After the last home game at Nationals Park on Sept. 28, as I walked into the clubhouse for postgame interviews, manager Matt Williams called me into his office.
“I want to thank you, Thom, for what you wrote,” he said, sitting before me a beaten, bewildered man.
What I wrote was a column where I called him humorless and uptight.
That’s how bad it got for Williams at the end. He was thankful for a column that was hardly the sort of thing you would put in your scrapbook.
He was thankful because I said it wasn’t his fault — and it wasn’t.
SEE ALSO: Matt Williams fired by Nationals after disappointing second season
This Nationals collapse rests on the weak shoulders of the players in that clubhouse — the ones who ripped up lineup cards while batting .208 on May 15, or .214 on Aug. 31. The ones who barked for the manager to get off the mound, yet gave up three home runs and five earned runs in six innings of the biggest series of the season against the team they had to catch in the National League East. The ones who begged out of relief appearances in key games because they told the manager they weren’t available.
Williams was not a good manager. He failed time after time to adapt and recognize where instinct was needed in many moments. Some of the most glaring of those moments occurred in last year’s NL Division Series, from pulling Jordan Zimmermann in the ninth inning of a 1-0 game to failing to make the obvious right choices in the bullpen in the fourth and deciding game of that series.
He committed a number of baseball crimes, but he didn’t commit this one.
Now, he is out of work, fired Monday by general manager Mike Rizzo, his good friend and the man who hired him.
The revisionist history on the Williams hire is in full swing now — he had no experience, no one was beating down the door to hire Williams, that Rizzo could hire any other candidate he wanted to but chose Williams.
First — and this needs to be kept in mind moving forward with Williams’ replacement — the Lerner family does not like to pay managers. It is one of the reasons Davey Johnson was given just a one-year, $4 million deal after leading the Nationals to the NL East title in 2012 when his counterpart, the Cincinnati Reds’ Dusty Baker, was given a two-year, $8 million contract extension.
And, it is one of the reasons that Rizzo, according to industry sources, was not able to consider one of the other candidates to replace Johnson — Cal Ripken Jr., whose price tag was considered too high.
You have to wonder how that will come into play again this time around, particularly since the Lerners will also be paying Williams next season to not manage the team.
If Williams hadn’t been hired in Washington, he would have likely been hired someplace else — like Arizona, where he was a longtime fixture as a player and coach and was considered the heir apparent to Kirk Gibson, according to local reports.
CBS Sports, which reported Williams was in trouble months ago, reported in August 2013, when Williams’ name surfaced as a candidate for the Nationals job, that Williams “is extremely well respected as a coach because of his diligence and team-first attitude.”
“He has the traits of [Kirk] Gibson,” one rival GM said in that report. “He’s tough-minded, and doesn’t let things slide. He has a fierceness to him.”
Perhaps Williams’ biggest failure was that he was never able to translate that fierceness to his team. You won’t hear that description from anyone about this clubhouse.
Let’s see how his replacement does. Rizzo outlined what he will be looking for in a new manager on Monday.
“Communication in the clubhouse [and] communication within the coaching staff is vital,” he said. “Experience is always helpful. It always adds a layer of expertise to anybody’s resume. We feel that where we’re at in our timeframe of winning a championship, [we] certainly would lean toward someone who has some type of managerial experience, especially at the major-league level. But, again, we’re going to be open-minded and look for the best candidate that we can that allows us to win a championship here in the very near future.”
Experience would limit you to a few obvious choices — former Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire or former San Diego Padres manager Bud Black — but he also said he didn’t necessarily mean major-league managing experience, which would open the door to perhaps Randy Knorr, the Nationals bench coach who was fired Monday along with the rest of the coaching staff. Knorr was the choice of the players in the clubhouse before Williams was hired and has extensive minor-league managerial experience.
“We have not ruled out Randy Knorr as a guy we would talk about [for the] job this year,” Rizzo said. “He’s managed in the minor leagues, he’s got a great rapport not only with the front office but with a lot of the players in the clubhouse and would be a great candidate for anybody’s managerial job moving on.”
Maybe it will be Charlie Manuel, the 71-year-old former Philadelphia Phillies manager who was Jayson Werth’s skipper on the 2008 World Series team.
“I don’t know if he fits into the organization’s plans or whatever,” Werth told reporters in August 2013. “But I mean, I love playing for the guy.”
That, given the politics of this clubhouse, would seem to be a valuable endorsement.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.