Matt Williams remembers the moment well.
The new manager of the Washington Nationals, hired just last week, was a third-base coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks when Wilson Ramos, now Williams‘ catcher, took his time trotting around the bases after a home run in a game in Phoenix more than two years ago.
The fiery side of Williams erupted.
He screamed from the Arizona dugout at Ramos. His tirade lasted several minutes as both teams went back and forth at the end of a contentious three-game series where beanballs flew from both sides.
On Friday afternoon, Williams was introduced at Nationals Park. He endured a whirlwind process of flying into town to sign his contract, meet front-office personnel and find a place for his family to live. But Williams was more than willing to talk about his pending relationship with his players, including those in that June 5, 2011, game against Washington.
“There’s another guy that’s in this room that was involved in that altercation as well,” Williams said.
With a pair of ice-blue eyes, he cast a sideways glance at a player sitting just a few feet to his right. A glint of humor leveled any edge in Williams‘ voice. Meanwhile, in the front row, Nats outfielder Jayson Werth smiled wryly at the memory from under a growing offseason beard. Werth, too, was on the top step of his own dugout that day screaming right back at Williams.
It was a funny exchange between two competitive characters willing to put that verbal scrap behind them. But it also spoke to the work Williams must do to win trust with the veteran players in his clubhouse. He hasn’t spoken to Ramos since that exchange, but insists no animosity remains.
“I love the fact that Jayson Werth stood up in the opposing dugout and yelled at me,” Williams said. “That means that he competes. I love the fact that Wilson Ramos was upset that a couple of their guys got hit and took exception. Does it mean I don’t like the man? No. That’s competition. That’s baseball.”
At 47, Williams still talks like a ballplayer. He peppers his speech with words like “bro” and “man.” That cadence takes a few of those years off a man who entered the big leagues in 1987 with the attitude of a grizzled veteran. Williams radiated intensity. San Francisco Giants veterans quickly dubbed him the Big Marine. Throughout his 17-year career, he had little tolerance for teammates who weren’t as committed to the game as he was. As a manager, his expectations are no less.
“[Williams is] going do a great job of communicating with the players and making them understand exactly what he expects,” said former Arizona Diamondbacks teammate Jay Bell, now the hitting instructor for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “There’s nothing wrong with having old-school thoughts and ideas about the game as far as expecting your players to respect and honor what baseball has done for them, not what they can get out of it.”
Still, it’s a different generation now and managers do far less dictating than in the past. The now-retired Davey Johnson took a more lenient tack, trusting his group to put in the work necessary to play at a high level. Williams understands that approach, which worked well in 2012 but faltered during a frustrating 2013 season. He still will uphold his standards. He doesn’t know another way.
“I think if he was just talking it and it wasn’t something that he lived, that he might have a hard time doing that,” said longtime University of Nevada-Las Vegas coach Fred Dallimore, who coached Williams in college. “But the history of Matt Williams throughout the game of baseball has been at a very high level, not only as a player, but as a person. I don’t think that’ll be a challenge for him at all.”
But at Friday’s news conference, there remained an uncomfortable truth. Many players had advocated for the other managerial finalist, Randy Knorr, who has been with the organization in some capacity since 2001 and worked with many of the Nats over the years.
They like, trust and know Knorr. Johnson’s bench coach was willing to stay onboard even after losing out to Williams. He, too, attended the festivities Friday, sitting in the second row, and said he planned to meet with Williams in Arizona soon to simply talk baseball and begin the process of developing their own relationship.
Williams did his best to immediately take the sting out of what could have been an awkward situation. Five of Washington’s six coaches will return next season, and Williams and general manager Mike Rizzo added a seventh from outside the organization.
“It’ll help prepare me going in,” Knorr said. “Get different ideas of what [Williams] wants to do and going into spring training, we can just get it going right away without having to stay in a room and fight over something that we can talk about now. And then I can spread it to the other coaches.”
Werth and teammate Ian Desmond sat next to each other for 30 minutes listening to Williams, who made a point early in the questioning of addressing both men. He said he planned to lean on Werth and praised Desmond for saying he wanted to find ways to work harder to become a better player this offseason. But relationships aren’t formed in an afternoon. There is a work to be done before the Nats can become a cohesive unit.
“[It is] really the first day I’ve ever talked to [Williams] or had a chance to meet him,” Werth said. “As time goes on, we’ll get to know him better and find out who he really is. But he’s saying all the right things. He’s articulate. So far, so good, I guess.”