WASHINGTON — More than a decade ago, when Matt Williams was still a third baseman, and Mike Rizzo was still climbing the front-office rungs, the future general manager thought he noticed the makings of a future skipper.
Well, here they are. Williams will make his debut as a major league manager with the Washington Nationals, a hiring announced by Rizzo on Thursday, one day after the World Series ended.
Williams grew up in Carson City and graduated from Carson High School in 1983. He played for former Carson High coach, and current Galena High School head coach, Ron McNutt. Williams played his college baseball at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“Matt played with intensity as a player, but he also was a terrific teammate. You talk to the guys that he played with, and they swear by him. He was always team first, and self second. He was the consummate team player and a great teammate. He was a leader in the clubhouse, by example and also a vocal leader,” Rizzo said.
“As a manager candidate, I feel he has the same fire, same desire, and the same team-first attitude that will be taken well by the players,” Rizzo added. “He’s always been a players’ guy as a player, and I think he’ll continue to be a players’ guy as a manager.”
Rizzo was a part of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ front office when the expansion team entered the majors in 1998, and he became their scouting director two years later along the way to becoming Washington’s GM. Williams played in Arizona from 1998-2003, part of a 17-year career that also included time with the San Francisco Giants and Cleveland Indians.
Williams, a five-time All-Star and a four-time Gold Glove recipient, is the first player mentioned in the Mitchell Report — the accounting of baseball’s Steroids Era that was released in December 2007 — to become a manager in the majors. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2007 that records indicated Williams purchased more than $10,000 worth of growth hormone, steroids and other drugs while with the Diamondbacks in 2002. According to the newspaper, Williams said in an interview a doctor advised him to try growth hormone to heal a severe ankle injury during spring training that year.
“It certainly was something we discussed. We didn’t agonize over it. ... In the interview process, we asked about it,” Rizzo said.
“Matt was extremely candid about the Mitchell Report and owned up to it,” Rizzo continued. “He certainly showed accountability for it. He wants to only be judged by his coaching and managing going forward.”
The Nationals will hold a news conference to introduce Williams at their stadium on Friday. He replaces the retired Davey Johnson, who won the NL Manager of the Year award for leading Washington to a majors-leading 98 wins and the NL East title in 2012, then announced before this season that 2013 would be it for him in the Nationals’ dugout.
After entering the season with sky-high expectations — and, famously, Johnson’s “World Series or bust” declaration — the Nationals missed the playoffs, going 86-76 and finishing 10 games out of first place in the division.
The 47-year-old Williams was the third-base coach for the Diamondbacks the past three seasons. He has only brief managerial experience at any level, having spent some time in the Arizona Fall League and five weeks as a midseason fill-in at Double-A in the minors.
“There are different routes to the manager’s office,” Rizzo said. “I think experience is important, but you can get experience in many different ways.”
While he was not willing to discuss other personnel moves, Rizzo certainly did make it sound Thursday as if some — and perhaps most — of Johnson’s coaching staff from the end of last season will remain with the Nationals, a group that includes bench coach Randy Knorr, pitching coach Steve McCatty and hitting coach Rick Schu.
“We’re not going to have a lot of turnover,” Rizzo said.
“Suffice it to say, there’s not going to be a whole transforming of the coaching staff. We’re going to try to keep some consistency,” he said. “But we’re not at the point yet where we can announce what the coaching staff consists of.”