For Matt Williams, the HR chase that never was

May 12th, 2020

While we’re waiting for baseball to come back, we are making do. So once a week, inspired by the late Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” series, we will take a look at one player in baseball history, why he was great, why he mattered, why we should hang on to him. Send me your suggestions at


Career: SFG 1987-96, CLE '97, ARI '98-2003
Accolades: All-Star 1990, '94-96, 99; Gold Glove 1991, '93-94, '97

If you’ve been watching the Korea Baseball Organization this week, you might have noticed someone you recognized. You might have noticed this guy:

Yes, that’s Matt Williams, former manager of the Washington Nationals, one Nats fans surely remember as “the guy who got obsessed with Hunter Strickland in the 2014 playoffs and ultimately got fired shortly after Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper fought in the dugout.” He’s the manager of the Kia Tigers -- Hee-Seop Choi is his hitting coach! -- and apparently he’s wearing some pretty amazing shades.

Williams was only a manager in the big leagues for two years. The first year he won 96 games and the National League Manager of the Year Award; the second, he won 83 and got fired. But that many people still think “manager” when you say Matt Williams’ name, even though he only had two full seasons in the job, is a sign not just that we overemphasize managerial decisions in the postseason (and fights in the dugout), but also that Williams never got his just due as a player.

In fact, you can make a good argument that Williams is one of the most overlooked superstars of the last 30 years. If matters would have turned out just a little bit differently than they did, Matt Williams might be a household name, one of the most famous baseball players of all time. And it is far from his fault that they didn’t.

Williams was certainly expected to be an all-timer. Drafted out of UNLV with the third overall pick of the 1986 Draft (one spot ahead of Kevin Brown, three ahead of Gary Sheffield), Williams was largely lauded for his defense at shortstop. Ten months after he was drafted, he was already a starter in the Majors, at shortstop, though he’d be moved to third base full-time by '90.

He may have been rushed; brought to the Majors at the age of 21, he hit .188, .205 and .202 in his first three years, though he did show considerable power in 1989, hitting 18 homers in 84 games. (He also had three homers in the playoffs that year, including one in the earthquake World Series. It would be his last postseason game for eight years.)

It all clicked for Williams in 1990. He would make his first All-Star Game amid a season in which he led the NL in RBIs with 122, hit 33 homers and finished sixth in MVP voting. He was excellent again in '91, struggled with lingering injuries in '92 but recovered to hit a then-career-high 38 homers in '93. Never known for his patience at the plate, Williams never walked much, but the power was overwhelming.

And he was just about to show how overwhelming.

It is worth remembering that labor woes had loomed over the 1994 season from the get-go. (Sports Illustrated’s season preview edition warned that there was “already talk of a possible players’ walkout before the postseason.” The Giants preview also mostly ignored Williams all together in favor of , who “added five pounds of bulk” in the offseason.) We look back now at the stats of players that season, and we can’t help but think, “Wow, what they could have done if they had finished the season!” But know that they were fully aware of it then, too. Tony Gwynn had been asked about the potential labor issues all year as he flirted with .400; the Expos were thought to be potentially missing their best chance before they actually did.

But no one individual lost more from the 1994 strike than Williams. Williams, while not putting up the slash lines of a Bonds or (both of whom were far less of free-swingers), was a home-run-hitting demon in '94, bashing 43 long balls in 112 games.

When Mark McGwire was asked about the possibility of passing Roger Maris in the midst of his run in 1998, he said, “If I can get to 50 at the beginning of September, I’ve got a chance.” Williams was at 43 on Aug. 10, when the season froze. He homered that day, at Wrigley Field, off Willie Banks, while batting in between Bonds and Darryl Strawberry. The Giants won, 5-2, for their third win in a row. The bad news is that they were still under .500, at 55-60. The good news is that they were only 3 1/2 games behind the first-place Dodgers … oh, and they had a guy on pace for nearly 61 homers (60.6, to be exact).

It was not to be. Imagine a scenario in which Williams reaches 50 by September, in a season where there is so much other baseball excitement going on and there are no labor issues. Does he get the McGwire treatment? Does he actually break Maris’ record? Does he at least come close enough that we always talk about the summer of Matt Williams? Do we appreciate him as the superstar he, for a brief while, truly was?

We’ll never know. The season never returned. Gwynn never made his run at .400. The Expos never made the World Series. And Williams never got to keep up pace.

Williams didn’t fall off a cliff after 1994 -- far from it. He made the All-Star team in both '95 and '96, and he was the centerpiece of a key trade with Cleveland after the '96 season that brought Jeff Kent to the Bay Area. Williams was excellent in his one season with the Indians -- he hit another home run in the '97 World Series -- but was then traded to the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks that offseason. Williams, at the age of 32 -- more than a decade after breaking into the league -- became the face of a new organization.

Williams ended up with the fame in Arizona that eluded him elsewhere. He was outstanding in 1999, putting up a career-high 142 RBIs for a team that reached the postseason in its second season of existence. Injuries got him again in his 30s -- he played more than 96 games only once the rest of his career after '99 -- but he was there for what is still the biggest moment in D-backs history, winning the 2001 World Series. He homered in that series, too, making him the first player to hit home runs in the World Series for three different teams.

After retiring, he helped out with the D-backs, even serving as a part-owner of the team before transitioning to first- and third-base coaching roles. Out of that grew the Nationals opportunity, the Nationals disappointment, and now his job in Korea. You can still see the Williams mascot running around Chase Field.

How differently would we feel about Matt Williams if he had gotten a chance to go after Maris’ record? We might have appreciated his career a little bit more, at the very least: According to Baseball-Reference, he has a career WAR higher than the likes of Dale Murphy, Dizzy Dean and Lou Brock (and Maris, for that matter).

We might remember 1994 as the year of Matt Williams rather than the soured way we remember it now. One never knows. But one thing is for sure: We’d have a lot stronger reaction upon seeing him in Korea than, “Look, it’s former Nationals manager Matt Williams.”

Matt Williams was never a legend. But man, was he ever close.