Back managing a team, just being able to talk with his players is a challenge for Matt Williams.
About 10 miles from the spring training camps of the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins, the 54-year-old is at spring training with South Korea’s Kia Tigers.
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“You never know whether you’re going to get another chance to manager or not, so I look at it as a challenge or an opportunity,’’ he said, sitting in some small metal bleachers. “So far it’s been a lot of fun.”
A World Series champion with the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks, Williams was third-base coach with Oakland the past two years. The five-time All Star, who hit 378 homers over 17 years in the major leagues, was home in Los Angeles after last season when he got a call asking whether he was interested. Members of the organization came to LA, and a few days later he had the job.
He was voted 2014 NL Manager of the Year with the Washington Nationals, then was fired after the 2015 season when the club didn’t make the playoffs. He always knew he wanted another chance and understands that the biggest test this time really is communicating.
“I’m the foreigner. I’m the one that necessarily doesn’t belong,’’ he said. “I have to look at it that way. I have to work overtime to try to get to know the guys, get to know the players.”
Nearly everywhere he goes he’s followed by personal interpreter Eugene Koo, who grew up in Cincinnati and went to college in New York. Asked how many players understand English, Koo said “very few.”
Kia is holding spring training at historic Terry Park in Fort Myers. Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Roberto Clemente, Jimmy Foxx and Bob Feller are a few of the many greats that have played at the site.
When Williams was warming up in front of the dugout, getting ready to pitch to the the first batting practice group, he laughed after using the few Korean words he knew.
On the mound, it was back to American phrases. “There you go!” he yelled when left-handed hitter Choi Hyoung Woo stroked a pitch up the middle.
Later, he yelled: “That’s it!” after another liner and “Nice!” when former big leaguer Preston Tucker made solid contact.
“I’m the manager, but still I’m an old coach. I enjoy the coaching part of it,” Williams said. “It’s a different style. They’re adapting to it and they’re adapting to me.”
To the players he’s known as the “gamdok, nin,” which means “manager, sir.”
Williams is enjoying the challenge and hopes to bring a little of the American game to the training style. He’s joined by Americans Mark Weidemaier, brought by Williams as the bench coach, and Anthony Lerew, the bullpen coach from last season.
“They’re not quite as free as American players to how they play,” Williams said. “Americans are little looser. These guys are fundamental. We’re trying to change that just a touch and let them be free and go play. But we want to keep that fundamental aspect to it. If they keep that they learn.”
Williams said he’s just the third American to manage in South Korea, joining Jerry Royster and Trey Hillman.
“I don’t think it translates into managing in the major leagues,” Williams said. “I would imagine that at any point I could go back and coach. I’m not worried about that at this point.”