Friday, July 08, 2011

Dick Williams

Only met Dick Williams once, at a party thrown by Major League Baseball in the 1990s. It was an oft-told tale among baseball writers that Williams was murder to deal with when he was a manager, but on this evening, he was charming, gracious, and told swell baseball stories of yesteryear. Of course, we'd been drinking, and he wasn't a manager any more.

But anyone remotely familiar with the sport ranks Williams among the best at the peculiar and man-killing trade of managing there ever was. There are two incidents, one very famous, one much less so, that illustrate how he earned that rating.

The members of Williams' baseball generation usually say he was the best pure in-game manager they'd ever seen. Exhibit A is Game Three of the 1972 World Series. Oakland A's down to the Cincinnati Reds 1-0 in the late innings. Reds have men on second and third, two out, and a three-two count on the batter, who happened to be Johnny Bench.

Williams strode to the mound for a prolonged conference, which ended with a pantomime argument with the reliever in which Williams vigorously and repeatedly gestured at first base, them stomped back to the dugout in obvious dudgeon at having to employ such an insubordinate dolt of a twirler.

The catcher stood up and moved to the first base side of home plate. The insubordinate dolt in question, who happened to be Rollie Fingers, wound up and threw one right down the middle as the catcher leapt to grab it. Bench just stood there, as who wouldn't? Strike three, inning over.

Contemplate for one second the enormous ego and even more enormous courage it'd take for a skipper to pull that stunt in May, let alone in the Series. Williams didn't just fool a Hall of Fame hitter with his move, he fooled the whole country.

OK, that's a very famous Williams story, probably the most famous. Here's one that's less celebrated. I heard Ken Harrelson tell it many years ago, and I hope he and you will excuse me for paraphrasing in quotation marks.

"People forget," Hawk said, discussing the 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox, "how many bad, bad losses we had coming down the stretch in September. One night, against Kansas City I think, we blew a lead, made some errors, I struck out three times, and the clubhouse was just awful. Guys were crying by their lockers."

"Now, before I get to the next part," Hawk went on, "You have to remember just how mean and sarcastic and demanding Dick Williams was. He came out of his office and into the clubhouse before the reporters got there and just said 'Fellas, forget it. It's just another fuckin' ballgame."

"We looked at each other and thought, here's a rookie manager with a team in a pennant race, and he can do that after we lose. We're going to be all right."

And so they were.

Williams always said he couldn't manage modern day players. Is it wrong in eulogy to violently disagree with the one you're eulogizing? I have to.


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