BOSTON — It is hard to believe that Dick Williams, one of the fiercest managers in the history of baseball, was brought to tears by a phone call.
On Dec. 6, Williams was at his Las Vegas home with his wife, Norma, anxiously waiting for the phone to ring. It wasn't the first time that Williams had waited for this call. He had spent a few December mornings waiting for the head of the Baseball Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee to inform him he would be enshrined forever in Cooperstown.
"If they call, it's at 7 a.m.," said Williams, the manager of the Red Sox 1967 "Impossible Dream" team. "Of course, I was up at 5:30, and had about 12 cups of coffee. I was sitting with my wife and 7 o'clock came, no call. 7:01, no call. 7:02, no call. Finally, I said to my wife, 'Honey, looks like we missed again.' We had missed for a few years. Then at 7:03 the phone rang and we just both broke down and cried. It was an unbelievable feeling.
"It's hard to describe it. Every time I try to talk about it, I get choked up."
Williams, maybe more than any other manager, had a reputation for being hard-nosed and no-nonsense. It's often forgotten that he had a 13-year Major League career as a utility player, concluding with a two-year stint in Boston in 1963 and 1964.
As he transitioned into the manager's role, Williams pointed to Branch Rickey, the Hall of Fame executive who helped break baseball's color barrier, and the fiery manager and ballplayer Bobby Bragan as having the greatest influence on him.
In 1981, Williams was the manager of the Montreal Expos when 22-year-old rookie Terry Francona was called up from the minors in mid-August.
"Dick always scared me when I was playing for him," the Red Sox manager said with a laugh. "I remember, it was one of my first at bats up in the bigs, and Dick wanted me to lay down a bunt and I didn't do it right at all. You know how when you get so mad you get almost a bit teary-eyed? That's how mad Dick got. The next time I was up there to go lay down a bunt, I could barely see."
As a youngster Francona tried to stay out of Williams' way, now he talks more with Williams than he did when he played for him.
"He had his way of managing," said Francona, who, unlike Williams, is known as a player's manager. "At that time, you could do it that way. He freely admits that his style wouldn't work today. It's a different time. You wouldn't win (if you managed that way today). If you have guys making $140 million (like Manny Ramirez?), you have to keep them on the field. Baseball and life in general is just different."
Yesterday, when Williams took the mound at Fenway Park to toss out the ceremonial first pitch, it was Francona at the receiving end behind the plate.
"He was just like his dad, he could always hit," Williams said of Francona's father, Tito, his teammate with the Orioles in 1956 and 1957. "(Terry) was a professional hitter. I heard him say that he talks to me more now than he did when he played for me. I never had anything constructive to say to Terry so I didn't have much to say to him. He knew if he did something wrong or if he needed to work on something, he came from a baseball family. He knew. I never had any problems with Terry."
Williams is still as fiery as ever at 79 years old, openly expressing his feelings on parts of the game that have gone awry.
"I told my son the other day at breakfast that I wouldn't be able to last a week in today's game," said Williams. "He looked right back at me and said, 'Dad, you wouldn't last a day.' The players are all millionaires now, and they all have agents. These guys want to play as long as they can and make as much money as they can, and I don't blame them, that's just how it is."
Thanks to television, he still stays close to the game.
"I still watch a lot of baseball, mostly the Sox and Yankees, and I yell at the TV," said Williams, whose son Rick works in the Yankee organization as a scout. "I haven't thrown anything yet. My wife always shuts the door to my office because she doesn't want to hear everything I learned in 1967 coming out of my mouth. The game is just so different now.
"We were versed in fundamentals then, they're not now. They play a lot differently and I'm not saying that's bad, but I wouldn't fit in. I can still judge talent, and you need to know what your players are capable of. If you have a guy who can't bunt to advance a runner, I need to put someone out there who can. If someone was doing something detrimental to the ballclub, I would delete their name from the lineup. Now you can't do that."
When baseball's deadline for first-year-draft players to sign expired at midnight on Friday night, there was still first-round picks left unsigned. That means they'll go back into the pool next season. That's something Williams can't seem to fathom.
"Look at all of the first-round picks that didn't sign this year, there were quite a few of them," he said. "Who is the agent there? Well, most of them have Mr. (Scott) Boras. A lot of people get afraid of dealing with him. The players should get all they can because the owners are making plenty of money, but let's be reasonable. You shouldn't be a multi-millionaire before you throw your first pitch or hit your first pitch."
Over the course of his career, Williams became known for turning dreadful teams into success stories. He had 90-plus wins seven times, capturing consecutive World Series with the Oakland Athletics in 1972 and 1973, and winning four pennants overall with three different clubs. In 1967, he transformed the Red Sox from a ninth-place bottom feeder to an A.L. pennant winner.
Some of his former players remember Williams as manager who instilled fear, but he prefers being known as simply as straight-forward.
"If a player did something wrong, I let them know on the spot," Williams said. "If you screw up in the second inning, I don't want you doing that again in the seventh inning. I used to work on pluses and minuses and I kept a chart that I would hang on the wall every week of everyone's plus/minus.
"Like clockwork, 10 minutes later it would be torn down. But, I always made about a half dozen copies, so I just kept putting it back up."
Mike McMahon is an Eagle-Tribune sports writer. E-mail him at email@example.com.
Old School vs. New School
Dick Williams%Terry Francona
World series championships%2%2
Hall of Fame?%Yes%Perhaps
Length%13 seasons%10 seasons
Statistics%.260, 70 homers, 358 runs, 331 RBIs%.274, 16 homers, 163 runs, 143 RBIs
Quote%"If a player did something wrong, I let them know on the spot."%"It's a different time."
Fun fact%He was a teammate with Francona's father%He played for Williams