VIERA, Fla. -- There's very little that's typical about Matt Williams and his new job as manager of the Washington Nationals.
Williams is young for a manager, just 48 years old, with only a handful of seasons as a major league coach on his resume. As he put it, "I never imagined it would happen this quickly." His youth isn't groundbreaking, but usually a manager like Williams takes over a similarly young team.
These Nationals, though, are just a year removed from the playoffs. After winning 98 games in 2012, they won 86 games last season, and the dominant response to that season was shock and disappointment. Manager Davey Johnson, widely considered a players' manager, was kicked upstairs.
Often, teams will counter a manager who didn't meet expectations with an opposite type. Perhaps you'd expect fiery histrionics from Williams. That isn't what you'll get, though. Williams, who has played under managers like Buck Showalter, Bob Brenly and Dusty Baker, has clearly been paying attention, with the goal of managing dating back to his playing days.
You'll hear plenty of managers pay lip service to communication. In Williams' case, he's clearly living it so far, as I found out spending the day with Williams and the Nationals earlier this week. And he does so, not in the rough-edged way we tend to think of baseball lifers talking, but more like your college advisor, all rounded tones and bigger-picture focus. It is easy to see why the Nationals were impressed when they interviewed him.
The ironic part is, when it all first happened, Williams couldn't talk to anybody.
"I was at home, with the family," Williams told me about the day he was named manager. He sat behind his desk, across from me in his office. His lunch, meatloaf and vegetables, sat uneaten at his desk as we talked. A copy of Simon Sinek's Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't, rested nearby. "And about 5:00 that morning, west coast time, my phone started to go crazy. And I hadn't heard anything officially from anybody. So I started getting texts from folks, and people wanted to talk -- and I really couldn't say anything, because I didn't know. And then finally, later that day, [Nationals general manager] Mike [Rizzo] called me and asked me to be the manager. Of course I said, 'Of course I will!'", the earnest Williams concluded, smiling.
He's more than made up for the initial silence since then, reportedly talking to his pitching coach, Steve McCatty, for four hours in a single phone call at one point this winter. This reflected a goal Williams had going into the 2014 season, to make spring training less about discovery, and more about reinforcing what he'd already picked up through talking to his players and coaches all winter.
"First and foremost, I had to understand our players," Williams said. "I had to understand their talents -- you get a chance to see them, but not on an everyday basis, when you're a coach for another team. So understand their talents, what they do well, what they don't do well, and how we would help them improve, put them in a position to succeed, and get to know them personally."
Williams also recognized that much of the burden in getting to know his players personally would fall on him. The Nationals have minimal personnel changes from last season, and Williams even made the decision to keep the coaching staff in place.
"One of the thoughts I had going in was, I need guys that are familiar [with the team]," Williams said. "This is a very unique situation. Generally when you are a new manager, a young manager, there is a rebuild, or a long-term plan, or something of that nature. That's not the case here. So this is a team that has expectations, that certainly has worlds of talent. So I wanted to retain the coaching staff that got them to this point. And I had to rely on these guys to let me know their thoughts on players, and what makes them tick. So that was a planned part of the process."
Armed with that knowledge, Williams looked at his self-created situation of a settled situation, with himself as the variable, and took the initiative.
"We've all been the new kid in class," Williams said, returning to an empathetic framework he used to answer several questions posed to him over the course of the day. "It often takes effort by that new kid to walk up to somebody and say, 'Hello, my name is Matt.' Because the other kids, who know everybody, don't have to do that. And if you're the new guy and don't do that, you're going to stay on the outside, because that's just human nature."
That process, for Williams, began the day after he was introduced to the media.
"I had an experience this winter with Jayson Werth," Williams said. "We had the press conference and all that to-do. And the next day, I got a chance to go to his home, right outside of D.C., and sit with him for an hour. And so at first, you sit, like we're sitting, and you talk. But after 15 minutes or so, he started to open up, and give me his thoughts on the team, and what we could do, and how we could get over the hump, and how we win. I learned about his childhood, and all those things. And you never get a chance to do that unless you open yourself up, on both sides. So that was the first experience. And I've tried to take that, with these guys, call them, talk to them about -- not necessarily just about what they want to accomplish personally, but how do we get to the end result of what we want to get to as a team, and take everybody's opinion.
"We've got some really smart baseball players here, and some really good folks. And they've opened up, and explained what they want from me. They've asked me to just be truthful with them. If we're going to make a move, or I'm going to give a guy a day off, why am I doing that. They want to know. They're people. Everybody's got feelings, and everybody's feels bad about themselves when they're not doing well and everybody feels good when they are. I understand that. I've been there."
Williams did make the important distinction that often leads to the downfall of other managers.
"They know I'm a peer, a brother," Williams said. "They also understand that I have some authority, and they respect that, and I respect them."
This hybrid philosophy reflects any number of influences that Williams cited, an interesting amalgam of managers he's seen first-hand.
"I think it's a little bit of all of them," Williams said. "I want to be prepared, and arguably the most prepared manager I ever had was Buck Showalter. And he continues to be. I spoke with Buck during the Fall League this year, and I take a lot from him, the regimented style, if you will, being prepared, making sure we understand what we're doing that particular day.
"From Bob Brenly, I take the fact that he had a veteran club -- which we have some veterans on this club. And you must to allow them to police themselves, and let them play and get out of their way sometimes," Williams said. "Because they're talented guys."
"And from Dusty, who's my mentor, I take the ability to communicate with guys. I'm not so removed from the game that I don't understand it. It's a different game, certainly, than when I played it. But it's all about communication and being able to talk to them, and understanding. Being able to look into their eyes and know there's something bothering them, and invite them to sit down, and generally be concerned about what's going on with them, good, bad or indifferent."
The messages, as the Nationals embark on Opening Day, appear to be getting through. Williams had cited the need for his pitchers to hold runners on better, and later that day, when asked to reflect on his spring, Stephen Strasburg immediately cited his work holding runners on as critical to his overall experience in Viera.
And Williams' ability to be honest with his players, even in difficult circumstances, was tested that very afternoon. It was a cut day, and a number of Nationals, from Tyler Moore to Jamey Carroll, had to be sent to Triple-A, or in Carroll's case, let go altogether.
It's the kind of thing first-time managers maybe didn't think about when taking the job. But when I asked Williams, late that afternoon, how he'd prepared for that task, he had a detailed, ready answer for it as well.
"Well, I've been that guy who sat on that couch over there," Wiliams said, gesturing to the sofa in his Viera office where his recently cut players had been just minutes before. Again, it was striking how immediately empathetic Williams was in his response. "Or was the guy who got let go. So I understand that, the feeling behind that. It's not easy. But with every player it's a different scenario. So as we talked about today, the key is to be truthful. Let them know what we think, and with a guy like Jamey Carroll, let him know we're here for him in whatever capacity we could be.
"You let him go, but you're here for him as well. We're all part of this big fraternity. And we want to see him do well. So if we can help him do that, we'll help him do that."
However capable he is of putting himself in another man's shoes, it is equally clear that Williams wouldn't want to be in anybody else's shoes right now.
"It's gonna be exciting," Williams said, anticipating his first Opening Day as a manager. "I don't know of anybody who wouldn't want to be in that position. That's the way I look at it."