The Padres' Persnickety Papa

Manager Dick Williams' obsession with execution and teamwork has made San Diego a surprise contender in the NL West
June 27, 1982

Hey, all you second-guessers out there. You know who you are. You sit at the bar, beer in hand, fantasizing about how you'd handle your local last-place team. "Overpaid bums in britches!" you bellow. "I'd make them work! I'd discipline them, teach them to execute fundamentals and sit them down when they didn't. I'd tell the pitchers to throw strikes and the runners to steal bases. So what if we don't have a Jackson or a Schmidt? Baseball is 95% mental anyway. Who says managers don't win games?" Then you stalk out, as the other patrons roll their eyes, knowing full well that players win games, not managers.

Or do they? Consider the job Dick Williams has done in his first year at San Diego. Williams inherited the team with the worst record in the National League's Western Division last year—in fact, the team with the worst percentage, historically, of any NL franchise. Few of his players are outdoing themselves in 1982; at the end of last week, nine of the Padres' 15 batters were hitting below their career averages. "Position for position, we're a better team than they are," says Frank Robinson, whose Giants were fourth in the NL West. "You look at their lineup and it really doesn't impress you," says Lee Elia, whose Cubs were last in the NL East. Yet at week's end the Padres were in second place, trailing the Braves by 3½ games and thinking about October. Having already drawn 813,000 fans, San Diego is sure to break its 1978 attendance record of 1.67 million.

How have the Padres done it? With the same combination of pitching, speed, defense and fundamentals that Williams taught in previous stops at Boston (1967-69), Oakland (1971-73), California (1974-76) and Montreal (1977-81).

"Dick's like an orchestra leader," says Centerfielder Ruppert Jones, who as of Sunday was among the league leaders with a .321 average and has a golden spittoon by his locker, befitting his status. "You have 25 guys who can play and one guy who makes them harmonize."

Indeed, the Padres are most impressive when taken collectively. Five pitchers have won four to six games, four runners have stolen more than 10 bases and five batters have driven in 20 to 40 runs.

"Individual statistics mean nothing," says the mustachioed and magisterial Williams. "Execution and teamwork are what do matter. I hate bases on balls; there's no defense for them. Physical mistakes may be understandable, but screwed-up fundamentals will kill you. I want my players to throw the ball over the plate, execute well and run those bases. I don't care if you run us out of some innings. You'll run us into more."

Of course, every manager—including the eight who previously piloted the Padres—preaches what he thinks will be a successful system. The difference is that Williams makes his work. He gives six of his players—Jones, First Baseman Gene Richards, Shortstop Garry Templeton, Third Baseman Luis Salazar, Leftfielder Alan Wiggins and Rightfielder Sixto Lezcano—the green light. Led by rookie Wiggins, who had 23 steals in 29 attempts, the Padres were third in the National League with 70 stolen bases. By no coincidence, they were second to West leader Atlanta in runs, with 4.59 a game. "Since we don't have much power [they've been outhomered 45-31] we have to create run-scoring opportunities for the next batter," says Jones. "We're winning because the manager gives us the freedom to be aggressive."

That's about as far as the freedom goes. Williams shocked the club in spring training by benching Lezcano and First Baseman Broderick Perkins for making mental mistakes and refused to sign Bill North, the heir apparent in centerfield, when North asked for what the manager considered too many days off. "Jones was better suited for us as a cleanup hitter than North would have been as a No. 2 hitter," explained Williams, but the players got a message that had nothing to do with tactics. Jones, who had had a mediocre spring up to that point, got four hits the day North departed and has been in high gear ever since. The other Padres decided to work more and complain less.

A chart in the San Diego locker room shows each player's record in 13 categories including defensive plays that saved wins; moving runners from second to third with no outs; driving in men from third with fewer than two outs ("a double plus," says Williams); game-winning runs batted in; and missed signs.

The Padres are also executing in ways that don't show up in the stats. Two that do: They've had four more at bats than their opponents but have outscored them 289-241 and outsacrificed them 51-48.

"If one pitcher fails to sacrifice, Dick will have all of us bunting in batting practice," says Pitcher John Montefusco. "Lay down a good one in a game, and you get a standing ovation from the other pitchers."

