- The Washington Times - Monday, January 27, 2014


He hasn’t gone through a five-game losing streak yet. There hasn’t been a dispute with a player that’s gone public, hasn’t been a managerial decision that has backfired.

So maybe, as the baseball season goes through its normal ebbs and flows, new Nationals manager Matt Williams‘ demeanor will change some.

But in a 15-minute media session a little more than two months before he runs his first game, one thing becomes crystal clear: These are definitely not Davey Johnson’s Nationals anymore.

Don’t misinterpret that as a knock on Johnson, the folksy veteran who retired after the 2013 season. There was a ton to like about Johnson, including the way he dealt with the media. It’s that Williams throws off a much different vibe. There’s a passion and intensity there that Williams couldn’t mask on a dare.

Laid-back is a term that likely will never be used when Williams is the subject.

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“I think he is a great fit for us,” said Nationals reliever Craig Stammen. “He’s going to bring in some youth and excitement for us, a little bit of intensity, a little bit different than what Davey brought to the table. They both have their strengths. I think it will be good for us.”

The positive impression doesn’t come from the fact that Williams made nice with the media during his interview at NatsFest over the weekend or that he’s embraced his role as the Nationals’ in-uniform frontman. If someone isn’t making nice with the media or fans at this stage, there’s a very real problem.

It’s the depth of the answers, the obvious time Williams has put into learning every aspect of the organization and its on-field personnel. Though he hasn’t been in the same room with his team yet, he clearly knows what he’s going to be dealing with when spring training starts next month.

A spring training by the way, where Williams has mapped out a schedule from beginning to end.

“Day 1 through 41, it’s all there,” Williams said. “I don’t know if it is going to be tougher. It’s regimented. That’s a good way to put it.

“I get all bunched up if I don’t have a plan. Oftentimes, the plans are completely wrong but at least I have a plan. We’ll change it and it will be fluid we at least we know going in, we kind of have it mapped out what we want to accomplish.”

Williams, 48, enjoyed a 17-year career as a player. He made five All-Star teams. He hit 378 home runs. But he never, he said, thought about managing until he started coaching. Listen to him talk about managing, which he’s doing for the first time aside from a stint in the Arizona Fall League, and it is clear he’s thought about it plenty.

“It is interesting because I love the other side of the game,” Williams said. “Hitting the fungoes and doing all that stuff is great and being a coach is great. But I want to go further than that. I wanted to be a manager at some point. I never thought it would happen this quickly. So I’m excited about that.”

He says he’ll try to take a little from many of the managers he played for and against, while at the same time maintaining his own persona. He admires Buck Showalter’s preparation, the way Dusty Baker was able to build relationships with his players, the intensity of Kirk Gibson, the baseball acumen of Bob Melvin. He has taken notice of the way Bob Brenly handled a team in Arizona similar to the group Williams takes over in Washington.

“Veteran guy, veteran team,” Williams said. “Let them police themsleves. All of those things, I try to take a little piece of and incorporate as we go.”

Besides planning his first spring training, he’s reached out to his players and coaches. He’s talked to other managers, too, and is a particular admirer of Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals.

“Everybody I’ve talked to has said, ‘Be you, be you,’” Williams said. “You can’t try to be something else because it will never work.

“Bring your fire if you have fire. Genuinely care about the guys and their success because ultimately that’s what you are there for, you’re there to help nurture them to be as good as they can be. The biggest thing that they’ve told me as a group has been if you make a decision, do it. Sometimes it is the wrong one but at least you had an idea and what you wanted to make of it.”

There’s a long season ahead and, as the Nats learned last year, things don’t always go the way you expect. Williams isn’t taking over a rebuilding job. The Nats are again legitimate postseason contenders. They went 33-15 over the final third of the 2013 season and haven’t lost any key pieces.

They’ve added a few in pitchers Doug Fister and Jerry Blevins and outfielder Nate McLouth.

The biggest change is the guy calling the shots. Who knows how it will ultimately work out? What is for certain is this: If it doesn’t, it won’t be for lack of preparation. It won’t be for lack of drive or intensity. Matt Williams will make sure of that.

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