Williams was tough, but did his job well
PHOENIX -- Often I kidded Dick Williams that he was the toughest manager I'd ever had to deal with in my long career as a sportswriter dating back to 1976. We had our battles royal during the three years I covered the Padres and he managed the team. But we'd long since become good friends.When Williams was freshly anointed to the National Baseball Hall of Fame nearly four years ago, he was asked at his inaugural press conference at the Winter Meetings in Nashville how he'd fare these days as a manager. "I wouldn't last a week," he said with a cackle. Williams mused that he used to try and rule the roost with an iron fist. "Sometimes I'd have to kick guys out of my clubhouse," he said, turning to look at me with a wry grin. Actually it was his office, but who's splitting hairs? Now he's gone. I spoke to his son, Mark, on Thursday and he said an aneurysm burst just above his heart. The 82-year-old Williams was at home in Las Vegas preparing to travel here this weekend to sign autographs at FanFest when they rushed him to the hospital. Forty-five minutes later he was pronounced dead. It felt like a chapter in my life went along with him. For a month during the 1984 season, Williams banished me from his office, telling the other two beat writers who traveled with the team that if any of his quotes wound up in my stories they'd be banished, too. Williams was the manager that season of what turned out to be the first Padres club to ever win the National League pennant. I was in my second season for the long-gone San Diego Tribune, an afternoon newspaper that went the way of attrition less than a decade later, merging with the morning paper. Williams definitely was by far the toughest manager I've ever covered.
But he also was the best. Considering the formative stage of my career, Williams was a baseball encyclopedia. It wasn't as if he helped much explaining his approach to the game. He didn't suffer fools and foolish questions well and he treated the postgame ritual with the media as more of nuisance. He didn't like any of his moves questioned and he often cited players for making mistakes. Sometimes the sparks flew.Still, if you paid close attention to what Williams did on the field, you were offered a primer on how to manage a game in the traditional National League style, moving runners over, subbing pitchers, staying a few steps ahead of the opposing managers. In those days, Williams almost always easily out-managed his chief opposition in the NL West, Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers and Joe Torre of the Braves. Tony Gwynn, Bruce Bochy and Tim Flannery all played for him on that team, and though they hated his irascible nature, all have said that Williams had a profound influence on their careers. Williams kicked me out of his office after I challenged him in print for his part in the infamous beanball brawl in Atlanta during that summer of 1984. Torre's Braves were losing ground to the first-place Padres and the Sunday afternoon game in hot, humid and rainy weather opened with Atlanta right-hander Pascual Perez plunking Padres second baseman Alan Wiggins in the back. For seven innings, every Padres pitcher threw around and close to Perez without hitting him, until the game erupted into a series of on-field, full-out brawls that ultimately even included fans behind the San Diego dugout at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Williams was suspended by the league, I was banished from his office and the players voted 24-1 to keep me out of the clubhouse, with my old friend Steve Garvey casting the one dissenting vote, citing something about freedom of the press. The players couldn't keep me out, but Williams did. It was a month of stomach churning and reflexes always on high alert. But as these things often do, they have their way of coming around. The Padres were in Houston when Williams ultimately challenged left-fielder Carmelo Martinez in private because of lackluster play and it embroiled the rest of his teammates, who implored me to write the story. I did. The next day, I was standing behind the batting cage at Cincinnati's old Riverfront Stadium before the game, when I was told Williams wanted to see me in his office. I sat down in a chair across from Williams at his desk and he said: "Well, you got me, but I thought you were going to get me a lot worse. Now what I can I do for you?" With that, the ban was over and I never had problems with Williams again.
Much later on we laughed about it. When I informed him that he was the toughest manager I'd ever covered, his response was, "Aw, come on!"I didn't realize how tough he was until I spoke to his son. Williams had undergone surgery to remove a number of aneurysms over the years and the last time the doctors went in they couldn't get all of them. They monitored him constantly and he lived with it -- until Thursday. When he didn't show up at last summer's induction ceremonies at the Hall, I began to worry and gave him a call. He had missed the event because of one of those surgeries. I find it hard to believe I'll never have the privilege of talking to him again.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.