The Padre pitchers also got a message in spring training. "After every game we'd see two numbers on the bottom of a chalkboard," says Tim Lollar, who leads the staff" with a 6-2 record and a 2.45 ERA. "No one told us what they were. Finally we figured it out: One number meant how many walks we'd given up, and the other, which was usually more than half the first, was how many of those walks scored. It was a very subtle way of teaching us."

During the season Williams has been much less subtle. Next to each pitcher's name he posts walks yielded to leadoff batters and pitchers, and walks that scored. The practice has plainly paid off: Last in the league with 3.76 walks per game in 1981, the 1982 Padres are first with a 2.83 average. Meanwhile, the ERA has dropped from 3.72 to 3.32.

Only a few Padres haven't been zinged by Williams. "Get a 2-0 count on a hitter and you can hear him cursing from the mound," says Montefusco, who was thought to be washed up in Atlanta but through Sunday was 6-4 in his first year with the Padres. "You can tell when Dick's mad," says Lollar, "because he takes off his glasses." A player who incurs his wrath will be confronted by Williams or his coaches as soon as he enters the dugout. At first some Padres were intimidated by Williams' riding. "We had to get over a timid time," says Reliever Gary Lucas, who leads the club with nine saves. "I was afraid to throw balls," says Montefusco. "But Dick knows what he's doing. Most guys are about .190 hitters with 0-2 counts and .400 with 2-0 counts. After a while I realized that I was the one messing up, not Dick."

As usual, Pitcher John Curtis sees the big picture. "Dick isn't like an irresponsible parent who says, 'You don't eat for a month.' He backs up what he says. Dick has given us a very sound formula. He has taught us the little things that put runs on the scoreboard. For me that meant acting positively and aggressively. I'd like to think my pitching is a way of saying thank you."

Williams has been notably effective with players who were considered attitude problems. Terry Kennedy, a second-year Padre who was unhappy in his role as a backup in St. Louis, was benched for three days after getting only three hits and one RBI in 19 at bats. "I didn't understand at first, but later I realized he wanted me to think about my role on the team," says Kennedy. Deciding to hit for power rather than average, he returned to the lineup and drove in 10 runs in his next 20 at bats.

Lezcano and Templeton were the Cardinals' unhappiest players in 1981. "Sixto probably got the bad rap because he couldn't play with hepatitis and a bad wrist the last two seasons," says Williams. "We benched him one day when he didn't run out a grounder, and we found out later that he had a bad heel and didn't want to bother the trainer. He's been super." Williams has pointedly refrained from riding the sensitive Templeton, whose days in St. Louis were numbered after he made an obscene gesture at fans, nearly fought with Manager Whitey Herzog and was later hospitalized for depression. "He felt he didn't get enough respect in St. Louis, but he gets it here," says Williams. "If I were to name a captain, he'd be it."

Most managers talk percentages but practice the "book": Always bat a lefthanded pinch hitter against a righthanded pitcher; always bring in a lefthanded pitcher to face a lefthanded batter. Not Williams. "I don't know who wrote the book," he scoffs. "Probably some writer who never wore a jockstrap. The book, if it exists, is nothing more than a safety valve. If a man's any kind of manager, he's got charts showing him the real percentages. I have charts showing what our guys do against their pitchers and what their guys do against our pitchers. I can tell you what a guy hit, off of what pitcher and what happened. Now if you want to get down further, we've got what the sequence of pitches was and exactly where they were thrown. We've got all the information we could possibly have."

Williams got up from his postgame lasagna, walked across his office and reached into a stack of pitching charts he has saved since he moved to the National League in 1977. "Here's Bill Madlock batting against us recently," he said. "First pitch was a fastball, high and in. A ball. Next was a changeup low, for another ball. Then a change-slider over the middle for a strike. Next was a sinker, middle-in, which he grounded to third. I'm going to set up my defense based on information like that. I've got a record of every ball hit in every park. Each of our pitchers better know what each guy did to him this year. The charts and advance scouting reports show how to defense a man. We have nine or 10 game reports on every team we're playing. I'll Xerox my reports and give them to my pitching coach, Norm Sherry, and my man in the bullpen, Clyde McCullough. We have a meeting before every series to go over every hitter. Each day my starting pitcher and catcher will talk at another meeting; they'll say how they think we should pitch to and defense every hitter. All my coaches, second basemen, shortstops and relievers will be there. My outfield coach, Bobby Tolan, will meet with Jones, the centerfielder, and the other outfielders will work off Ruppert. The shortstop will relay signs to the third baseman and the second baseman to the first baseman. Every little thing helps. We've got all the information we can possibly have."

