VIERA, Fla. — Matt Williams has been coming to spring training for more than two decades, so you’d think he’d know the drill by now and wouldn’t be surprised by anything thrown his way.
This, however, was different. Williams stepped onto the practice fields outside Space Coast Stadium on Saturday morning not as a power-hitting third baseman, not as a coach barking out specific instructions to a small group of players but as a big-league manager, responsible for overseeing 63 guys in uniform.
The end result was … well, not necessarily what the 48-year-old expected.
“I was telling the coaching staff that I had a bad day today, because I didn’t get to pick up a fungo and I didn’t get to throw any batting practice,” said Williams, who couldn’t sleep Friday night and wound up arriving at the ballpark at 5 a.m. “So it’s completely odd for me. Usually I’m out there and my hands have blisters and all that stuff. But it’s part of my adjustment process.”
On the surface, the Nationals’ first pitchers and catchers workout under Williams looked a whole lot like their first pitchers and catchers workout under Davey Johnson in 2012. Players stretched and played catch. Groups of pitchers threw off bullpen mounds while others worked on bunting and defensive drills. Catchers took batting practice. Everybody ran through conditioning exercises to wrap up.
Look closer, though, and you could find the subtle differences. Everything was structured down to the minute. Pitchers were put through a more rigorous fielding practice than in the past. Position players who reported early held their own workout inside the ballpark. And instead of making the quarter-mile walk from the stadium to the practice fields, everyone was transported via carts.
In short, no time was wasted. Just as Williams promised.
“I felt more structure, more direction,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “I think that’s the thing we need and he brings to the table.”
The morning began with a scene that will play out far more frequently under Williams than his predecessor: a team meeting. His message?
“Just that everything starts with them; everything starts with the guy who holds the baseball,” the rookie skipper said. “That we’re going to do it with conviction. And that we’re prepared every time that they take the mound. It was short and sweet. We’ll get into a bigger meeting when everybody gets here, but I thought it was good.”
Nationals players, curious to get their first taste of their new manager, came away impressed.
“He’s the type of guy that, he’s just about his business,” left-hander Gio Gonzalez said. “He wants to go out there and win. I think he’s going to have his fun. He’s gonna let us enjoy our time. But at the same time, once we cross those lines, it’s game time.”
It’s common for players, especially young ones fighting for jobs, to try too hard to make a positive impression on the first day of spring training. Williams actually found himself trying to do too much on his first day as manager. Instead of merely watching pitchers he hadn’t ever seen before throw bullpen sessions, he started formulating in his mind what roles they might hold on his staff come April and beyond.
“My brain starts going a million miles an hour,” he said. “Roles. How would you use this guy? What kind of stuff does he have? And how would it play in a major-league game on our staff? All those things. It’s a bit early for that. … But I think it’s natural for me to go there. The rest of the staff may have to rein me in a little bit.”
There will be plenty of time over the next six weeks for Williams to make those kind of evaluations. For now, he can go home and try to get a good night’s rest, knowing this day he anticipated for so long is behind him and a full, unblemished baseball season awaits.
“My biggest thing right now is: I’m really looking forward to tomorrow,” he said. “We have the other group, the B group, is going to throw their bullpens tomorrow. The day after that, we’ll start getting them into their bunt plays, things like that. There’s something new every day. I’m really looking forward to that.”