Los Angeles — Over the years downtrodden major league baseball teams have often responded quickly to the iron fist in the velvet glove of Manager Dick Williams, whose latest reclamation project is the San Diego Padres. With the bushy mustache Dick has worn for several years, he would not look out of place as a gunslinger in a John Wayne Western.
Back in 1967 Williams won a pennant with a Boston team that had finished ninth the year before. Later he led a dissension-wracked Oakland franchise to back-to-back World Series triumphs in 1972 and '73.
Dick also had the California Angels going in a skyward direction in 1975, but not quite fast enough to suit management, which gave him only one full season to do the job, plus parts of two others. Moving into a losing situation with Montreal in 1977, he missed winning a division title by two games his third year there and by one game the following season.
Williams is a rooster type who crows a little; struts a little; needles his players a little; gets on umpires a little; and wins a lot. If he were fired tomorrow, his phone would be ringing off the hook by the end of the week with job offers.
A big part of Dick's philosophy as a manager is tied to his impatience as a person. If he finds himself with a regular who hasn't pulled his weight over a reasonable length of time, he won't hesitate to try someone else in his place. And the player he sits down could have taken him out to dinner the night before.
Williams's first priority is to win, not finish first in any popularity contest. Whenever Dick goes out to the mound to remove the starting pitcher who has gotten himself into trouble, he shuns explanations and grabs instead for the baseball.
Among the first things he did after becoming manager of the Red Sox in 1967 was remove the title of captain from in front of the name Carl Yastrzemski. With Williams in regard to baseball, sentiment is always on a holiday.
The San Diego team Williams has inherited this year won only 41 games last season; hit only nine balls out of its home park; skidded from first to eighth in the National League in stolen bases; and had a pitching staff that yielded a major league high of 3.72 walks per game.
Most new managers, coming into a situation like that, would be hedging their predictions with a lot of candy-coated cliches, but not Williams.
''We have a lot more kids on this team with major league ability than I thought we had going into spring training,'' Dick told me as we chatted behind the batting cage recently at Dodger Stadium. ''We won't be a .500 ball club. We'll be better than a .500 ball club and we'll also win more than our share of one-run games.
''I don't take jobs before I check them out and I guess the main reason I took this one was because the Padres, for the past 18 months, have been building themselves a strong minor league farm system,'' he continued. ''That's the way you win today in the big leagues, with the horses you develop yourself.''
Williams says there are basically three things a team must have to become a constant power -- good pitching, good defense, and good execution.
''What I mean about good pitching is not walking the first hitter to open an inning, not letting an opposing pitcher get a cheap hit against you, and stopping the other club's top hitter more often than not when he comes up with men on base,'' Dick explained.
''The thing that goes with that is execution,'' he added. ''Any time you don't make the routine plays in the field, you're giving the opposition four outs an inning instead of three, and that happened a lot last year with the Padres. But if you learn to do the things I've talked about well, then your hitting will take care of itself.''
Williams claims that getting Garry Templeton from the St. Louis Cardinals in a trade for Ozzie Smith gives the Padres the best shortstop in baseball and that he is not discounting Smith's talents when he says that.
''Ozzie is great in the field,'' Dick admitted. ''But a lot of balls that Smith has to dive to get, Templeton will field standing up, and Ozzie never did provide much offense. With Garry at short and Juan Bonilla at second base, we've got one of the best double play combinations in the National League.
Williams closed our interview by insisting that if the Padres don't show the improvement he wants in the early weeks of the season, he'll reach into the farm system for even more new faces.
''We've got four kids down there right now that I really like,'' Dick said. ''Their names are Tony Gwynn, Joe Lansford, Andy Hawkins, and Tim Hamm.'' Gwynn is an outfielder with power; Lansford is a first baseman whose brother Carney of the Boston Red Sox won the American League batting championship last season; and right-handers Hawkins and Hamm are both considered power pitchers.
''You know me,'' Williams said. ''If I decide to bring these kids up, it won't be to sit them on the bench. I'll play them all until they either win a job or lose one.''