Richard Hirshfeld Williams was born 53 years ago, in St. Louis. By the time he was seven, he had wangled his way into the Knothole Gang for Browns games, even though the minimum age for membership was 10. Williams' personality was shaped by his father, Harvey, a hard-driving man who was out of work for five years during the Depression and was variously a Navy recruit, a high diver, a swimmer and a municipal-league umpire. Harvey Williams died when Dick was 16. "He was very strict and stern," says Williams. "He taught me that you can either take it or you can't, that life is hard work."

Williams signed to play in the Dodger organization two days after he graduated from high school, in 1947. He spent 13 years in the majors with five different teams, playing the outfield and three infield positions and batting .260. As a Baltimore Oriole he once played six different positions in a doubleheader.

"I was influenced by three different managers who wouldn't agree on much if you put them in a room," Williams says. "There was my minor league manager, Bobby Bragan, a Branch Rickey man who believed in fundamentals and total team effort. Then there was Paul Richards, who kept me in the majors four different times—three times with Baltimore and once, on paper, with Houston. Richards was a stickler for pitching and defense. And finally there was Charley Dressen, who managed me in Brooklyn. He was always first-person singular: I did this. I did that.' He taught me what not to do."

Williams' big-league playing career ended with the 1964 Red Sox, and he was immediately hired as player-coach of Boston's Triple A team in Seattle. In 1965 the club moved to Toronto, and Williams moved with it—as manager. Two years later the Red Sox job opened up, and Williams, who had guided Toronto to third-and second-place finishes, was hired. He summarily established himself as a disciplinarian and fundamentalist. Williams shocked the Boston "country club" by benching the overweight George Scott during the 1967 pennant race, and made a Cy Young Award winner of Jim Lonborg by teaching him to throw strikes. A ninth-place team in 1966, Boston went to the seventh game of the 1967 World Series before finally losing to the St. Louis Cardinals.

In a pattern that would repeat itself, Williams was fired two years later amid accusations from his players of aloofness and sarcasm. After a year coaching for Gene Mauch in Montreal he went to Oakland and seemed to mellow with that scruffy bunch, most of whom admired Williams and despised owner Charles O. Finley. Under Williams the A's won three divisional titles and two world championships.

When the miserable Angels came knocking midway through the 1974 season, Williams moved on, languishing until July of 1976, when he was fired. "We didn't have any talent and didn't spend any money," says Williams.

The experience rapidly unmellowed him. "Dick was exceptionally smart but a little difficult to close the door and have a heart-to-heart with," says Seattle's Bruce Bochte, who broke in with the Angels in 1974. In 1977 Williams took over an Expo team that had lost 107 games the previous season. Under Williams, Montreal finished fifth, fourth, second and second, losing the 1979 and 1980 races on the last weekend of the season. With the Expos in second place, 1½ games back last Sept. 8, Williams was replaced by Jim Fanning amid the usual charges. Williams was becoming known as a manager who built winners with youth but couldn't handle the veterans.

"In Montreal he supposedly couldn't communicate with the players and front office," says San Diego President Ballard Smith, "but I decided I'd make my own judgment. There must be some other Dick Williams around. We liked him because he had an excellent track record and because we felt he could get the respect of his players."

As ever, Williams-watchers are waiting for him to outlive his welcome. They say the players will turn on him, either when the Padres start losing or when the players age a year or two and aren't as easily intimidated. But Williams' fifth major league managing job is different from his other four in one important respect: For the first time in his career he has the virtually unwavering support of the front office. Not to mention a three-year contract at approximately $200,000 per season. "If you cross him," says Tolan, "you'll probably only cross him once."

No second-guesser could ask for anything more.

PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGH"We're winning because Williams gives us the freedom to be aggressive," says Jones. PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHAggressor No. 1 is speedball Leftfielder Wiggins, who has 23 steals in 29 attempts. FOUR PHOTOSJOHN McDONOUGHCharting a new course for his team, Williams records plus and minus grades for execution, makes pitch-by-pitch notations on rival hitters and logs the path of each batted ball. PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHKennedy and Kurt Bevacqua glad-hand Curtis after a win. PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGH

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)