low-Class A affiliate of the Nationals, do not appear to be very good. The night before, they lost their first game of the year, 20-2, to the Lowell Spinners and are well on their way to their second loss.
But Bobby is a patient man, something his father is not. This becomes clear when a Vermont player slashes a ground ball to the third baseman. Pat bursts to life.
"Boot it!" he shouts. Several fans whip around to stare at the no-longer-invisible man.
The third baseman fields the ball cleanly.
"Arghhh!" Pat Williams growls.
He is like this during his team's basketball games, calling the churn of emotions while watching something you created "a nervous breakdown with paychecks and some very large ones, which makes the breakdown even more intense."
And with his son on his way to losing the first three games of his managerial career, it seems Pat Williams is headed to another breakdown.
Bobby Williams is as quiet as Pat is exuberant. He is 28, painfully young by professional coaching standards, among the youngest managers in minor league baseball. He has big, dark eyes that dart, absorbing everything, almost trying to look inside the person who is talking, trying to discern the level of their sincerity. Where Pat booms into a room like it's the Improv, throwing out one-liners, interrogating every new person he meets, talking in lists ("Tell me, what are the five best baseball stadiums?"), his second-oldest child seems content to sit on the periphery, to watch and assess.
"Bobby is sensitive; he would hate it if he knew I told you that," says his girlfriend, Mary Lynn Nisbet.
He has a disarming smile that puts people at ease. His voice is soft and because he is short -- probably no more than 5 feet 7 -- he looks too young to be a player, let alone a manager. When the Lowell stadium manager arrives in the Vermont clubhouse and asks who's in charge, Bobby quickly says, "I am," and the man pauses awkwardly. But in a year in which they are open to trying just about anything, the Nationals figured he was ready for this.
It is safe to say that Bobby has this chance with the Nationals in large part because of Pat. For, you see, Pat is a friend of Bowden's and Bowden gave Bobby the chance to become a coach five years ago, back when Bowden ran the Cincinnati Reds and Bobby Williams was a hopeful graduate student hoping to find an internship.
Still, he doesn't like to tell people he is Pat Williams's son. In fact, he never brings it up. Which is tough to do with a father who can instantly get a call returned by anybody from George Steinbrenner to Billy Graham. Everyone in the Reds organization knew who Bobby's father was but curling into a couch in the lobby of the team hotel he surmises that very few people in the Washington organization understand his heritage -- or even care. He is glad.
"It's important to me that I try this," Bobby says. "I want to do this on my own, without the help of someone else. If being his son has helped me at all, I will certainly take it, but I will not rely on his name in pro sports. I'd rather be known as Bobby Williams."
"I guess I'm the only one in the family who has the love of sports and in particular baseball like he does," Bobby continues. "He may be more excited than I am, you know? His first love is baseball. I guess he's wishing he could do all this again. I think he's living vicariously through me."
A Full House
As far as baseball long shots go, this is about as far-fetched as they come. When the Nationals called in January to offer Bobby Williams the job as manager of their New York-Penn League affiliate, he was just 27, and had never played an inning of professional baseball.
These things bother him. He frets about his youth. For his first few years as a coach in the Reds system he was younger than many of the players. Now, for the first time, he is older than the men playing for him and that helps. But there are still those awkward moments where he knows someone is staring at him wondering, "This is the manager?"
In the world of baseball, where credibility is measured by your experience and the statistics on the back of your baseball card, Bobby knows he comes up short in both areas.
Bowden, who never played professional baseball himself, scoffs.
"I've heard that my whole life and I don't buy it," he says. "At the end of the day you get judged on your track record."
Which is the message both the Reds and the Nationals delivered to Bobby.
"I'm getting more comfortable with it," he says. "Sometimes in the back of your head they think 'Who is this young guy trying to tell us what to do?' Hopefully, they'll see it is to help them and to their benefit."
To understand Bobby Williams you have to understand where he came from. It was Pat's ex-wife, Jill, who first wanted all the children. Already they had Bobby, his older brother and younger sister and that seemed enough to Pat, who was busy running the 76ers. But by the early 1980s the marriage was in trouble and the solution came from a longing Jill had to create a family that wasn't all one color. To salvage the union Pat agreed and Jill adopted two girls from Korea in 1983. But in researching the adoptions they discovered twin boys who had been abandoned. They couldn't leave them behind.
After that Pat was hooked. He and Jill kept hearing of more children who were living on the street. It became an obsession; they had to save as many as they could. "I really got into it," Pat says. This led them to the Philippines where they adopted four more children, then post-communist Romania and two more, then Brazil and four more. In less than 10 years, they taken in 14 children and had a fourth of their own.
