MESA, Ariz. — Matt Williams is returning to his second home just over the Sierra Nevada from where he grew up in Carson City and developed his skills to become one of the best Major League Baseball players in the 1990s and early 2000s.
From his playing days as a third baseman in San Francisco to coaching in Arizona and managing the Washington Nationals for two years, Williams wasn’t only a player but now he’s also a teacher working with current and future players of the game. Now, as the Oakland Athletics’ new infield and third base coach, Williams said he relishes every day on the baseball diamond where he works with veteran and rookie ball players alike.
Although he celebrated his 52nd birthday in November, Williams still possesses the body of a young player chomping at the bit to play America’s pastime; now, however, he has evolved into both instructor and mentor, a role he cherishes. At spring training in Mesa, Williams spoke to the Nevada Appeal of his return to coaching baseball after former Giants’ teammate, coach and A’s manager Bob Melvin contacted him last year.
THE WINTER CALL
“I got a late call from Bob … it was winter, and he said in his phone call, ‘You did some TV last year, do you want the opportunity to work with some really young talented infielders here? … So I would like you to be the infield coach and the third base coach,’” Williams recalled. “Bob and I have some great history. He was a teammate (Giants) and the bench coach of the world champion (Arizona in 2001).”
Williams said because of their friendship, he jumped at the opportunity to work for Melvin and work with talented, young players, a similar role he had with Arizona as a coach.
“It’s fun,” he said of coaching at Oakland. “They are willing participants, eager and wanting to get better. They have gotten a taste of the big leagues and want to stay. It’s fun on an everyday basis to work with them, and when the season starts, we let them go and then go along for the ride.”
It’s been 22 years since Williams wore the San Francisco Giants uniform and patrolled third base. A fan favorite, Williams became the team’s everyday third baseman in 1990 and earned a spot for the All-Star game in July. Between 1991-1997, Williams earned four Golden Glove awards, hit 30 home runs six times and finished second for the National League’s Most Valuable Player in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Williams also played in the Bay Bridge World Series in 1989.
After 10 seasons in San Francisco, though, the Giants traded Williams after the 1996 season to Cleveland, where he, coincidentally, played for the Indians in the 1997 World Series.
“It’s a great connection,” he said of returning to Northern California. “Its home away from home for me where I grew up in Carson City. I spent 10 years there (in San Francisco). It still feels like home, but granted, I’ll be on the other side of the Bay.”
Strong memories also remain in Northern Nevada, where he returns to see his brother who lives in Reno and to get together with some high school friends. He also asked about his high school coach Ron McNutt. Even after several decades of being away from San Francisco, however, Williams, who played collegiate baseball at UNLV, said fans still approach him after spring training games between the Giants and A’s to say hello.
Known as “Matt the Bat” or “The Big Marine” during his playing days with three teams, Williams is known just as Matt or Matty to his family and friends and for those in Nevada who still follow his career.
THE INTENSE PROCESS
Along with the other A’s coaches and players, Williams knows spring training is an intense process of spending seven days a week, 12-hour days. Sometimes, the occasional day off greets the team when no game is scheduled. While some may describe the annual ritual as military training, Williams said that’s the grind to which everyone looks forward.
“We love it,” he said with a grin.
During the six to seven weeks of spring training under the bright Arizona sun, coaches review each player’s progress and make adjustments. Some players remain with the A’s organization at one level or another, while some are released; nevertheless, that doesn’t stop the other coaches and Williams, who has been a part of this process for 30 years, from instructing and mentoring.
“Because baseball is played every day, it’s very easy to see if something is out of whack,” Williams explained. “My job is to help anyway I can. I make them (the players) comfortable talking about the intricacies of the position, and we (the coaches) determine what we want to do defensively. The players come with wonderful energy and great attitudes.”
A DIFFERENT VIEW
Williams also brings another perspective to his coaching. Williams served, at one time, as a color commentator during the Diamondbacks’ radio and television broadcasts, and during the 2017 season, NBC Sports Bay Area hired Williams as a studio analyst for the pre- and post-game shows to discuss the performance of the San Francisco Giants. The analyst role kept him busy commuting from his Phoenix-area home to San Francisco. Williams said the broadcasting role gave him a better insight into the game.
“Granted, I love the broadcasting part of it,” he said. “It gave me a different perspective of the game by sitting away from it and not sitting in the dugout.”
During the season, Williams teamed with former Douglas High School and San Francisco Giants pitcher Shawn Estes and also with retired Giants coach Tim Flannery and former shortstop Rich Aurelia.
“Shawn and I worked together more than anyone else,” he said. “It was fun to work with him and get the pitching perspective, too. It was interesting. You take a step away from the game, and it gives you a different perspective. You’re covering one team. It’s fun to break it (the game) down, analyze it, look at what’s good or bad about it.”
Combined with his experience as a major league player, Williams can offer his hard-working players much more as he works on their defense. Williams hasn’t been that far removed from playing the game to offer his expertise.
“As a former player, I see some of myself in them,” he pointed out. “I see some of the struggles they go through. I understand their elation for what it is. Our job is to keep them as even as we can. We have some really young talent in the minor league system as well.”
Preparing for the unexpected always follows coaches. Williams said on any given day, anything can happen such as an injury that will sideline a player for days, even weeks. Then, a player from one of the A’s minor league teams — more than likely Nashville – will receive the call to join Oakland for a specific period of time.
EYE ON THE FUTURE
Every spring training takes a small toll on Williams’ body, but that’s expected, he says.
“It’s harder every year for an older body,” he said, smiling. “I have the aches and pains, but I refer to it as a good sore because I enjoy what I’m doing. It’s all worth it.”
Although Williams hasn’t coached in his first regular season game, he said he’s content and satisfied to share his expertise with the players. He had a taste of managing, and if another team knocked on the door, he would weigh the opportunities. For now, his love of baseball, his teaching and his expertise are all with the A’s.
“Sitting in that seat is the ultimate for anybody,” said Williams, the National League’s Manager of the Year after his first season. I’m content to work with Bob. He’s fantastic, and I continue to learn from him.”
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