Jun 9, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
For a series in early June, the upcoming four-game bout between the Nationals and Giants has no shortage of storylines.
It’s the two hottest teams in the National League squaring off in one of baseball’s most pristine parks. Four days between two heavyweights, hosted in a cathedral of the game.
One of those storylines is Nationals manager Matt Williams returning to San Francisco, his first home in the major leagues. The Giants drafted Williams with the third overall pick in 1986. He played 10 years there, made four All-Star teams, and won three Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.
Williams became a star in San Francisco, and has long identified with the franchise. Heading back to the place his MLB career began will be special for the Nationals’ rookie manager.
“That’s my original home,” Williams said. “I spent 10 years there. The people of San Francisco have been nothing but gracious to me my whole career whether I was a Giant or an Indian or a Diamondback or managing the Washington Nationals. So it feels like home to me because that’s where I started. I have great memories there. I learned how to be a big-league baseball player there.”
Williams remembers being drafted by the Giants in June of 1986. Then a star at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Williams was confident he would be drafted, he just didn’t think it would happen so quickly.
“I was actually in my mom and dad’s house,” he said. “The phone rang. I didn’t expect it because there wasn’t a whole lot said about it, really. So I didn’t expect to go No. 1 to the Giants. I thought maybe I’d get drafted somewhere, but not that high.”
Williams was elated to be drafted into the majors, his childhood dream realized. Talking contracts, however, was not his thing.
“Then the negotiations started. And I got so frustrated about it I took my pole and my dog and went fishing for three or four days and got out of there. But it was a fun process. It was fun to have that excitement and to know you’ve reached one of your goals.”
Williams had a good run in San Francisco before moving on to play for Cleveland and Arizona. While with the Giants he made the playoffs twice, including a World Series in 1989 when they lost to Oakland.
In 1993 they won 103 games – the franchise’s best record in 31 years – but didn’t make the postseason. In the years after, they would fall apart.
From 1994 to 1996 they posted losing records, prompting general manager Brian Sabean – hired for the position that year – to make significant changes.
One move Sabean made that offseason was a trade that sent Williams to the Indians. Williams was a fan favorite in San Francisco and the decision was very unpopular. But that was 18 years ago, and Williams doesn’t harbor any ill will towards the man who is still running the Giants.
“The only thing I’ve ever said to Brian about [getting traded] is that ‘I don’t blame you,’” Williams said. “He had a choice to make. You’ve got [Barry] Bonds or you’ve got Williams. And you’ve got to get rid of one of them. What are you going to do, right? So he made the right choice. It’s one of those decisions you have to make.”
Williams was unhappy at first, as San Francisco was the only major league home he had ever known. He had grown up in nearby Nevada and enjoyed some very good years there. In terms of overall team success, though, it would get better for Williams.
The third baseman went on to appear in another World Series with the Indians and later win one with the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was in Arizona he learned how to coach, and it’s where he started a family. Both stops he now looks back on as great experiences.
“I really never thought I would leave the Giants. I didn’t want to, but it’s baseball and it’s a business and those things happen. Brian’s been very nice to me, though, in every respect. He’s been a great support for me. And regardless of where I was, he’s always been supportive.”
Awaiting the Nationals in San Francisco is the best team in the game, a 42-21 juggernaut back to playing its preferred brand of baseball. With great pitching and a deep lineup, the Giants are looking like a third World Series in five years is a real possibility.
The Nationals are also playing pretty well right now, though. Winners of seven of their last nine, the Nats appear to finally be rounding into form. With their sample size of success still relatively small, the Giants present a perfect test for where they are at as a team.
“Of course [going back] is significant,” Williams said. “We want to win those games, though. They’ve got a really good team and they’re playing really well. So we want to win those games. But yeah, it’s always special for me to go back there. The people have supported me for a long, long time. I’m grateful for that.”
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