Avg ranking (high/low/most common): 17.00 (4/50/6)
Stats: 616 games, .278/.327/.471 = .798 OPS, 100 OPS+, 8.2 bWAR
Best season: 1999 – 154 games, .303/.344/.536 = .880 OPS, 118 OPS+, 4.1 bWAR
“You can have all the RBIs or home runs or MVP awards in the world. In my book, the thing you covet most is the respect of the people you play against. When you’re done, you want them to say, ‘He played the game the way it should be played.’ That’s all. That’s enough.”
— Matt Williams
Matt Williams was already a veteran before he joined the Diamondbacks. He made his major-league debut in 1987 and played a decade for the San Francisco Giants, including four All-Star appearances and a trio of Gold Gloves, as well as being runner up to Jeff Bagwell for 1994 NL MVP. He added one more Gold Glove in 1997 as a member of the Cleveland Indians, who then traded him to the Diamondbacks in December for Travis Fryman, Tom Martin and $3 million in cash. Williams was so keen to join Arizona, he took a pay-cut, effectively paying $2.5 million of the money himself. This was mostly not related to baseball. He had just divorced his first wife, and wanted to be near their three kids, who lived with her in Scottsdale.
His desire was handsomely repaid by Diamondbacks’ ownership, who inked the third-baseman to a five-year extension worth $45 million. [Though enough of it eventually ended up being deferred that Williams finally came off the team’s books in 2014, eleven years after the contract’s end, and outlasted only by Bernard Gilkey.] The team had tried to swing a trade for Williams on the day of the expansion draft, but although that had fallen through, communication lines were kept open. The contract also gave Williams a full no-trade clause, which came back to bite the D-backs after Matt vetoed a November 2002 swap which would have sent him, David Dellucci, Erubiel Durazo and Bret Prinz to the Rockies for Larry Walker.
Much like Jay Bell, Williams had a solid enough inaugural year for the Diamondbacks’ infield, before exploding to an insane degree in Arizona’s sophomore season. He was an RBI machine, driving in 142 runs: before or since, only Luis Gonzalez in 2001 has had more then 125 RBI for Arizona. He batted .303, made the All-Star Game as starter at the hot corner, and finished third in National League MVP voting that year, behind Chipper Jones and Jeff Bagwell. It would be a dozen years before any other Diamondback got another first-place vote, and until Goldschmidt got four this year, Williams was the sole D-back in team history to receive more than one.
The man was the bluest of blue-collar ballplayers, once described as, “built like the Saturday Evening Post’s idea of a ballplayer – strong in the manner of someone who tends the earth for a living.” Manager Buck Showalter said Williams “helped us determine how we were going to go about our business. When he hits a home run, he acts like he’s hit one before and he’s probably going to hit one again. This team has picked up on that. We must lead the league in quickest runs around the bases.” But perhaps this story from 1999 about Byung-Hyun Kim, on the occasion of his major-league debut at Shea Stadium, sums up Williams and his personality more than most.
Mets manager Bobby Valentine popped out of the dugout to dispute some aspect of Kim’s glove. Earlier, the umpires had asked one of Valentine’s pitchers, Turk Wendell, to change gloves, and tit-for-tat is baseball tradition. Valentine’s bigger purpose, though, may have been to unnerve the kid from Korea. Williams figured Kim had enough to worry about. So the third baseman walked toward the manager – who is not universally loved – and told him to get a certain part of his body back in the dugout. Anger was conveyed, adjectives employed. Valentine looked at Williams, into those deep-set, you-never-know eyes, and quietly returned to the dugout. “It was beautiful,” one Diamondback says, a hint of awe in his voice. “Just beautiful.”
Williams was one of the few Diamondbacks not to disappoint in the playoffs that year, batting .375 in the Division Series loss to the Mets. But again, like Bell, the remainder of Williams’s contract offers a cautionary tale for long-term, high-value deals to players in their thirties (the extension covered Matt’s age 33-37 seasons). A slew of injuries meant that over the final four years, Williams averaged only 76 games, with a 90 OPS+ and was worth a total of just 1.6 bWAR. Life off the field was not much better, as in July 2002, his second wife, actress Michelle Johnson, filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences”. [According to Dan Patrick, everyone on the 2001 team had seen Blame It On Rio, bar Jay Bell...]
However, there was still the 2001 World Series, where Williams finally won a ring, having stumbled at the final hurdle with the Giants in 1989 and Indians in 1997. His seven hits trailed only Tony Womack, and his seven RBI tied Tony Bautista for most on the team over those seven games. It included a crucial three-run homer off Andy Pettitte (above) in Game 2. The shot gave Arizona and Randy Johnson some breathing room, with the score at the time being only 1-0 in the seventh inning. But was all downhill. He managed only 60 games in 2002, due to an ankle injury which cost him the entire first half. The following year was worse still, Williams eventually being DFA’d on June 1 to make way for Shea Hillenbrand. It was the end of Matt’s MLB career.
His subsequent life was not without incident. In March 2005, Williams became a part-owner of the team, purchasing a small stake for $3 million over a ten-year period. He said, Needless to say, I’m excited about it. It’s going to be fun to be a part of this for a long time and to do what I can to help us get back to where we want to be.” The previous month he had been named a special assistant, advising owners Ken Kendrick and Jeff Moorad, as well as general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. At the time, he wasn’t too keen on a coaching or managerial position, having four children at home, and preferring a job which didn’t require him to travel. “Right now is not the time in my life where I have those aspirations. What happens in the future, I don’t know.”
Prophetic words, indeed. For in November 2007, Williams’s reputation was tarnished by news that he had bought $11,600 worth of performance-enhancing drugs, including both HGH and steroids, and other drugs from the Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center in 2002. Matt admitted to the purchase, saying he used the HGH on medical advice, to treat that ankle injury received in spring training. “Do I regret it? I tried to heal. It had adverse effects and I didn’t like it. I quit. Who was responsible? I was. I could have said no, but I didn’t.” [Though I note that despite claiming not to “like it”, Williams apparently ordered more additional growth hormone and syringes after retiring, in 2004 and 2005]
The Diamondbacks stood by him, Derrick Hall saying “Matt is a stand-up guy, who without hesitation, admitted using it and not liking it. There is no doubt in our minds that Matt would decline such a recommendation today, knowing what we all know about enhancing substances.” Kendrick agreed: “I don’t condone it. It reflects on his career, definitely. I’m disappointed that he did it under any circumstance. But I think his circumstances are different in a very special way from a player who used it all along.” And Williams was soon back in the dugout at Chase Field, becoming the Diamondbacks’ first-base coach for the 2010 season, under Kirk Gibson.
He moved to third-base in 2011, and stayed there until being hired as Nationals’ manager after the 2013 campaign – a move that required him to divest his team ownership. Matt then returned one more time to Arizona, after a tumultuous spell at the helm in Washington, going from NL Manager of the Year to ignominiously fired, in less than 11 months. He was third-base coach again for the D-backs in 2016, but neither he nor fellow “Legend” Mark Grace were retained as coaches under new manager Torey Lovullo. After providing color commentary for NBC Sports Bay Area’s Giants TV coverage last season, in 2018, he’ll be back at third-base once gain, this time just down the road in Oakland.