Getting to Know Matt Williams
by Noah Frank
When the Nationals arrived in Phoenix at the end of September for their final series of the 2013 season, already mathematically eliminated from postseason contention, the focus among the press corps had shifted. It was Davey Johnson’s final series as Nationals Manager, and both he and President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo recapped the season while looking ahead to 2014.
At the same time, in the other dugout, Diamondbacks Manager Kirk Gibson fielded questions about his third base coach, Matt Williams, who was one of the men rumored as a possible candidate for the Nationals’ impending vacancy.
“I think he’d be great,” Gibson said. “He was obviously a good player. We’ve worked closely together since I’ve been a manager. He’s got a good mind for it.”
Gibson has managed the Arizona Diamondbacks the past three-and-a-half seasons, leading them to the 2011 NL West title. Williams was at Gibson’s side throughout his tenure in the desert, moving from first base coach to third base coach upon Gibson’s ascension to the managerial role.
“We’re similar,” Gibson continued. “He’s a fierce competitor. He understands the game. We break it down. He’s a tireless worker and believes in heavy preparation. Never gives in.”
Gibson also noted Williams’ success as a manager in the Arizona Fall League, a training ground for managers as well as players. Williams led the Salt River Rafters to a 17-13 mark in 2012, strong enough for the East Division title. Those Nationals fans that pay attention to the AFL may remember that Washington prospects – including Brian Goodwin, Anthony Rendon and Matt Skole – played on that Salt River squad. That managing experience and first-hand knowledge of players within the organization, along with his shared history with Rizzo in Arizona, no doubt helped Williams’ candidacy.
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There is another side to Williams, though, one which I was able to witness in person as he spoke at a Minor League hot stove dinner hosted by the Fresno Grizzlies (the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate) in February of 2011. Williams was set to appear as the guest of honor, alongside fellow Giants legend Will Clark, following San Francisco’s first-ever World Series title. But Clark was held up by bad weather, and Williams instead shared the stage that night with Sergio Romo – then a young reliever who’d not yet ascended to the Giants’ closer role.
The two entertained the crowd throughout the evening, leading into the live auction, benefiting the Fresno Grizzlies Community Fund.
That auction culminated with a feverish bidding war over the grand prize: a weekend trip to see the Giants in Spring Training. When the auctioneer had reached a tipping point, and one bidder could go no further, Williams unexpectedly stood up and politely interrupted him, asking if he could speak for a moment. He asked the gentleman who had been outbid if he would still be willing to pay for the package at the price he had last offered. When assured that he was, Williams then turned to the dinner organizers to see if two such grand prizes could be procured. When it was determined that they could, Williams turned back to the two bidders to see if each would be agreeable purchasing their respective packages.
The maneuver paid off. Thanks to his ability to think on his feet, Williams helped secure double the donation for the Community Fund.
I relate this story not to suggest anything about Williams’ ability to think on his feet as the next manager of the Nationals. Rather, it underscores his presence of mind to help a good cause, revealing the human side of a man taking on a role where that can all too often be lost.
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On the final day of this past Nationals season, after saying my goodbyes and offering well-wishes in the clubhouse following the game, I shuffled out to the elevators to the players’ parking lot at Chase Field. As I stepped through the metal doors, thoughts of another season of baseball the last thing on my mind, one other familiar person stood in front of me, ready to leave the park.
And so, we silently rode the elevator together – Williams and I – before departing on our own paths to Washington.