"It's just a collection of nervous habits," says Williams. It pains him, however, to think of this Saint Vitus's dance stance as anything but normal, for Williams has no wish to stand out in a crowd, any crowd. When he and his wife, Tracie, go out to dinner at one of their favorite haunts on the San Francisco peninsula, they are rarely pestered, simply because, as he puts it, "I just seem to blend in. Actually, I don't get upset about people asking me for autographs when we're out. I think it's nice of people to ask, and the way I figure it, the time to worry is when they quit asking. But I've never been mobbed."
Maybe that's because Williams, 28, doesn't look much like anybody famous. He's tall, 6'2", and, at 216 pounds, powerfully constructed, but he is quite bald, and his unassuming manner hardly smacks of celebrity conceit. He could as easily be a bank clerk or a schoolteacher. When he won the National League Comeback Player of the Year award last year for hitting .294 with 38 homers and 110 RBIs after a dismal 1992 season (.227, 20 homers, 66 RBIs), he was chagrined. "It made me seem old," he says. "I was 27, too young for a comeback. I'll admit, though, I do look older."
Williams is much more than a power hitter. For all of his bulk, at third base he is as light on his feet as a tap dancer. A two-time Gold Glove winner, he is currently, in the opinion of many observers, the best-fielding third baseman in the game. "He has an unbelievably quick first step to the ball, a tremendous arm and great agility," says Philadelphia Phillie coach Larry Bowa, a fine shortstop in his day. "When he dives for the ball, he gets out of the dirt faster than the little guys. He's as good as any I've seen, and I played with Mike Schmidt, who could really play."
"He's better than Schmidt," says Baker. "Matty has great hands and quick feet. He's a heavyweight who moves like a lightweight."
A quintessential Williams game might have been the one he played against the Phillies on July 8 at Candlestick Park. In the second inning he stabbed Todd Pratt's hard shot in the hole and converted it into a double play. Playing in close on the grass against the speedy Mariano Duncan in the third, he dived to spear another sizzler backhanded, clambered to his feet and made a perfect throw to first. He robbed Mickey Morandini of a hit in the top of the fourth by making a superb backhand catch of a sharply hit ball down the line and then, in the home half of the inning, hit a towering homer that tied the game 1-1. In the sixth, after Bonds had tied the score again with a home run, Williams followed with another of his own to provide the eventual 3-2 winning margin. For good measure, he protected that lead in the eighth by robbing Jim Eisenreich of a hit in the hole with a runner on base. And yet newcomer Strawberry, who in his second game as a Giant got his first hit of the season (an infield single), stole the show with his mere presence.
The youngest, by nine years, of Arthur and Sarah Williams's four sons, Matt comes by his modesty naturally. "My brothers and my dad were my role models," he says. "I had no heroes outside the family." The Williamses lived first in the tiny California town of Big Pine and then, when Matt was 12, moved to the somewhat larger and more sophisticated Carson City, Nev. In 1983 Matt earned a baseball scholarship to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where he was an All-America at shortstop in his junior year.
He credits one peculiar practice drill at UNLV—the infielders were required to field ground balls with Ping-Pong paddles strapped to their glove hands—with developing the surgeon's touch of his defensive game. "You had to give with the ball to stop it at all," Williams says. "And you learned to take everything you could with two hands."
In June 1986, at the end of his junior year, Williams was San Francisco's first-round draft choice (the third player chosen overall), and he made it to the big club a year later. But his first three years with the Giants were frustrating because he commuted regularly between San Francisco and the Giants' Triple A farm club in Phoenix, playing both third and short. