LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Growing up in Carson City, first-year Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams didn’t spend time focusing on any major league heroes. He didn’t even watch a lot of the Saturday games on network TV.
“Being in Carson City, our closest teams were the A’s and Giants,” said Williams, 48, last week as he sat in the third-base dugout during a spring training game against the Atlanta Braves. “I was always playing. During the Saturday game of the week, I was at the park.
“I knew I loved to play the game and be on the field. My role models were my brothers and my dad. I really didn’t watch a lot of baseball. I didn’t have time.”
Williams played baseball at Carson High under legendary prep coach Ron McNutt before going on to star at UNLV under coach Fred Dallimore from 1984 to 1986.
“At that level he taught us fundamentally to do the things we needed to do,” Williams said. “He always asked us to be enthusiastic and energetic and enjoy playing the game. Fundamentally, he taught us that.
“He was very concerned about helping us go on to college or the pro level or whatever opportunity may lead our way. He was concerned about the development of his players.”
That was the case for Williams, a first-round pick by San Francisco in 1986 who also played for the Cleveland Indians and Arizona Diamondbacks during a career that ended in 2003.
A right-handed hitter, he was a five-time All-Star and member of the 2001 Arizona World Series championship team. He hit 359 career home runs, which ranks fifth all time among third basemen behind Mike Schmidt (509), Eddie Matthews (486), Chipper Jones (389) and Graig Nettles (368).
The “Carson Crusher” — he doesn’t know when or how he got that nickname — spent the past four seasons on Kirk Gibson’s staff at Arizona, including three as third-base coach. He was named Nationals manager on Oct. 31 and spent most of the winter at his Arizona home planning his spring training schedule down to the minute for a team that trains in Viera, Fla., about one hour southeast of Orlando.
When Davey Johnson left as manager after the 2013 season, Williams was quickly on the radar of Washington general manager Mike Rizzo, a former scouting director with the Diamondbacks. While Williams has not managed at the big league level, he did manage a team in the Arizona Fall League in 2012 and for a few weeks in the Double-A Southern League with Mobile in 2007.
One of his players was Anthony Rendon, now a second baseman for the Nationals.
“Matt Williams is a guy I have known for a long time,” Rizzo said when Williams was hired. “He has a great reputation in the game; he is a student of the game. He has the drive and tenacity of a winner. He is a leader by example.”
But Williams also seeks the input of his coaching staff and players.
“The way the guys have responded has been a pleasant surprise,” he said. “I have been really impressed with their enthusiasm. I think the thing that has surprised me the most is when you get to this position there are a lot of questions you don’t deal with when you are a coach. Everyone asks you the answer; sometimes you don’t have it. That is new to me.”
Some of the major decisions facing Williams is who will be the No. 5 starter, who will start at second base and the makeup of the Washington bullpen.
Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark, rookies last year, are challenging veteran Ross Detwiler for the No. 5 spot in the rotation.
Veteran second baseman Danny Espinosa, who slumped badly last year, is trying to get back his job at second from Rendon, who made his big league debut in 2013.
And Williams is trying to decide whether to carry two left-handers in the bullpen. One of them will be veteran Jerry Blevins, who was traded by Oakland to Washington after last season.
To that end, Williams doesn’t hesitate to ask for input from his coaching staff. And he is not afraid to try unconventional methods.
In the spring training game against Atlanta last week, he used five infielders and two outfielders with the score tied at 4 and the Braves batting with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the eighth inning.
The move backfired when rookie Phil Gosselin hit a triple to right pretty much in the spot where the right fielder would have been playing in a normal situation.
“It didn’t work out,” Williams said, “but we may never get a situation to try it. It was fun.”
Matt LeCroy was the manager last season for Double-A Harrisburg, the Eastern League farm team of the Nationals. This season he is Williams’ bullpen coach.
“When he hired me, it was really the first time I had talked to him,” LeCroy said. “When we got down here I got to see the true sense of who he is.”
And what is that?
“He is stern, but he also communicates with the players and tries to get their feel on a lot of things,” said LeCroy, a former big league catcher. “He has been around the game for a long time. He has been a third-base coach and instructor, and that is going to carry over.”
Known as a “tough guy” by Rizzo, Williams has shared a lighter side during his daily briefings with the media. But there is little doubt that the former Carson High star wants to win in Washington.
“He takes that intensity out to the field,” ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg said.
And it all began in Carson City, where a young Williams chose playing baseball instead of watching it on TV.
David Driver is a freelance writer in Maryland who covers the Washington Nationals. He can be reached at davidsdriver.com.