Dick Williams is not your typical Major League general manager.
A former investment banker, Williams didn't embark on a career in baseball until his mid-30s, when he decided to give the family business a try. After working his way up the ladder in Cincinnati, Williams became the Reds' GM in November 2015 and was promoted to president of baseball operations and general manager this past December, charged with the task of rebuilding the team into a winner.
MLB.com recently sat down with Williams in his Spring Training office in Goodyear, Ariz., to discuss his life before baseball, the difficulty of trading popular players and why "rebuilding" can be a dirty word.
:: General manager Q&As ::
MLB.com: You began your career as an investment banker on Wall Street. Did you take anything from that career that has helped you in baseball?
Dick Williams: I think I took a lot of things. I feel real fortunate to have taken a nontraditional path into baseball. I really was not considering baseball as a career until my mid-30s, so I was very focused on investment banking and private equity, and as a result, I got exposure to a lot of different businesses and the way they did things. So when I came into baseball at a later age, I was able to, in my opinion, sort of challenge the status quo, ask a lot of questions. I was able to be naive. That's how to approach investments a lot of times; you just ask a lot of questions and learn about the business model. For me to come in at age 35 with no preconceived notions about how things should be done, I think was a big advantage. It was definitely 100 percent a result of the fact that I did something else out of college for over a decade.
MLB.com: You also worked on George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2003-04. How did that come about?
Williams: That was really random. I'm not a real political person; I'm not very overtly political. What happened was I had started a networking group down in Georgia when I lived in Atlanta that involved young professionals from around the state. Not young professionals in the sense of recent college graduates; we're talking about people in their 30s that were running businesses. We really learned a lot from each other. A friend of ours, a friend of the family's from Cincinnati, went to D.C. to run Bush's finance operation. He wanted me to replicate that networking model across the country in a lot of big cities to help recruit donors for the campaign.
So I did that, formed events and went around during a pretty exciting election cycle, if you remember that one. The money that year really increased dramatically and the pressure on the campaign finance operation increased dramatically. For me, it ended up being a great way to meet smart, young people around the country. After the election, the inauguration, everybody started filtering into the administration for jobs, and I said, "OK, time for me to go back to the real world." It was a great experience, but never really a long-term passion of mine.
Check out the Newsmakers podcast
MLB.com: What made you decide to pursue a career in baseball in your mid-30s?
Williams: I had a family connection to baseball that had always made me interested in it, but I never seriously considered it for a career. Then circumstances unfolded in such a way that it became more open to me. When I was growing up in the '70s, my grandfather and his brother were part of a group that had purchased the Reds in the late '60s. Mostly as passive investors, though my grandfather was very involved in the hiring of Bob Howsam, who went on to really run those teams through that period. My grandfather was a passive investor, then in the early '80s, took over the majority ownership for a couple years and decided that was not something he liked doing.
It was around the time of free agency, and Bob Howsam, who had built those teams in the '70s, told him, "With this free-agency stuff, I don't know if this model works for a market like Cincinnati anymore." Ironic that we would later get back involved. He got out of the team in '84; my father and uncle stayed interested in baseball and in the '90s, had a chance to join Bill DeWitt in the Cardinals as passive investors. I was off doing my thing. In '05-06, my father and uncle and Bob Castellini had a chance to get involved with the Reds, really behind Bob's leadership. I helped with that transaction from a financial standpoint. While doing the research, Bob had a son my age who was very interested in going to work on the business side. Over lunch one day, we started to say, "Hey, this opportunity may never come our way again."
I'm not shy about the fact that I never would have had this opportunity if not for my father and uncle and their investment in the business, but I thought it was very important that if I wanted to learn it, that I pay my dues. So I've spent the last decade working for some very smart people in the baseball front office and asking a lot of questions, hopefully learning a lot of things that I can add. I'm real proud of the team we've built. I've enjoyed my relationship with Walt [Jocketty, former president of baseball operations and now executive advisor to the CEO]; he's been instrumental in my development. We've got a great team that we've pulled together; I'm excited about the future now. Sometimes it's a long-winded answer to give when you're speaking to college students and they want to know how to get into baseball. I can comfortably say, "Don't try to follow my path."
Video: Dick Williams talks about sympathizing with Reds fans
MLB.com: Being born and raised in Cincinnati, having your family involved with the Reds for a long time, do you think you have a good feel for the pulse of the fan base?
