Sports Nut

Jimy Williams, Boston’s Mixmaster

When Red Sox catcher Scott Hatteberg came to bat last Monday night, fans from Portsmouth to Pawtucket started thinking up new obscenities to hurl at the team’s embattled manager, Jimy Williams. This was, after all, a straightforward situation. Down one run in the sixth inning, facing a left-handed pitcher, the Sox had loaded the bases with nobody out. But Hatteberg couldn’t hit lefties and, of late, he couldn’t hit in the clutch, either. Just two innings before, when Hatteberg was up with nobody out and two men aboard, he hit into a triple play. Now, with the Sox looking at another—possibly their last—chance to seize the lead, conventional baseball wisdom said it was time to pull Hatteberg for a right-handed pinch hitter.

But Jimy Williams has never been a conventional manager. He puts up a different lineup every day. He lets righties hit against righties, lefties against lefties. Today he’ll let his starter pitch himself out of a bases-loaded jam with the game on the line. Tomorrow he’ll go to the bullpen with a three-run lead because his starter just gave up a hit. Jimy revels in the mystery he creates, dismissing press inquires or fan complaints with a pat, nonilluminative answer that Ari Fleischer would envy: “Manager’s decision.” Here in the sixth inning, the manager’s decision was to let Hatteberg hit.

Which was lucky for the Sox. Hatteberg ran the count to two-and-one, then sent a fastball careening into the outfield bullpen for a game-winning grand slam. The catcher, as surprised as anybody by the sudden turn of fortune, likened it to going “from the outhouse to the penthouse.” And Jimy? “Sometimes it works,” he shrugged in the post-game press conference, “sometimes it doesn’t.”

Not that gloating or reveling in his glory would have done him much good. It’s hard to think of a manager who has done more with less this year than Jimy Williams. All season, the Sox have either led their division or trailed by just a few games—despite playing in the same division as the powerhouse New York Yankees, and despite extended injuries to their starting center fielder (Carl Everett), their veteran third baseman (John Valentin), their starting catcher (Jason Varitek), their setup man (Rich Garces), their all-world shortstop (Nomar Garciaparra), and their all-universe pitcher (Pedro Martinez). Only one regular starter, outfielder Manny Ramirez, made the All-Star team this year, largely because he was the only deserving candidate. As of last week, the five-man pitching rotation included Bret Saberhagen. Sabes was a star in his prime. Problem is, his prime was in 1989. Amazingly, the staff has the second-best earned-run average in baseball.

When a team is so clearly overachieving, as the Sox are, the manager must be doing something right. But Jimy gets no credit—only grief. Grief from his general manager, Dan Duquette, who uses a weekly radio show to second-guess Jimy’s dugout decisions. Grief from the fans, who seemingly spend more time complaining about Jimy on talk radio than they do actually watching the games. Even grief from his own players, who, during a trip to Oakland in May, treated the manager to an unprecedented, obscenity-laced tirade. It seems various malcontents were unhappy about all the lineup changes; many were insisting they should be getting more playing time. Jimy, being Jimy, said nothing. “He just stood there and took it,” one player told Sports Illustrated, which broke the story of the meeting.

It’s this refusal to fight back that infuriates even his would-be allies. Reporters on the local TV stations are always asking: Why doesn’t he just say something and defend himself? But there’s no great mystery here. His patchwork roster is overloaded with mediocre talent. Except for a few key stars, the Red Sox consist of over-the-hill pitchers and streaky hitters whose considerable guile and guts cannot make up for such obviously modest God-given ability. By shuffling around the lineup, Jimy plays his hunches and catches players on hot streaks, thus making something out of nothing. And by turning himself into the object of player scorn, Jimy soaks up the anger that his players might otherwise direct at each other. Better to have everybody hating the manager than squabbling among themselves, no?

But Jimy, bless his heart, cannot admit to this strategy, because to do so would be to undermine it. The Red Sox are winning because they believe they are better than they really are. Sox fans are flocking to Fenway Park in record numbers because they’ve succumbed to the same delusion. The only way to keep this myth going is to say nothing that might contradict it. That’s why, when Jimy does have something to say about his players, it’s inevitably kind—whether it’s recognizing the obvious genius of Pedro Martinez or puffing up scrappers like Hatteberg. (“You have to show faith in your hitter,” Jimy said after the grand slam, as if Hatteberg were Mark McGwire.) When people complain, Jimy reverts to his behavior in the Oakland meeting: He just stands there and takes it.

This is true nobility—something Bostonians, of all people, should appreciate. Perhaps Jimy thinks that his act of self-sacrifice will finally balance the team’s moral ledger, ending the team’s postseason hex and ushering in a new era of glory. Of course, only Jimy Williams knows for sure what’s going on in his head—and he’s not about tell you. But that’s OK. When a team has exceeded every reasonable expectation, it’s time to stop asking questions and start enjoying the ride.