VIERA, Fla. — Matt Williams is ready for the grind.
A baseball lifer, the Nationals’ new manager has jumped into a role that will keep his days full. His ultimate goal is to guide Washington to the city’s first World Series title in 90 years, but how Williams gets there is entirely up to him.
So, when the baseball season opens at Citi Field in New York on Monday, Williams will, for the first time, spend six months setting lineups and defining roles, overseeing a blended coaching staff and getting to know 25 active players and maybe a dozen more who will pass through his clubhouse this season.
There are particular veterans such as Jayson Werth, young stars such as Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, relief pitchers such as closer Rafael Soriano — men from varied backgrounds who have reached the big leagues doing things a certain way and won’t always be happy during a long season.
It’s up to Williams to reach them, a task maybe more important than even the thousands of in-game decisions he will make throughout this season.
“You get into a situation where it looks like it’s a good opportunity to steal a base or you hit and run — that’s within the game,” Williams said. “Those opportunities don’t come every day. You deal with personalities on an everyday basis. So what I want to do is know them first and foremost. What’s important to them?”
This is a man so devoted to details that his coaching staff was allowed to fine him if he said the word “schedule” early in spring training. The jar had enough cash to buy a nice steak dinner by the end of the first week.
“He probably hasn’t had much sleep since he got the job,” said center fielder Denard Span, only half-joking.
After a first day spent watching more than participating, Williams lamented his lack of blisters. But he quickly and enthusiastically threw himself into drills during camp, hitting fungoes, tossing batting practice, working with fielders and speeding from one place to the other in a golf cart. Almost all of it was done with a smile.
But as his players have come to know Williams during spring training, they’ve realized there is another side to him, too. It is the steely intensity that he displayed often during his playing career, the fire that allowed him to stand up to San Francisco Giants teammate Barry Bonds when few other players on that team in the early and mid-1990s had the mettle to do so.
“You won’t hear a word out of him. He lets it build up for a little while, then it’s going to be a show,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who was coached by Williams while playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010. “Not just an umpire, it could be the other manager, it could be one of the players. And it’s not show. It’ll be for good reason. It’ll have purpose. He doesn’t have a problem airing it out — just not very often.”
Some of the players in the clubhouse advocated for another managerial candidate in October. Bench coach Randy Knorr, who has been with the organization in some capacity since 2001, worked with many of the Nats over the years and remains in his position on Williams‘ staff.
Four of Washington’s six coaches returned from former manager Davey Johnson’s group, and general manager Mike Rizzo was given the clearance to add a seventh from outside the organization, defensive coordinator Mark Weidemaier, who came with Williams from Arizona.
Weidemaier’s presence gives a tell about the kind of manager Williams hopes to become. As a defensive coordinator, his primary role is to analyze data and position his fielders. The Nats will aggressively use shifts when the numbers say that will help.
It’s a nontraditional approach that teams such as Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh have employed in recent years, a continuing blend of analytics and raw scouting that Rizzo is comfortable with. It also matches with Williams‘ expressed desire to use the hit-and-run more often, send runners from first to third base, challenge outfielders’ arms and steal more bases.