Dec 30, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT
As we count down the final days of 2013, we are counting down the 10 most significant moments of the year for the Nationals. These aren’t necessarily positive (or negative) moments, and some didn’t even take place on the field. All, though, were significant in the big picture and defined the Nationals’ year. We continue today with significant moment No. 2: Mike Rizzo’s decision to hire Matt Williams as manager …
Major-league general managers, fairly or unfairly, are judged on the biggest decisions they make. The multi-year contracts they hand out. The significant trades they make. And the managers they hire and fire.
Mike Rizzo had already experienced two managerial changes since taking over as Nationals GM in 2009, but he hadn’t found himself in this enviable position: With an opportunity to hand-select pretty much any new manager he wanted to replace the departing Davey Johnson and hand that person a loaded roster expected to win big right away.
Thus, the hiring of Matt Williams during the final week of October represented as significant a decision Rizzo has made in five seasons on the job.
There were any number of ways Rizzo could have turned to replace Johnson. He could have stayed in-house and promoted popular bench coach Randy Knorr to the top position on the staff. He could have brought in a big-name manager with a track record of success, such as Dusty Baker (who openly lobbied for the job but never even secured an interview). He could have done something really bold and hired a Hall of Famer with zero experience but as respected a name as there is in baseball (Cal Ripken, who also never was asked to interview).
Or, he could go with the person he already knew, one he had built a relationship with over a decade and a half, one often touted as a future MLB manager even though he had precious little experience even at the minor-league level.
So it was that Williams found himself at Nationals Park on Nov. 1, shaking Rizzo’s hand and donning a red curly W cap and No. 9 Nats jersey for the first time.
The two have known each other since the late ’90s, when Williams was playing third base for the Diamondbacks and Rizzo was working in Arizona’s front office. They remained close over the years, and Rizzo had more than once in passing mentioned Williams as a potential MLB manager some day.
And when presented with the opportunity to bring Williams to D.C. and give him his first managerial opportunity, Rizzo couldn’t pass it up. Williams was the choice from a pool of five official candidates, including Knorr, former Nationals third base coach Trent Jewett, Padres special assistant Brad Ausmus (who soon after was named manager of the Tigers) and Blue Jays bench coach DeMarlo Hale.
What kind of manager will Williams be? He stresses strong defensive play and aggressive baserunning. He plans brief-but-intense daily workouts at spring training. He’s a player’s manager who communicates well but still conveys the feisty demeanor that defined his big-league career.
How that all translates on the field come April remains to be seen. Can Williams run a pitching staff? Can he out-think the manager in the opposing dugout? Can he keep a clubhouse of 25 varied personalities in unison?
That’s the great unknown with a first-time manager, especially one with no previous connection to this franchise. If Williams is the real deal and leads the Nationals to the World Series appearance Johnson wanted, his legacy — and Rizzo’s legacy — will forever be sealed in this town. If he can’t manage a ballgame, can’t keep the clubhouse intact and can’t get the Nats into late-October, his legacy — and most certainly Rizzo’s legacy — will fall short of expectations.
You only get so many chances to hire a manager. That’s what made Rizzo’s hiring of Williams such a significant development in Nationals history.
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