By then, Pat had moved to Orlando to help start the Magic. They had bought a normal home by Florida standards -- one floor, three bedrooms. But with each new arrival, the home grew, taking on new and odd angles, sprawling to the back, the side, over the garage and even into a guest house. Ultimately it became a 13-bedroom compound. They ate meals at a specially designed 25-foot table. To keep everything straight each child was assigned a number: The oldest, Jimmy, was 1, Bobby was 2, and so on. Their numbers were everywhere -- in their shoes, their clothes, their underwear.
For someone who would become a minor league baseball manager this was wonderful training. All these children running around, speaking different languages. Nobody could keep the others straight.
"It was an unbelievable childhood," Bobby says. "You can look back and say, 'I wish we could have done this differently,' but I'm glad we did what we did. I think everything's helped me now. All the different nationalities and personalities, that's what I do now, I have kids from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico."
Eventually, though, the enormous family collapsed under its own girth. Pat and Jill divorced in the mid-1990s, just as Bobby was about to begin his freshman year at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. Jill eventually moved to Wisconsin and Pat ran the Magic and raised the children with the help of nannies, drivers and housekeepers. A few years ago he married again, a woman he calls "Saint Ruth" for her willingness to take on a family of 18. Ruth's daughter from her previous marriage pushed Pat's total to 19 children.
In many ways, Bobby was immune from the family troubles because he was busy with school and out of the house. Perhaps it kept him closer to his parents than many of the other kids. By all accounts, the relationship he has with each parent is probably the best of any of the children.
"He's a lot like his mom," Nisbet, his girlfriend, says.
And also unlike the others, he threw himself into Pat's world.
Playing by the Books
When your father runs sports franchises, you get to see a lot of places other kids only dream of knowing. Bobby adored it. As a child, he sat on Mike Schmidt's lap at the Philadelphia Phillies' chapel service. He danced around Bob Boone's locker and Larry Bowa's chairs. As a teenager, he worked as the ballboy for the Orlando Magic, standing inches from his heroes, wiping the court when they clattered to the floor.
Shaquille O'Neal called him "Little Williams" and had the boy run menial errands with each task earning a $20 reward. Once a wad of cash tumbled from Shaq's pants as he prepared to hang them in his locker. "Pick it up and count it," he said to Bobby. "Then take 20 for yourself."
Bobby lost count somewhere around $800.
Basketball died as a legitimate pursuit for him in junior high when it came clear that he wasn't going to grow much beyond 51/2 feet. But baseball was different. Baseball he loved. At 14 he convinced his parents to let him travel with the Orlando Rays, at that time the Minnesota Twins' Class AA team; they agreed only when a pitcher promised them he would keep an eye on the boy. Bobby adored the bus rides, soaking up the stories riding alongside the manager, Ron Gardenhire, and pitcher Scott Erickson. At night, as the bus rolled across the south, he would crawl up into the luggage rack, stretch out and fall asleep.
Among his father's many interests are two that seem most significant: reading and Jesus. The first manifests itself in the piles of books, magazines and newspapers that Pat plows through every day. He is always reading: at home, in the office, in hotel rooms. His children admire the fact that he attended as many of their baseball, softball, tee-ball and soccer games as he could, but they also joke that he never saw a pitch or an inning because whenever they looked up at the stands he had a book in his hands.
The second, his religion, is more subtle. He found the Lord after his professional baseball career came to a merciful end two years after it began and he took a job running the Phillies' minor league team in Spartanburg, S.C. It came from no great troubled time in his life. His career as an executive was taking off. He just felt like something was missing. "I wasn't a down and outer, I was an up and outer," he says.
Nonetheless, the religion comes pouring out in an endless flood of motivational lectures. Everything has a lesson. The shortstop kicks a ground ball -- there's a lesson. Bobby loses his first game, 20-2 -- there's a lesson. Pat has the perfect storytelling voice, almost sing-songy. And he is always sure of everything -- the times, dates, weather, what everyone was wearing -- lending his tales a certain vividness that makes them seem even more real.
Twice a week, Bobby receives a manila envelope from his father, loaded with all the inspirational stories, life lessons and career advice that Pat has found most useful in the previous days. The other kids have ignored these packages for so long that Pat no longer sends them. Bobby, on the other hand, devours them. His condominium in Sarasota, Fla., is so loaded with biographies, self-help books and coaching guides (many sent by Pat) that he's had to build two extra shelves to handle the overflow.
"I will certainly take any advice he has and I will take it and I will use it," Bobby says, sitting again in the hotel lobby. "He's been around and seen everything that could possibly happen. It helps to have somebody like him there that has been through this and knows what I'm going through and can see the big picture."
Just as he says this, Pat bursts through the hotel door. He is gushing about the news that the Reds have fired manager Dave Miley and pitching coach Don Gullett, replacing Gullett with Vern Ruhle, the team's minor league pitching coach.
"Last year he was riding around on the buses in Billings just like you," Pat says to Bobby. "What's the lesson? You never know."
"He's got advice for me, always," he says.
