Dick Williams' way: Get tough or get lost
Williams, who died Thursday at age 82, didn't turn around the Mariners in his brief tenure in Seattle, but he certainly enlivened them.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
Born: May 7, 1929 in St. Louis
Height: 6 feet.
Hall of Fame: Inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame, 2008.
Playing career: Signed with Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Played 13 major-league seasons, beginning with Dodgers in 1951. Hit .260 and 70 home runs with five teams.
Managerial highlights: As rookie skipper, led the "Impossible Dream" Red Sox, who finished ninth the year before, to the AL pennant. He took over the Oakland A's in 1971 and led them to three AL West titles, two league pennants and two World Series championships in three seasons. Turned the Expos into consistent winners before guiding the Padres to their first NL pennant. Won 1,571 games in 21 seasons.
Mariners: Managed from 1986 to 1988, compiling a 159-192 record. Fired June 6, 1988.
Dick Williams was already a legend when he took over as Mariners manager in May 1986, replacing the fired Chuck Cottier. The Mariners didn't have much substance in those days, and it was a real coup to add someone of his stature. On paper, at least.
Owner George Argyros flirted with making an even bigger splash by hiring Billy Martin, but decided on Williams, who was two years removed from leading the lowly (until Williams got hold of them) Padres into the '84 World Series. Williams had guided two wildly colorful Oakland A's teams to World Series titles in the 1970s (before quitting in a huff after a dispute — one of many — with meddling owner Charlie Finley), and led the "Impossible Dream" Red Sox of Carl Yastrzemski to the 1967 American League pennant.
At age 57, Williams was looking for one final challenge, and those mid-'80s Mariners, a monument of futility, were exactly that. A team of over-the-hill veterans and not-ready-for-prime-time youngsters, they didn't know what was about to hit them.
Williams, who died Thursday at age 82, didn't turn around the Mariners in his brief tenure — he was fired on June 6, 1988, barely two years in — but he certainly enlivened them. And there are those, including one of his leading pupils, Harold Reynolds, who firmly believe Williams helped lay the groundwork for the team's first winning season in 1991.
"A lot of times, someone comes in and sets the direction for an organization and doesn't get credit for the winning that follows," Reynolds said in a phone interview. "As much as some guys didn't like him, they appreciated what he did for them."
I was there at the advent of Williams in Seattle, a rookie reporter for the now-defunct Bellevue Journal-American, and I saw him in all his irascible glory. It's not that some players merely didn't like him; they detested him. Williams could be brash, grumpy, acerbic and demanding, all characteristics that helped make him a winner throughout his career, while alienating those too thin-skinned to deal with his barbs. If you were a pitcher, a species that drove Williams to distraction, it was double the abuse.
"I'd say this: 95 percent of our pitchers didn't like Dick Williams," Reynolds said.
His most notorious combatant was pitcher Mark Langston; Williams was fired just two day after Langston ripped his manager for leaving him in too long during a game in Kansas City. Williams fired back after he got canned, railing about "our so-called ace pitcher, who doesn't have a gut in his body."
Williams was one of those guys who knew exactly what he wanted in a ballplayer. If you didn't play the game the right way, in Williams' definition of the term, he had no use for you. But those guys whom he believed in, well, they absolutely loved Williams — especially in retrospect. Reynolds believes he became an All-Star because of Williams' tough love.
"He knew how to get the most out of different individuals," he said. "He was perfect for my game. He gave me the green light to run, a chance to make mistakes. He appreciated me enough to give me a free rein to play."
Their relationship became much closer in recent years, especially after Williams belatedly made the Hall of Fame in 2008.
"When I saw him last year in Cooperstown, you wouldn't have even thought it was the same person," Reynolds said. "He was laughing and joking and smiling. I had to go, 'Time out. Is this Dick Williams?' I figured he found peace with himself, and the Hall of Fame had a lot to do with it."
But Williams wasn't quite there yet in 1986-88.
One thing Reynolds didn't get, until years later, was what Williams was doing that first season, always jotting notes in a book. He asked Williams recently what the heck he was doing.
Williams told Reynolds, "I had a check and balance system. I'd write down if someone did something positive or negative. That's how I decided who played the next year for me."
Said Reynolds: "He'd done that all the way back to his days with the Red Sox. Something like, runner on second; if you take two swings and try to get him over and strike out, that was positive. You were doing what you were supposed to do. If you grounded out to third, that was negative. You were a losing player."
One time in spring training, the Mariners botched a relay. The next day, they skipped batting practice and worked on relay throws for 2 ½ hours.
"By the time he got to us, he was an old man, set in his ways," Reynolds said. "If you didn't do it the way he wanted, there was no compromise. But you know what? If you had talked to Yaz in the 1960s, he would have said the same thing. If you talked to Reggie (Jackson) in the 1970s, he would have said the same thing, too."
On a personal level, covering Williams was a valuable lesson in dealing with a difficult but compelling personality — of which, I came to learn, the sport is filled.
One of my most vivid memories is Williams chowing down after a game and getting so worked up talking about something that had irked him that night that particles of food would go flying in every direction (including my shirt). This was a regular occurrence.
I know he made me a tougher, more resilient reporter. I'm grateful I got to cover him at a formative point in my career, and saddened by his death.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.