Dick Williams, who had a distinctive place in Mariners’ history — and my own personal history — died today at age 82. He will be remembered as one of the greatest managers in baseball history, and one of the most irascible. He could be brash, grumpy and demanding, all characteristics that helped make him a winner everywhere he went (except Seattle, but you can make a case that he at least helped point the franchise in the right direction).
Williams was one of those guys who knew exactly what he wanted in a ballplayer. If you didn’t produce it, he had no use for you. But those guys whom he believed in absolutely loved Williams, and would run through the proverbial wall for him. He won with Yaz in Boston in the 1960s, with Reggie and Catfish and company in Oakland in the 1970s, with Goose Gossage and Steve Garvey and Tony Gwynn in San Diego in the 1980s. He had success, but to a lesser extent, in Anaheim and Montreal.
Williams became the Mariners’ manager in 1986, the same year I became a major-league baseball writer for the now-defunct Bellevue Journal-American. Williams replaced Chuck Cottier, fired on May 9, 1986, with the Mariners at 9-19 and recently victimized by Roger Clemens’ first 20-strikeout game.
I remember, first of all, that the Seattle Times’ Bob Finnigan, my future colleague, and Jim Street of the P-I kicked my butt on Williams’ hiring. That was a valuable lesson learned on developing sources and working the phones on a developing news story.
But mostly, covering Williams was a lesson in covering a difficult but compelling personality — of which, I came to learn, the sport is filled. Cottier was intense in his own way, but had been unfailingly cooperative and polite to a young reporter. Williams, on the other hand, was a chore, someone who would bite your head off but was well worth the investment of time and energy. Once he came to realize you knew a little about baseball — not nearly as much as I thought I did — and, especially, that you were willing to try to learn some more — he treated you with respect and honesty. Oh, my goodness, was Dick Williams honest. He was as blunt in his assessments of players strengths and weaknesses as any manager I’ve been around since, which made a lot of players hate him and a lot of writers want to hug him (when they were done wanting to punch him). 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 as he chewed and ranted and raved. This was a regular occurence.
I was gone to San Franciso by the time the 1987 season rolled around, and Williams was fired not much longer after that — June 6, 1988, the last Mariners manager to get fired in mid-season until John McLaren in 2008. I feel like he made the Mariners a tougher, more resilient team, and had some role in their first winning season in franchise history, which came in 1991 under Jim Lefebvre.
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.
(Photo by Getty Images)