Matt Williams entered Chase Field hours before Monday’s game, the opening matchup of the three-game series in Phoenix. After years in the Diamondbacks organization as a player, coach, broadcaster, partial owner and front-office executive, Williams was back in a completely new and unusual capacity as Nationals manager. He had to park in a new spot. He had to make his way through the bowels of the stadium to the visitor’s clubhouse a different way.
“It’s odd,” he said.
Williams was glad to sleep in his own bed, see his wife, daughter and son. But at the stadium on Monday, he caught up with his old players and former boss, Diamondbacks Manager Kirk Gibson. Before the game, Gibson revealed that he and Williams have been exchanging banter through text messages for days.
“He wants to win and I want to beat [butt], too, so that’s mutual,” Gibson said. To which, Williams retorted, with a laugh: “I would echo those thoughts. I want to win and beat those guys.”
Williams was an original member of the expansion Diamondbacks’ first season in 1998. “We lost 97 games that year but it was all new,” he said. He played six seasons with them, made three playoff appearances and helped them beat the New York Yankees to win the 2001 World Series. After he retired, he worked in the front office as a special assistant and helped instruct players. He had also bought a small ownership stake in the team.
In 2010, Williams became a member of Gibson’s coaching staff. He moved from first base coach to third base after one season and continued instructing the infielders. When Williams was interviewed for the Nationals’ managerial position this winter, he said he did so with the blessing of the Diamondbacks decision-makers.
“Everybody through the whole process was nothing but supportive in every aspect,” Williams said. “Gibby was supportive. [General Manager] Kevin [Towers] was supportive. [President] Derrick Hall and [Managing General Partner] Ken Kendrick. Everybody was very supportive of my desire to do this. If that opportunity came with another organization, they were behind me. That’s refreshing because they want success for folks and I’ve never had anything but support from everybody.”
Williams and Gibson grew close over the four seasons Williams was a coach under him. Before Gibson had knee surgery, the two ran together in the morning before games and talked about baseball. According to Gibson, they talked for “hours and hours” before Williams took the Nationals’ job.
Gibson spoke glowingly of Williams, saying that he would make a good manager for his attention to detail and willingness to improve.
“He had a real curiosity about everything and he was dedicated to that,” Gibson said. “Where other people might spend their time and their day doing things that were not relevant, he was always looking for something. He went off to the Fall League and that was great for him. I always told him he needed a sponsor and he had one in [Mike Rizzo]. That’s a good match and he’s taken over a very good team, a good organization and he has a good situation. Now, he gets to find out the finer points of being a manager.”
Williams admitted before Monday’s game that he had a few extra details to add about the Diamondbacks and their tendencies in the Nationals’ pre-series meeting with players. Gibson is prepared, however. “I’ve added a few things since he’s been gone, too, in anticipation of him anticipating something from me,” he said.