Williams: For better or worse, I feel that pulse. I can sympathize with their love for the team because I grew up rooting for the team. I can sympathize with the fact that we've got these memories of the Big Red Machine that will never go away. We relish being a blue-collar town, a little bit of an underdog when it comes to sports. We're a little bit of a smaller market relative to some of the others, and I think people enjoy that struggle a little bit. We're fiercely proud of our team, the fans of Cincinnati, so I feel a great sense of responsibility to put a team out there that people are proud of.
MLB.com: You recently said, "I don't want to talk about rebuilding anymore." Do you think there's automatically a bad stigma attached to that word?
Williams: I feel like sometimes when you talk to the fans about it, they roll their eyes and they say, "Here we go again. It means we're going to be bad." I'm sorry they feel that way and I'm sorry there's a negative stigma attached to it. There are reasons for that. When you talk about rebuilding, it does mean you're going to take cash out of the Major League payroll and probably invest it in other areas that are going to give you a better return on investment for your next window of success.
Baseball is a little bit of a long game. You watch the NFL and NBA, they draft and those players are on the field or on the court in a matter of months, where our Minor League system tends to take years to develop players. You have to play a little bit of a long game, you have to focus on these cycles, you have to be very aware of when your talent is going to be peaking and when that meets your financial constraints. I said that sort of tongue-in-cheek. I will always be thinking about building the next winner, but I hope some of the tear-down process, some of the painful process of trading away popular players, some of that is in the rear-view mirror -- hopefully the majority of it for now.
MLB.com: Do you think Statcast™ is making fans look at the game differently?
Williams: I definitely do. The nice part of the evolution is that the broadcasts are taking the data and they're starting to visually present it in a way the fan can understand. It's one thing when you talk about a player's WAR and a fan is like, "Wait, what's that?" And you try to give them a definition. It's another when they can see some of the Statcast™ data visually presented on the screen. That's really just started to happen in the last year or so, but people are starting to scratch their heads and say, "This is pretty cool." Making that data accessible to the casual fan is going to really help us turn the corner. The ironic thing is the data isn't all that threatening; it's just that the casual fan hasn't been presented with it before.
The way the scouts have reacted to it is very telling. The scouting community as a whole -- and I'm generalizing here -- was fairly resistant to this new analytical data. But what I saw over time was that they really started to like it, especially because it started to validate things that they had been saying but were always subjective: This guy has really good instincts in the outfield, he gets good jumps, he takes good routes. We just had to rely on the scouts' impression of how those things were. Now these guys are starting to get numbers and they're saying, "See? I told you that guy takes really good routes." Now we can prove it. So the scouts are starting to gravitate toward those numbers a little bit more to see if it validates the way they're thinking. I think the casual fan will start to gravitate toward analytics, as well.
Video: Dick Williams on Votto's leadership and impact
MLB.com: You've traded away several veterans in recent years, including Johnny Cueto, Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Aroldis Chapman. Joey Votto is still here, continuing to be the face of the franchise. How important is he to the organization, both on and off the field?
Williams: Very important. I do think when you go through a rebuilding phase, you can take the house all the way down the studs, but it's important to leave something standing, in my opinion, to provide that sense of continuity. Joey's consistency in his approach, obviously his performance on the field, his sense of responsibility for the organization, make him a very good candidate for that. This spring has been very validating in terms of his decision to stay here and our decision to want him here, because of the way he's helped the young players.
He is a quiet leader, but make no mistake about it, nobody has a more profound impact on the performance of our young players like [Eugenio] Suarez and [Billy] Hamilton and the next generation -- the [Jesse] Winkers and [Scott] Scheblers -- than Joey. They all really look up to him, they spend a lot of time with him, and I think they're better players for it. We feel really good about him. He's not the only one; having Zack [Cozart] and Devin Mesoraco, there is a holdover group from before that we think represent the team really well.
MLB.com: When you took the job, you said, "I'm in this job to win a world championship." Sounds like something every general manager would say, but is it easier to believe that's achievable after watching a team like the Royals get to the World Series two years in a row as a small-market team, winning one of them, than it may have been when you were watching the Yankees and Red Sox win?
Williams: Sure. Don't forget, in 2012, we had it all lined up. We were up, 2-0, on the Giants [in the National League Division Series] and came home with three games in our park, just needing to win one. A few weeks later, we're watching them celebrate a World Series. I very much believe we were within a break or two from the baseball gods of doing some damage that year, so I believe it's very possible. Some days it's harder to see than others, when you've got the Cubs hitting their stride right now like they do. Our division being as talented as it's been the last few years, it really makes you redouble your efforts. But with the talent we've got coming in our system right now, I feel like we've got as good a chance as anybody over the next couple of years to show dramatic improvement.
Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com.