Their Respective Calls
They are alike in more ways than probably either realizes, the gregarious father and the reserved son. Each caught his great career break on a phone call that came from nowhere. Pat's was in 1968, in Spartanburg, when basketball coach Jack Ramsay called and said he was going to coach the 76ers and needed someone to run the team. Was Pat interested?
"Needless to say, I was stunned," remembers Pat, who didn't know Ramsay or much about basketball.
Just like Bobby now, he was 28 years old. But Pat learned fast, relying on scouts, coaches and mid-level executives to help him adapt. And he moved quickly through the NBA, first to Chicago, then to Atlanta for a year before returning to Philadelphia, where he won a championship in 1983, and eventually to Orlando, taking the Magic to the NBA Finals in 1995.
Bobby's call came from Bowden in 1999. He had sent letters and a term paper he wrote on leadership to several baseball executives in hopes of landing an internship that he needed to complete his graduate degree in sports management at Georgia Southern. The only reply came from Bowden -- a man who once stunned and impressed Pat back when the Magic was putting together a bid for a major league team in Orlando and Bowden (then unknown) walked into Pat's office unannounced and said he would be glad to be the team's general manager.
This time, Bowden had another surprise. He had an internship for Bobby, but not in the ticket office or the scouting department, as Bobby might have expected. Bowden wanted him to coach. He was going to Billings, Mont., to work with Russ Nixon, the former major league manager who would run the Billings team.
Just like his father two decades earlier, Bobby was floored.
"I didn't know anything about him," Nixon says. "Of course I knew his dad; Pat is a dynamic guy and Bobby is quite a bit quieter. But don't let that quietness fool you, he's a strong-willed kid. I know everyone in the Cincinnati organization respects him. He's the kind of kid you root for."
Late this night, after the Vermont Expos have dropped their second game, Pat and Bobby head to a diner in the middle of Lowell. It is a quaint old place, an actual dining car turned into a restaurant, and Pat finds it fascinating that they don't open until 11 p.m. Pat is still wearing his authentic Nationals pullover jacket. Bobby isn't much interested in such quirks. He's trying to figure out what he has in the way of a team. Since most of the Vermont players were picked up in the most recent draft, he's only had them for about five days.
He wonders, too, if he's doing everything right. He worries that he might have left in that night's starting pitcher, a promising right-hander named Carlos Martinez, too long in a fateful fifth inning. He asks his father what he thinks of his managing so far.
"Well, you know, Bobby, you handle that fungo bat like a pool cue; I'm just amazed," Pat replies. "And I really like the way you made the call to the bullpen for a new pitcher."
"Dad, I ask you to give me a critique about my managing and you talk about my fungo hitting and the way I change pitchers."
But yes, there are lessons over lunch these three days, and dinner as well. Pat will evoke John Wooden and pull out a photocopied sheet of advice from former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown. (His favorite: "Have the ability to see things not yet there and relay that vision to others.") The message this night will be for Bobby to quickly identify the players he thinks are the best and stick with them. Pat, for instance, just loves Dee Brown, an outfielder from Central Florida, and sees something in Mike Daniel, who had just been drafted from North Carolina, as well as pitcher Craig Stammen, a 12th-round pick he knows simply as "the kid from Dayton." Who unbeknownst to Pat is sitting right behind him in the diner.
"Well, you know, Bobby, this kid from Dayton . . . "
"Dad," Bobby hisses. "The kid from Dayton is right behind us."
Pat whips around in his booth and nearly comes face to face with the kid from Dayton. He turns back around and looks at his son.
"You know, Bobby, I think you're right."
A few days after he took the Vermont Expos job, Bobby called Pat with one simple question: "What do I do now, dad?" So the father spent his next weeks asking every coach he bumped into what they first did when presented with the chance of a lifetime, then dutifully passed their advice on to Bobby.
And Bobby took that knowledge, along with the books that load his shelves and the piles of notes he has collected over the years, and built himself a philosophy of coaching. He would be strict about rules, he would be about teaching, he would be prepared every day and he would make sure to talk to every player every day.
Then the quiet, sensitive son pulled his thoughts into a speech he was going to deliver to his players when they gathered for their first practice in Vermont. He worked on it on the drive from Florida to New England with Mary Lynn. It had to be perfect, it had to be right. And the Expos players absorbed it just like they will absorb anything in their first few days of their professional careers. All Bobby can hope is that they took something from it.
The Vermont Expos would lose that third game in Lowell just as they would lose eight of their first 10 this year. Then again, the goal isn't to win games but rather to develop players. Still, this notion does not seem to appeal to Bobby as he stands in the tiny manager's office below the stands.
Pat leans his head inside and drops a bag of chicken sandwiches for the three-hour bus ride back to Vermont. Bobby nods glumly, then his father is gone, off to a speaking engagement in Baltimore and then to Washington to watch the Nationals.
They wave. Then Bobby quietly heads for the bus. He is on his own now.