Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners and Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox are indisputably the glamour-pusses of this year's big home run parade, their faces and forms adorning magazine covers and newspaper sports pages, their meteoric careers and adorable personalities examined in countless television features. But trotting unobtrusively alongside them in the chase to overtake Roger Maris's home run record, minding his own business and begging your pardon, is another formidable, if mostly ignored, power hitter, Matt Williams of the San Francisco Giants.
This is an article from the July 25, 1994 issue
At week's end Griffey had 35 home runs and Thomas had 33, but Williams had shouldered his way between them on Sunday, hitting his 34th home run to help the Giants beat the Montreal Expos, 6-4, for San Francisco's eighth straight victory. Williams hit 29 homers before the end of June, thereby breaking a somewhat esoteric National League record set by the Pittsburgh Pirates' Willie Stargell in 1971. If he continues as he has and the season continues without interruption by a players' strike, he could threaten the Giants' franchise record of 52 home runs by Willie Mays in '65 and the National League standard of 56 established by Hack Wilson of the Chicago Cubs in '30. Not to mention Maris's record of 61.
But Williams is doing all this under a virtual cloak of anonymity, which is just fine with him. "I really don't care if Griffey and Thomas get all the attention," he says mildly. "They can have it. The thing about a home run is, you never know where or if it will ever happen again." This comes from a man who this year has hit one out about every 10 at bats. Williams's aversion to fame both baffles and amuses his teammates, but they cannot for the life of them figure out why the rest of the sports world hasn't yet caught up with his prowess.
Williams, though, has grown accustomed to playing in the shadow of others, even on his own team. When he first joined the Giants in 1987, Will Clark was all the rage. Then along came Kevin Mitchell and his home run binge of '89. Lately the focus has been on Barry Bonds, the brooding superstar. And now, with Bonds having started slowly while Williams was soaring, there appears the newly rehabilitated Darryl Strawberry to steal Williams's thunder. Williams contentedly roots for them all, pleased just to be in their august company.
One explanation for his relative obscurity is his old-fashioned rejection of the theatrical gesture, his distaste for, in his words, "showing guys up." When Bonds hits a ball out of the park, he first postures Reggie-like at the plate, admiring the flight of the ball, a Renoir appraising his brushwork. Then he enters into his majestic home run trot, a Barrymore at the footlights. When Williams hits one, he lowers his head apologetically and steams off for first as if he were trying to beat out an infield hit. It is a gallop, not a trot. "As far as he hits them," says San Francisco shortstop Royce Clayton, "he's crossing home plate before the ball comes down."
Williams's demeanor on the field is entirely solemn. "Look at him out there," says Giant first baseman Todd Benzinger, chuckling at Williams in the Candlestick Park batting cage. "The hat's pulled way down. There's no smile. Matt has qualities that players of the past can relate to. He's like a DiMaggio—all business, no flash. The way things are today, with guys wearing their caps on backward, I find that refreshing. Then again, Matt takes everything hard on the field, maybe too hard."
"At times Matty puts too much pressure on himself," says San Francisco manager Dusty Baker, "but I'd rather have someone like that than one who doesn't care. I'll tell you one thing, he's one of the finest young men I've ever known."
That is the prevailing sentiment among the Giants and, for that matter, most anyone who has spent time off the field with the amiable Williams. "He may look intimidating on the field," says Clayton, "but he's a teddy bear in the clubhouse."
He can also be a comedian. Witness his impersonations of Babe Ruth rounding the bases with mincing steps, of Clark's fright mask of a game face, of Reggie Jackson adoring one of his own homers. "I can't do normal people," Williams says. "They have to be eccentrics. I can't do me."
In fact, there is nothing at all normal about Williams at the plate. Settling into the box, he has more nervous tics than Captain Queeg. First, he rocks the bat back and forth as if practicing his golf swing, nuzzling his left shoulder with every forward rock. He awaits the pitch in a paroxysm of bat wiggling, foot lifting and hip swiveling. "Somehow," says a bemused Baker, "all that movement seems to give him power."
"It's just a collection of nervous habits," says Williams. It pains him, however, to think of this Saint Vitus's dance stance as anything but normal, for Williams has no wish to stand out in a crowd, any crowd. When he and his wife, Tracie, go out to dinner at one of their favorite haunts on the San Francisco peninsula, they are rarely pestered, simply because, as he puts it, "I just seem to blend in. Actually, I don't get upset about people asking me for autographs when we're out. I think it's nice of people to ask, and the way I figure it, the time to worry is when they quit asking. But I've never been mobbed."
Maybe that's because Williams, 28, doesn't look much like anybody famous. He's tall, 6'2", and, at 216 pounds, powerfully constructed, but he is quite bald, and his unassuming manner hardly smacks of celebrity conceit. He could as easily be a bank clerk or a schoolteacher. When he won the National League Comeback Player of the Year award last year for hitting .294 with 38 homers and 110 RBIs after a dismal 1992 season (.227, 20 homers, 66 RBIs), he was chagrined. "It made me seem old," he says. "I was 27, too young for a comeback. I'll admit, though, I do look older."
