‘He’s the only one playing’: Matt Williams’ ‘clairvoyant’ KBO experiment

MLB

THERE WAS A time when one time-honored description announced a baseball manager’s arrival. That term — old-school — resonated like a benediction. Old-school conveyed toughness and resolve and a temper that demanded respect. It meant standing up for your players and kicking dirt on umpires and sending a knowing nod toward a pitcher who drills someone for the crime of showing up his teammates. An entire universe resided within those two syllables.

But language is fluid, and over the past two decades, front offices — smarter, younger and less nostalgic — veered away from gut feelings in favor of analytics. That one career-making description evolved to take on a far different connotation. Old-school is now an insult, conjuring images of sour old men trudging to the mound in saggy uniform pants, ready to judge whether a pitcher is done by the cut of his jib and the force in his voice. The old-school guys are the magical thinkers, the hunch followers, the ones who look down the bench and choose a pinch hitter in a tough spot by the look in his eye and not the look of his splits.

Now the idea of a manager maneuvering his team to a win through a well-timed hit-and-run or a late-inning sacrifice has lost all currency. The old-school baseball men were pushed aside and passed over in favor of the younger and more malleable, guys who not only understand the analytics but are willing to have their work dictated — and, ultimately, judged — by those numbers and the front-office folks who abide by them. The Jayce Tinglers and Gabe Kaplers and Derek Sheltons were elevated not for their adherence to the old-school virtues of leadership and strength but for precisely the opposite: They’re guys who are fine with being told what to do. The evolution of those two syllables turned stubbornness and independence into liabilities, and the best manager in 2020 is the one who not only understands the numbers but is adept at translating the orders of the front office to the language of the clubhouse. The generals take dictation.


ONE STRANGE MANIFESTATION of the modern-day American baseball manager can be found in South Korea, of all places, where Kia Tigers manager Matt Williams goes about the quiet business of reinventing and rehabilitating his image and reputation. Williams is a tweener: not old-school enough to be dismissed out of hand, too old-school to be championed by the quants in the front office. He exists outside the current moment, half a world away, face pressed to the glass, eager to be invited back inside.

In the era of the shrinking résumé, perhaps his is too vexing to synthesize. He managed the Nationals for two wildly different seasons, winning National League Manager of the Year as a rookie manager in 2014 and then being fired after 2015 amid the Nats’ infighting and nastiness and near rebellion. The team traded for volatile closer Jonathan Papelbon, whose divisiveness included but was not limited to choking Bryce Harper in the dugout. Jayson Werth, after an argument about being left out of the lineup late in the season, asked Williams, “When do you think you lost this team?” It was a dysfunctional group that Williams handled poorly.

He coached for a year in Arizona, did some television work in San Francisco, and then spent the past two seasons as the infield and third-base coach in Oakland. It was a comfortable gig; he worked for a friend, A’s manager Bob Melvin, and coached Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien and Matt Olson, three of the best infielders in the game. Managing jobs opened and managing jobs closed. “I didn’t get any calls [about Williams], but I made calls,” Melvin says. “I didn’t get a sense one way or another.”

It’s worth backing up for a moment to remember the traits that made Williams one of the best third basemen of the past 50 years. I covered him nearly every day for close to four seasons while he was with the Giants, and I mean this as a compliment: He despised failure more than any athlete I ever covered and enjoyed success the least. He engaged in a constant argument with the game, first as someone fighting to attain stardom and then as someone fighting to keep it. Watching him wrestle his demons in public was often hard and sometimes uncomfortable, like eavesdropping on a sensitive private conversation. Twenty-some years later, little of that has faded — which means that Williams’ personality wouldn’t allow him to accept the outcome in Washington and resign himself to a career as a third-base coach.

“Most guys like Matt get a second shot,” says A’s executive vice president Billy Beane. “But he felt the new wave of managerial candidates were coming from a different background. The new-age guys are hand-picked by front offices through the analytics departments, and he didn’t think he was going to be that guy. He had to do something drastic to get back into it.”

There were several managing jobs open when Williams accepted a dinner invitation last fall from Kia Tigers GM Cho Gye-hyun. “I think I was on lists,” Williams says, “but nobody called.” Williams and Cho struck up a friendship more than 30 years ago when they played against each other in an international amateur tournament in South Korea. Cho, looking to make a big move to bring the Tigers back to KBO prominence, put a three-year contract in front of Williams, right there at the table, and said he wasn’t leaving the country without a signature.

Williams called Melvin, whose first inclination was to emphasize the cons and minimize the pros. “Selfishly, I didn’t want to lose Matt,” Melvin says. “There aren’t better baseball coaches than Matt Williams. But he’s a big league manager. That part doesn’t go away.”

Williams called Beane, seeking some of his notorious bluntness, which Beane delivered on cue. “Listen,” Beane said. “Going over there to manage doesn’t mean you’re going to get a manager’s job when you’re done over there. There’s no guarantee it’s going to translate.”

What Beane delivered was sound advice leavened by a hint of selfishness — “I told him he’s got a job here; I didn’t want him to leave,” he says — but it was received as a challenge, maybe even a dare.

“I think it’s fair to say that deep down inside of me there’s a little unfinished business,” Williams said by phone from Gwangju, South Korea. “In the pit of my stomach, I couldn’t live with myself saying, ‘Well, it just didn’t work out so I’ll just settle for this now.’ And I didn’t know if there was another opportunity for me in the big leagues, but I knew I had this one staring me right in the face.”

