Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has known new manager Matt Williams for 14 years. He saw him as a player when both were with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization and knows him as a person.
That didn’t make Williams a slam dunk to take over for former manager Davey Johnson, who retired at the end of a disappointing 2013 season. There were plenty of qualified candidates interviewed during the process. But Williams has always stood out to Rizzo as a prime candidate to lead a team. On Thursday the Nats announced what was known for over a week: Williams was the choice.
“It was a very difficult decision,” Rizzo said in a conference call. “But Matt, we felt, possessed all the characteristics of a successful manager and a guy we think can take us to the next level.”
The coaching staff, including pitching coach Steve McCatty, bench coach Randy Knorr, a finalist for the job, and third base coach Trent Jewett, remains a work in progress. Rizzo said he wants to keep some continuity with Johnson’s staff, but isn’t ready to announce who will remain. One of Williams’ bigger challenges will be knowledge of his own personnel. Keeping familiar faces in place will help.
“I think their ability levels were first and foremost the reason that we’re not going to have a lot of turnover,” Rizzo said. “And their familiarity with the team certainly plays into it.”
There are plenty of recent examples in baseball of first-year managers having success. Mike Matheny took St. Louis to the playoffs in his first year as a manager at any level and this season led the Cardinals to the World Series. Williams was a fill-in manager for Arizona’s Double-A team in 2007 when Brett Butler suffered a stroke. And he has managed in the Arizona Fall League, the sport’s developmental league for top prospects. But can he transform the intensity he brought to his work as a player and temper it in his role as a manager? Has he mellowed at all?
“I don’t think there’s a big difference. Matt played with an intensity as a player, but he was also a terrific teammate,” Rizzo said. “You talk to the guys he played with and they swear by him. He was always team first and self second. He was the consummate team player and a great teammate. He was a leader in the clubhouse by example and also a vocal leader.”
Rizzo acknowledged that Williams was asked during the interview process about his name coming up in the Mitchell Report, the 2007 document that attempted to expose the depth of the sport’s performance-enhancing drug problem.
That same year, the San Francisco Chronicle cited business records that showed Williams purchased $11,600 worth of HGH and steroids from a Palm Beach, Fla. clinic in 2002. Williams insisted at the time it was to treat an ankle injury from spring training of that year and that he quickly discontinued use of the products. He retired after the following season, spent four years as a broadcaster and another four as a coach for the Diamondbacks. In the end, Rizzo and his ownership group, the Lerner Family, were satisfied that Williams was the right man for the job.
“We make most of the big decisions as a unit,” Rizzo said. “We’re all on the same page, the ownership group and myself. They were involved in every interview that we had. They certainly voiced their views and this was a decision made by the group, not simply by Mike Rizzo.”