- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 31, 2013

The new manager of the Washington Nationals has spent a lifetime in professional baseball.

Matt Williams was a player for 17 years with three different teams and reached a World Series with all of them, winning one. He was a high draft pick, No. 3 overall in 1986. He has served as a broadcaster and, for the past four seasons, as a coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks. What he has not actually done is managed, a qualification that didn’t deter Washington general manager Mike Rizzo from hiring him.

And so Williams, as his first assignment, takes over a team searching for its identity. Are the Nats the 98-win juggernaut that won the NL East in 2012 with the best record in baseball? Or are they closer to the 86-win team of 2013 that was always on the fringe of the playoff chase?

Williams will be introduced at a press conference at Nationals Park on Friday afternoon. He will don his new jersey and begin the task of convincing his players they are a championship-caliber club. But the first thing many of them will ask is who, exactly, is Matt Williams?

They know the name, of course, and the numbers and can see the World Series ring he won with Arizona is 2001. But Williams also has a reputation as a man with high standards, a stickler for fundamentals, playing hard at all times and unafraid to confront players who fall short. How will that translate to a team with a mix of veterans and rising young stars?

“You have to treat players with respect a little bit more,” said Jay Bell, a former Diamondbacks teammate and now the hitting instructor for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “It used to be, be seen, not heard when you were a young player…But now it’s a group of guys that they want to understand, they want to hear the reason why.”

Mr. Intensity

Williams was drafted by the San Francisco Giants and shuttled between the majors and Triple-A for two seasons in 1987 and 1988. The following year, at age 23, he was a regular at third base late in the season and helped the Giants to their first National League pennant in 27 years.

But Williams was far from a typical young player. On the field, he radiated intensity. If a ball was smashed back to the pitcher, he ran it out. If an opposing player hot-dogged after hitting a home run, he seethed. Veteran teammates quickly dubbed him The Big Marine. He had a reputation for putting in the time and effort to build on his considerable skill level and had little tolerance for teammates who didn’t. It was a worldview Williams possessed long before he reached the majors.

“You couldn’t hit him enough ground balls, you couldn’t throw him enough BP, you couldn’t talk enough baseball around him,” said longtime University of Nevada-Las Vegas coach Fred Dallimore, who coached Williams in college. “He just soaked all that stuff in like a sponge. And now he’s going to have an opportunity to bring that potential out of young players.”

By all accounts, Williams has mellowed some since his career ended. He was well regarded as a coach in Arizona when he returned to the dugout in 2010. Still, his lone managerial experiences were in the Arizona Fall League, a developmental league for the sport’s top prospects, and a two-month stint for the Diamondbacks‘ Double-A team in 2007 as an emergency fill-in after manager Brett Butler had a stroke. Williams will have to learn and adjust quickly in a high-pressure environment. But that’s not necessarily a new skill for him.

“He’s always had a great presence about him and that doesn’t change if you’re playing or coaching,” said former Arizona teammate Craig Counsell, now a special assistant for the Milwaukee Brewers. “It’s a people job as much as anything, getting players to perform to the top end of their expectations. It’s as much that as who a manager brings in from the bullpen in the eighth inning.”

Carson City

The town that produced Williams sits about 4,600 feet up in the foothills of the Carson Range, a branch of the imposing Sierra Nevada mountains, just east of Lake Tahoe. Carson City, Nevada’s state capital, was a growing community of 35,000 when Williams was a boy. It’s only a bit bigger than that now.

“You’ve only got one McDonald’s in town and there ain’t a whole lot of stoplights in those days, maybe four or five,” said high school teammate Charley Kerfeld, who pitched four years in the big leagues and is now a special assistant with the Philadelphia Phillies. “I wouldn’t say it was Mayberry R.F.D., but it was just small town guys with small town values.”

Sandy Williams was a carpenter who worked on big construction projects in the area. He and his wife, Sally, had four boys. Matt Williams was the youngest and maybe not even the best athlete. But he was the one given the opportunity to play baseball day after day every summer for the Carson Capitols, an American Legion team back then run by Williams‘ coach at Carson High, Ron McNutt. In a high desert climate where snows can linger into spring, but summers are clear and dry, it was the best way to learn the sport with as many as 80 extra games crammed into three months.

Sandy Williams never pushed his son into sports. They simply fed an innate need for competition. But he was always willing to contribute. Early in Matt Williams‘ high school career, his father asked McNutt how he could help around the Carson High field.

“Boy, it’d be nice to have a press box,” McNutt said.

The next thing he knew, Sandy Williams and his son were on the field building one out of cinder block. When they finally finished, it was two stories high behind home plate and had storage space, a small locker room for the coaches and, up top, windows that opened onto the field. It still stands today over 30 years after Sandy Williams took on a project in tune with his own work ethic and his community’s.

“State capital of Nevada and you get a lot of politicians going through there,” Dallimore said. “But they’re not the nuts and bolts of Carson City. It’s just a blue-collar town.”

That filtered down to Matt Williams, who was a three-sport athlete at Carson High, the quarterback and punter on the football team and a basketball player, too, before eventually giving up those sports to concentrate on baseball.

The New York Mets drafted Williams in the 27th round after he graduated high school in 1983. But he spurned their offer and scholarships from powerhouse college programs like Oklahoma State, USC and Arizona State to go to UNLV. Barely 175 pounds when he entered the Rebels’ program, by Christmas of his sophomore year Williams was 215. He was on his way.

“It was just something you could see, his work ethic and his mannerism about the game and how he approached it,” McNutt said. “Matt could have his fun off the field like anybody else. But when it came time to play between the lines, this kid was business.”

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