Williams is much more than a power hitter. For all of his bulk, at third base he is as light on his feet as a tap dancer. A two-time Gold Glove winner, he is currently, in the opinion of many observers, the best-fielding third baseman in the game. "He has an unbelievably quick first step to the ball, a tremendous arm and great agility," says Philadelphia Phillie coach Larry Bowa, a fine shortstop in his day. "When he dives for the ball, he gets out of the dirt faster than the little guys. He's as good as any I've seen, and I played with Mike Schmidt, who could really play."
"He's better than Schmidt," says Baker. "Matty has great hands and quick feet. He's a heavyweight who moves like a lightweight."
A quintessential Williams game might have been the one he played against the Phillies on July 8 at Candlestick Park. In the second inning he stabbed Todd Pratt's hard shot in the hole and converted it into a double play. Playing in close on the grass against the speedy Mariano Duncan in the third, he dived to spear another sizzler backhanded, clambered to his feet and made a perfect throw to first. He robbed Mickey Morandini of a hit in the top of the fourth by making a superb backhand catch of a sharply hit ball down the line and then, in the home half of the inning, hit a towering homer that tied the game 1-1. In the sixth, after Bonds had tied the score again with a home run, Williams followed with another of his own to provide the eventual 3-2 winning margin. For good measure, he protected that lead in the eighth by robbing Jim Eisenreich of a hit in the hole with a runner on base. And yet newcomer Strawberry, who in his second game as a Giant got his first hit of the season (an infield single), stole the show with his mere presence.
The youngest, by nine years, of Arthur and Sarah Williams's four sons, Matt comes by his modesty naturally. "My brothers and my dad were my role models," he says. "I had no heroes outside the family." The Williamses lived first in the tiny California town of Big Pine and then, when Matt was 12, moved to the somewhat larger and more sophisticated Carson City, Nev. In 1983 Matt earned a baseball scholarship to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where he was an All-America at shortstop in his junior year.
He credits one peculiar practice drill at UNLV—the infielders were required to field ground balls with Ping-Pong paddles strapped to their glove hands—with developing the surgeon's touch of his defensive game. "You had to give with the ball to stop it at all," Williams says. "And you learned to take everything you could with two hands."
In June 1986, at the end of his junior year, Williams was San Francisco's first-round draft choice (the third player chosen overall), and he made it to the big club a year later. But his first three years with the Giants were frustrating because he commuted regularly between San Francisco and the Giants' Triple A farm club in Phoenix, playing both third and short. Williams's cumulative batting average with San Francisco for those three years was .198. His confidence was nearly shattered. A sorrowful countenance and hunched shoulders betrayed his anguish to the fans, who pitied him more than they decried him. When he would strike out—a far from uncommon occurrence—he would trudge back to the dugout like a chastened schoolboy, amid sighs, not boos, from the stands.
And then came the eventful and potentially career-ending day of May 1, 1989. It began with his fiancèe and soon-to-be wife, Tracie, announcing she was pregnant. This was not bad news. The marriage was scheduled for July, and Matt loved children. "I could tell when I first met him," says Tracie, "that this was a family man." And so he has become, with two daughters, Alysha, 4, and Rachel, 1, and a son, Jacob, 3.
Then, later that day, his mother called from Carson City to tell him that a close friend from his school days had committed suicide. Williams was devastated. That night, still grieving, he struck out as a pinch hitter against the Chicago Cubs and was told he was being sent back to Phoenix, yet again. "I had reached the point where I didn't know what to do," he says. He called home, saying he was thinking of quitting and going back to school. "I just don't think I can play with these guys," he told his mother.
"You know in your heart you can," she replied. "But whatever you do is O.K. with us."
"If I'd quit then," says Williams now, "I'd have had years of wondering what might have been." He went back to Phoenix and hit 26 homers in just 76 games. The Giants recalled him in late July, and he finished the season hitting 16 more homers and playing in the 1989 earthquake World Series against the Oakland Athletics. The next year he led the National League in RBIs, with 122.
Those early travails have made him a better person, Williams is convinced, one who is infinitely more appreciative of the life he now leads, complete with a five-year, $30 million contract he signed last December and homes in San Francisco and Scottsdale, Ariz. He's more than willing to share his experience with others who have troubled souls. "When I was sent down [in 1992]," says Clayton, "Matt was the first to talk with me. I could see in his eyes, he knew what I was going through. It was characteristic of Matt to care."
So Williams may not have the fame he deserves, but he has everything else he wants—a wife and three children, and a job he loves. "I wouldn't trade what I have for the world," he says. "It's a wonderful life."