Williams makes debut on Hall ballot
Slugging third baseman hit 378 homers, won four Gold Gloves
There was a time when Matt Williams' career path looked like a parabola that would carry him directly from Candlestick Park to Cooperstown.Williams' biography in the 1996 San Francisco Giants media guide featured a chart comparing his career statistics to those of seven Hall of Fame third basemen through the season of their 29th birthdays. Williams had more home runs (225) than all of them and more RBIs (647) than four members of the group. According to baseball-reference.com, the player most similar to Williams at age 28 was Mike Schmidt, a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And when Williams established a Giants franchise mark in 1990 for most RBIs by a third baseman with 122, he broke a 52-year-old record held by the legendary Mel Ott, another Hall of Fame enshrinee. (Ott was an outfielder most of his career but played 113 games at third in 1938.)
"I thought I was playing with a Hall of Famer," said Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow, whose final three seasons overlapped the start of Williams' Major League career. "There was no question in my mind that he was going to be a Hall of Famer someday."Williams will be making his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot. A candidate must get 75 percent of the vote to gain election, with former Red Sox slugger Jim Rice (72.2 percent), former Expos and Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson (65.9 percent) and former Twins ace Bert Blyleven (61.9 percent) standing as the top three returning vote-getters. Rickey Henderson, whose career spanned 25 years and nine teams, headlines the newcomers to the 2009 Hall of Fame ballot. Henderson, who has never announced his retirement, last played for the Dodgers in 2003. The 1990 American League MVP is the all-time leader in runs scored (2,295), stolen bases (1,406) and is second in walks (2,190). Live coverage of the Hall of Fame's announcement on Jan. 12 can be seen on MLB.com.
Nagging injuries often hampered Williams in the second half of his career. But the five-time All-Star still finished with 378 home runs and 1,218 RBIs to go with a .268 batting average in 10 seasons with the Giants, one with the Cleveland Indians and six with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He exceeded 30 homers six times and 100 RBIs four times."He didn't seem like he'd swing hard, but the ball would go a long way," said Roger Craig, his first manager with the Giants. Never did it go longer more often for Williams than in 1994, when he led the Majors with 43 home runs. He was on pace to tie Roger Maris' single-season record of 61 when a player strike ended the season in early August. Many observers believe that Williams, who usually received good pitches to hit with Barry Bonds batting immediately ahead or behind him, would have surpassed Maris. "I don't think there's any question in my mind," Krukow said. "That's one thing about chasing records in the Bay Area: You don't wear down in the heat. And just his consistency. He wasn't going out of the strike zone [to chase pitches]. He was getting pitched to." Although stardom was predicted for Williams when the Giants selected him third overall in the 1986 First-Year Player Draft out of University of Nevada-Las Vegas, he didn't thrive immediately as a Major Leaguer. He struck out 109 times in 401 at-bats while hitting .195 in his first two Giants seasons, portions of which he spent at Triple-A. Williams struggled to hit curveballs, the bane of many young professionals. "We had batting-practice pitchers throw him breaking balls before every game," Craig said, intent on refining Williams' skills. Williams conquered the curves before long. "Once he adjusted, there was nothing else they could do to adjust back," Krukow said. The right-handed-hitting Williams spent his first few seasons in a fertile offensive environment created by Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell. Hitting alongside such formidable performers sharpened Williams' already intense focus. "He put more pressure on himself to be an offensive force," said Kevin Bass, a Giants outfielder from 1990-92. "Matt was a very serious player. He tried live up to expectations, competing with Will and competing with Kevin." Williams had few rivals afield. One of the most complete third basemen of his time, he won Gold Gloves for defensive excellence in 1991, 1993, 1994 and 1997.
"I always said, with a one-run lead, hit the ball to Matt and the game's over," Craig said.Williams was renowned for his soft hands.
"That's a God-given talent. You don't teach that," Craig said.
Yet Krukow remembered that Williams preferred wearing stiff, nearly brand-new fielder's gloves.
"He'd go through five gloves a year," Krukow said. "He'd take one out of the box, play catch with it two or three times and it was in the game."In a perfect world, Williams might have played his entire career in San Francisco. But after the 1996 season, Giants management realized that it couldn't afford both Bonds and Williams. Making an excruciating decision that drew fiery criticism from Bay Area fans, Giants general manager Brian Sabean traded the popular Williams and outfielder Trenidad Hubbard to Cleveland for second baseman Jeff Kent, shortstop Jose Vizcaino and right-handers Joe Roa and Julian Tavarez. The deal worked for both sides. Williams amassed 32 homers and 105 RBIs to help Cleveland reach the World Series in 1997, while Kent was an integral part of winning Giants teams from 1997-2002. Moving to Arizona, Williams had one more big year in 1999, when he batted .303 with 35 homers and 142 RBIs as the D-backs won the National League West. He also was a mainstay of Arizona's 2001 team that defeated the New York Yankees in a memorable seven-game World Series. Last November, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Williams purchased $11,600 worth of human growth hormone, steroids and other drugs from a Palm Beach, Fla., clinic in 2002. Williams later explained that a doctor had advised him to use HGH to treat a 2002 ankle injury. In the Mitchell Report released last December, Williams was among the players alleged to have used performance-enhancing drugs. That hasn't marred Williams' reputation. Giants fans greeted him warmly during the 2008 season when he attended events in conjunction with the club's 50th anniversary celebration of moving to San Francisco. His peers continue to respect him.
"I didn't know what he did after I left, but he was clean," Bass said.Williams, 43, now serves as a special assistant to D-backs CEO Jeffrey Moorad and provides analysis on selected radio and television broadcasts. But he'll always be recognized as a ballplayer. "If you had nine Matt Williamses," Craig said, "you would win a lot of ballgames."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.