JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

Matt Williams and the unasked questions …

chaka kahn

Earlier today, in our nation’s capital, the Washington Nations introduced Matt Williams as their newest manager.

Best known for his years playing third base for the Giants and Diamondbacks, Williams was—by traditional measures—a sound choice. Over the course of his 17-year career, Williams hit 378 home runs and drove in 1,218. He was a five-time All-Star, and a key member of the 2001 world champion Diamondbacks, then went on to coach with the club for four years. “We went with the best candidate available,” Mike Rizzo, the Nats’ general manager, said in a conference call with reporters. “We had several internal candidates that were extremely good candidates, and we just felt that Matt’s message, the way he communicates the message and his demeanor and character was kind of the difference-maker for me and a guy that we feel is going to take the organization and take us to the next level.”

On a personal level, I always found Williams to be likeable, available and decent. He was respected by teammates and even appreciated by Barry Bonds—a guy who seemed to appreciate absolutely nobody.

All that being said, I’m genuinely conflicted by the Nationals hiring Williams—and before you tell me I’m a one-note, self-obsessed moron, please consider the thinking. I’m not saying you’ll agree. But at least consider …

On November 6, 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Williams purchased $11,600 worth of HGH, steroids and myriad other drugs five years earlier. These were, of course, performance enhancers—some of which were banned from Major League Baseball, most—if-not-all—of which are illegal to buy in the United States of America without proper medical reasons and prescriptions. Williams later admitted that he used PED, and earned the requisite ensuing credit for “manning up.” (No world entity matches Major League Baseball in its ability to credit people for “manning up” after they’ve been caught).

Now, I understand the argument that ballplayers who cheated shouldn’t be tarred for a lifetime. And I understand the argument that players have cheated forever and ever—dating back to the first corked bat and doctored ball. But name another profession (Doctors? Lawyers? CPAs? Truck drivers? Electricians? Journalists?) that allows people who broke its rules and the law to not only return, but return to one of its highest positions? I’ve made this argument 1,001 times, and I’ve never understood the rejection of it: Matt Williams said he cheated in 2002 to stay healthy. He played 60 games that season. Perhaps, had he not cheated, he would have been forced to miss the entire campaign; maybe even retire. That same year, the Tucson Sidewinders, Arizona’s Triple A affiliate, had a 28-year-old infielder named Brian Dallimore bat .294—but never receive a call-up. Dallimore wound up appearing in a grand total of 27 Major League games—all with the Giants in 2004 and 2005. Also that same year, Double A El Paso (also a Diamondbacks affiliate) had a third baseman named Tim Olson hit .273 with 10 homers in 433 at-bats. Olson, too, was never called up—and appeared in 51 total big league games before retiring five years later.

Perhaps Dallimore and Olson would have never been Diamondbacks—Williams be damned. Hell, perhaps both men were juiced out of their minds. It’s possible, considering what was going on at the time. But somewhere in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, there was almost certainly a clean third baseman not getting his chance because Williams decided to cheat, and held his roster spot, meaning the guy below him wasn’t promoted, and the guy behind him wasn’t promoted, and the guy behind him wasn’t promoted. As I’ve said before, my friend Sal Fasano—journeyman catcher, great guy and a man I trust 100 percent—needed Major League Baseball’s health insurance policy when his son was born with a heart ailment seven years ago. At the same time Sal was playing clean in Triple A, scratching for another opportunity, the Mitchell Report named seven or eight catchers (of comparable journeyman status) who held big league gigs while cheating.

That’s why this matters. That’s why I refuse to fully move on. And that’s why I wonder—truly wonder—whether people understand the harm men like Matt Williams were/are responsible for. It’s not merely that they boosted their statistical lines and ruined the record books. It’s that, in doing so, some clean fringe player was demoted to Triple A after surrendering a Williams’ homer; some aspiring third baseman never stepped inside a Major League clubhouse because Williams was injecting Chemical X through his veins. Integrity is supposed to matter. I know it often doesn’t—but it’s supposed to. And when we say, “Meh—forgive and forget …” what we’re really saying is, “Yeah, these guys cheated the game, broke the law, ruined dreams …” but—hey. Whatever.

Believe it or not, despite the past eight paragraphs, I’m still torn on Williams as a manager. Perhaps we do need to move on. Perhaps enough is enough. What shocked me, though, was today’s press conference, and not … one … member of the Washington, D.C. sports press corps even asking Williams about PED. There are things to wonder, including, “What do you say to people who think cheaters shouldn’t be given second chances in baseball?” and “Did you learn anything from your ordeal?” and “Should we at all question your integrity and truthfulness?” In the same way Wally Backman once lost the Arizona managerial gig because, it turned out, he had several past legal issues, Williams should have (I believe) at least addressed the elephant in the room.

Or, perhaps, there is no elephant to speak of.

Maybe I’m just hallucinating.