Matt Williams, the new manager of the Washington Nationals, studies his team like a general planning for a battle. This is Williams' first spring training with "the Nats," a team that made the playoffs in 2012 after years of losing records and was expected to contend last season but stumbled out of the gate. The Nationals' management hired Williams, who had a reputation for aggressive play, to put the fire back into the team.
On this March 4 morning's workout at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., players line up to take their swings as the cracks of well-hit baseballs ricochets around the park. On the sidelines, pitchers play soft-toss catch to loosen their arms. This afternoon, the squad will meet the division rival New York Mets in a practice game that means nothing toward regular season standings, yet everything to Williams.
When the Nationals' media relations officer tells him about a request for a telephone interview, Williams politely turns down the offer. Media attention means little to him -- he believes his time is better spent preparing for the upcoming contest. He's focused on assessing team strengths and addressing weaknesses.
Williams, as his teammates and his former UNLV baseball coach Fred Dallimore says, hates to lose. He embodies the legendary line made famous by football coach Vince Lombardi: "Winning isn't everything -- it's the only thing."
Before taking the Nationals job, Williams had a 17-year career playing with the San Francisco Giants, Cleveland Indians, and Arizona Diamondbacks. After he retired as a player, he coached for three years with the Diamondbacks, where he picked up the reputation as a player-friendly coach who prepared for every contest as if it were Game 7 of the World Series.
"Managing style is nothing more than personality," Williams says. "I'm aggressive by nature, so I want to constantly apply pressure." He looks over the field and adds, "We do have a number of superstar players. With that comes great expectations, and that's a good thing. We must embrace those expectations and work with them."
That attitude impresses his players, including slugger Ryan Zimmerman, who patrols third base, like Williams did in his day. "When he was the third base coach in Arizona, I chatted with him a bit," Zimmerman told The Washington Post. "He wasn't too talkative. I kind of like that. The guys that talk too much annoy you. You worry if they really care about the game. With Matt, you could tell he was focused."
Outfielder Bryce Harper told The Post that Williams brings excitement to the team. "It's nice to be able to have a young guy doing things, working hard, and having that enthusiasm of being here every single day, and wanting to win and have a plan and work hard," he said. "There are a lot of teams trying to [do] that."
Catching Dallimore's eye
Growing up, Williams' father, Arthur, encouraged his sons to enjoy sports. "My brothers are 13, 11, and nine years older than me, and they were my heroes," Williams says. "I wanted to be just like them."
At Carson City High School, he played football -- quarterback and defensive back -- and baseball. The 6-foot-2 teenager's hard-nosed work at shortstop and in the batter's box caught Dallimore's eye, and the coach recruited him to UNLV. He put Williams on a weight program and turned the lanky 175-pounder into a 210-pound muscular competitor.
"Matt had all things you're looking for in a young athlete," Dallimore remembers. "He had good hands and good feet for a fairly big guy, and he was also a good person from a good family."
Dallimore was impressed by how intensely Williams worked in practices and during games: "He had this look of determination on his face when he stepped into the batter's box, and you knew he wasn't going to settle for mediocrity. He was a no-nonsense guy, yet he still knew how to have fun in the game."
Once after striking out, Williams walked dejectedly back to the dugout. "What can I do at the next at-bat?" Williams asked his coach. Dallimore told him, "When you strike out, it's a sign of failure. Make the other team work to try to throw you."
Williams credits Dallimore with preparing him and "all of his student-athletes for the next stage of our lives, in sports or the real world. He taught all of us that there is no substitute for hard work."
Hard work pays off
The hard work paid off. Over three seasons with the Rebels, Williams batted .327, with 58 home runs and 217 RBIs. Those numbers impressed Major League scouts, and the Giants made him the third pick in the 1986 draft. In 1997, he was inducted into the UNLV Athletic Hall of Fame, and UNLV has retired his jersey.
In 17 big league seasons with the Giants, Cleveland Indians, and Arizona Diamondbacks, Williams hit .268, with 378 home runs and 1,218 RBIs. Many were surprised when he chose to play with the Diamondbacks in 1998, an expansion team that had little star power. But three years later, the team won the World Series.
After retiring in 2003, he worked as an analyst for Fox Sports Arizona. In 2010, he rejoined the Diamondbacks as a coach.
"Going from a player to a coach has some challenges," he remembers. "Coaching allows me to make a difference with our players, because I can teach them some of the things I learned from outstanding coaches I've had during my playing career."
When asked what's most important when evaluating a player -- athletic ability or heart -- he answers, "All players that make it to the professional level have talent. The ones that find success at the major league-level have certain intangibles: a keen sense of timing, the ability to be a good teammate, and knowledge of the game in all aspects. These separators allow greater success."
After the spring training game, which the Nationals won 11-5 thanks to some timely hitting and well-executed fielding, Williams congratulates the players as they jog off the field. Before he heads into the clubhouse to dissect the game and plan for tomorrow, he says, "I just want our players to enjoy the game as they did as kids, and play every game with intensity and energy. If we can do that, we'll be successful."
-- By Benjamin Gleisser