Will it change minds? “Look,” Williams says, “I know I can’t just go back and say, ‘OK, I’m ready to manage again.'”

Melvin, the longest-tenured big league manager, is blunt: “I don’t think it can hurt him, and I don’t think he cares at this point.”

Beane takes in the question and lets it hang in the air. “I think he would have — or should have — gotten another chance if he’d stayed, but I just don’t know where we’re headed. Right now we’re looking at a wave of guys with a thin résumé, and I’m starting to think the next wave is full of guys who have a blank résumé.”


WE’RE FAMILIAR WITH the Korean Baseball Organization now, with its bat flips and ungodly-hour ESPN telecasts but mostly because it is a functioning, active group of teams playing competitive baseball games in 2020.

The Tigers are the most famous team in the KBO, which put them in position to hire an American with experience to be the highest-paid manager in the league. They are not expected to compete for a KBO title this season; their youth — 11 of 28 active players are younger than 26 — makes their future much more promising than their present. (They have three American former big leaguers, outfielder Preston Tucker and pitchers Aaron Brooks and Drew Gagnon.) Of the 10 KBO teams, the top five make the playoffs, and Williams says, “I know everyone wants a championship, but that’s our goal — make the playoffs.” Through 57 games, the Tigers were five games above .500, in fourth place. So far, so good.

The first time Williams walked onto the field, during a fall camp, he was stunned to be greeted with a teamwide bow. He has been equally stunned that it has happened every day since. For someone whose hallmark as a player was the head-down, quick-as-possible home run trot, it’s an adjustment.

“In the big leagues, respect depends on who you are,” Williams says. “If you’re Bruce Bochy or Bob Melvin, the players respect you. Here it’s more hierarchical. It was a weird feeling the first time it happened; I’m just some American dude coming over here, and they didn’t have to treat me that way. It hasn’t waned; they do it every day.”

In South Korea, the idea of contesting a manager’s lineup card or challenging a teammate to a fight seems unfathomable. This level of respect has made teaching easier, even in his first season; his judgment is valued, his experience revered.

“Ultimately, the thing I love the most is to teach. I get that chance here, and I’m learning patience. Here I have to learn different ways to make a player better, and that’s making me better. For 30-plus years in pro baseball, all the good and the bad, I want to impart my wisdom. If I can’t do that, what’s all this been for?”

Williams is shadowed by his interpreter, Eugene Koo, a former interpreter for the Cardinals, Rockies and Blue Jays whose baseball savvy allows Williams to convey the game’s intricacies without fear of misunderstanding. During a game early in the season, Williams had to remove a pitcher who was hit in the foot by a line drive. This was a situation he hadn’t anticipated; how would he make sure his reliever had all the time he needed to warm up? “A simple thing, I know,” Williams says, “but it’s an example of how important it is to have a translator who understands the game and can communicate smoothly.”

Williams’ biggest adjustment is the wildly different game-day schedule. As a player, coach and manager, Williams was one of the early-to-the-yard guys, at his locker before noon for a 7:35 start. That’s not the norm in the KBO, but the idea of getting to the park minutes before batting practice didn’t feel right. So Williams arranged for a car to take him to the park in time to watch the home team take batting practice, maybe run some stadium stairs, definitely hang out in his office planning the rest of his day. He’s working on patience, but there are limits.

“But hey — we’re playing,” Williams says. “I’ve gotten a ton of calls from people wondering what the hell’s going on over here, and I tell them, ‘Well, we’re playing.'”

As major league baseball attempts to navigate the simple act of testing while COVID-19 cases in the U.S. soar to unimagined heights, South Korea’s strategy to combat the virus, and the KBO’s revamped conditions, has led to this: The league is preparing to allow a limited number of fans into ballparks. Staff is tested daily, and temperatures are taken in the morning and again at night. A daily online health questionnaire is mandatory. KBO teams operate like college summer teams: Players and staff eat meals together at the hotel, arrive at the ballpark by bus in uniform 90 minutes before the first pitch, play the game and hop back onto the bus, still in uniform, for the trip back to the hotel. There are no clubhouse managers or showers at the ballpark. After games, players, coaches and managers put their dirty uniforms outside their hotel rooms, where they are picked up and laundered in time to be folded and returned the next morning.

“It’s been remarkable to see,” Williams says. “The people here have taken it very seriously from the outset: testing, tracing, quarantine, travel bans. The difference here is, if the government asks the citizens to do something, they do it. They’re used to wearing a mask — it’s not out of the ordinary to put on a mask and go outside. It’s not a big culture shock.”

As MLB teams cancel workouts and fume at testing delays in advance of next week’s Opening Day for a 60-game season, the situation in South Korea seems to be taking place in an alternate universe. After an early COVID-19 scare, when an infected man went barhopping in Seoul and triggered a mini-outbreak — “We were all pretty freaked out,” Williams says, “but it was incredible how fast they handled it” — the virus hasn’t been a factor.

“Maybe Matt was clairvoyant,” Beane says. “He’s been the only one playing, and he has this great platform. I look like a fool now.”

At 54 years old, Williams is living in South Korea and leaving his laundry outside and learning to live under an entirely different set of rules in an entirely different culture. “At the very least: What a cool adventure,” he says. He’s growing accustomed to being treated with reverence by his players, even if he’s still unsure he deserves it, and he’s building a résumé for a world that might no longer require it. It’s a battle for his reputation, and it’s not much different from the one he fought against the low-and-away breaking ball. He’s locked in a decades-long argument with the game, and he intends to keep making his case, over and over, hoping he’s not too far away to be heard.

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