AFTER GOING hitless in four at bats in last Saturday's 6-3 loss to
the New York Mets, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants stood
at his locker in Shea Stadium bemoaning his 1995 stats, which, for
a three-time National League MVP, were decidedly subpar: a .276
average, five home runs and 16 RBIs. ``My grandmother can throw a
pitch and get me out,'' said Bonds, who on this day, at least,
faced a tougher pitcher than his granny in Met ace Bret
Saberhagen. ``I feel like I've been slumping since the beginning
of the year.'' In fact, just about every player who supplied the
pyrotechnics for baseball's offensive explosion last year,
including Bonds, either has been felled by injury or has struggled
to shake off the cobwebs after the eight-month players' strike.
Most everyone, that is, but the player who was sitting across the
room from Bonds -- Giant third baseman Matt Williams. Last year
Williams was on pace to challenge Roger Maris's single-season
record of 61 home runs, and this year he hasn't just picked up
where he left off, he has taken his game to an even higher level.
``Matty is just in a real good groove now, but I really don't want
to talk about it,'' said Bonds. ``I don't want to jinx him.''
By all accounts it's going to take more than a teammate's praise
-- or the prowess of a two-time Cy Young Award winner like
Saberhagen -- to slow Williams's rampage through National League
pitching. In going 4 for 4 last Saturday and 3 for 4 on Sunday,
Williams, a career .253 hitter entering the season, became the
league's leading batsman with an astonishing .400 average. He also
was tops in the National League in home runs (12), RBIs (34),
total bases (91), extra-base hits (21) and slugging percentage
(.791). Considered one of the premier defensive third basemen in
the game, Williams, naturally, was the league's leading fielder at
his position (.989) as well.
All of this comes on the heels of a 1994 season that produced what
was shaping up as a prodigious home run derby between Williams,
who had 43 homers after 115 games, and the Seattle Mariners' Ken
Griffey Jr., who had 40 after 112 -- until the game was shut down
by the players' strike. Tacking the Giants' 31 games this year
(through Sunday) onto last season, Williams had 55 home runs in
his team's last 146 games (box, opposite). If he hits seven more
dingers in San Francisco's next 16 contests . . . well, it makes
June 4, 1995
And Williams's feats become all the more eye-opening when you
consider what has happened to many of the other players who were
killing the ball last season. Griffey, for instance, was hitting
only .263 with seven home runs when he broke his left wrist
crashing into the wall while making a leaping catch last Friday
night; he'll be out at least three months. National League MVP
Jeff Bagwell of the Houston Astros, a Triple Crown threat last
year, was hitting .194 with four home runs and 14 RBIs through
Sunday. American League MVP Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox
had only seven home runs, and league batting champion Paul O'Neill
had missed 12 games with a wrist injury. Tony Gwynn of the San
Diego Padres, who was making a run at .400 when the strike came,
was hitting a more modest .322.
Last year's big question about Williams -- would he have broken
Maris's record? -- hung in the air like a high fly ball lost in
the sun after the Aug. 12 player walkout, and it has taken on new
life this year with Williams's quick start. ``We'll never know,''
Williams says with a shrug. ``I didn't lose any sleep worrying
about it in the off-season.''
``I believe he would have broken Maris's record, but I didn't say
it last year because I didn't want to put any pressure on him,''
says Giant hitting coach Bobby Bonds, a former major league
standout as well as Barry's father. ``Matty doesn't care about
home runs -- he never even talks about home runs -- and he
doesn't feel like he's been cheated. The fans were cheated,
baseball was cheated.''
And everyone will be cheated again this year because the strike
shortened the 1995 season by 18 games. But Williams couldn't care
less about taking a seat alongside baseball's immortals. Breaking
Maris's record isn't one of his goals. ``If you gave me my choice
between hitting .250 with 40 homers and 105 RBIs, and hitting .300
with two homers and 110 RBIs, I'd take .300, two and 110 every
time,'' he says. ``If I hit .300, I'd be driving in more runs, and
I'd be on base for the guys behind me.''
Williams's humble goal of hitting .300 -- he hit .267 last year
after a career-best .294 in 1993 -- befits his personality. Even
when Williams hits one out of the park, he sprints around the
bases staring at his shoelaces, as if embarrassed by the
attention. ``If you think about it, a home run is a mistake,'' he
says. ``The idea is to hit the ball hard, on a line, so the
defense can't react to it. Hit it high in the air, which is how
most home runs are hit, and most of the time it's going to be
caught. It's a mistake.''
But there's no mistaking the way he has been stroking the ball
this season. His double and three singles last Saturday -- the
eighth four-hit game of his career -- were all sharply struck
balls judiciously placed around the outfield. ``Usually when home
run hitters are not hitting home runs, they're easy to get out,''
Saberhagen said after the game. ``Williams is not one of those
types.'' On Sunday he had an infield hit that Met second baseman
Jeff Kent couldn't handle, a low line single that skipped past the
glove of shortstop Jose Vizcaino and a towering home run to left.
In the past, Williams, a righthanded cleanup hitter, has generally
caught fire in midseason. ``Usually it takes Matty a while to get
his timing because he has so much going on at the plate with his
leg kick and his bat waving over his shoulder,'' says San
Francisco manager Dusty Baker. ``Like a fine-tuned race car, it
takes some time to get in sync.''
Not this year, not even after a 232-day layoff and a short spring
training. How do you explain Williams's emergence as one of
baseball's most dangerous hitters?
MATURITY. In past seasons if Williams had a bad at bat, he
returned to the dugout with steam pouring out of his ears and his
face as red as a cherry bomb. ``Even if he hit a ball pretty good
for an out, he would come back to the dugout, and we would all
take a step back,'' says Giant second baseman Robby Thompson.
``Now he handles things much better. He is not his own worst enemy
at the plate.''
PATIENCE. ``He used to be more vulnerable to breaking balls,''
says Met manager Dallas Green. ``Now he's much more disciplined.
Bobby Bonds has helped him out in that area tremendously.''
THE THREE KEYS. In the three years that Bobby Bonds has been a
San Francisco coach, he and Williams have developed a close
relationship. They talk frequently about the three keys to
success at the plate, which, as Williams characterizes them, are
1) square my body, 2) see the ball and 3) use my hands, the last
referring to the need for a short, quick swing to generate bat
Whenever Bonds, who also coaches first base, sees Williams doing
something wrong at the plate, he might flash one finger, then two
fingers, then three to remind Williams of the three keys. Or he
might motion to a part of his body. After Williams hit a pitch
foul in his third at bat on Saturday, Bonds pantomimed with great
theatrics, pointing to his hand. Williams reminded himself, Use my
hands, and stroked the next pitch up the middle.
``There's no telling how good he'll be. He's damn good now,''
Bobby Bonds said after the game. ``Is Matt Williams a superstar?
Yes. How much better will he get? With his attitude and the way he
goes about his work, he'll improve. He's only 29; he's got years
of excellence in him.'' And perhaps, if baseball squeezes in
another 162-game season anytime soon, he'll get a chance to swing
at one of the game's most hallowed records.
MARIS VS. WILLIAMS
If you combine the 43 home runs that Matt Williams hit in the
Giants' 115 games during the strike-shortened 1994 season with his
12 dingers in the 31 games he played this season through Sunday
and then project his home run output over 162 games, here's how he
stacks up against Roger Maris's record-setting performance in
Home 162-Game 162-Game
Player, Year Games Runs Projection Actual
Roger Maris, 1961 146 56 62 61
Matt Williams, 1994-95 146 55 61 ??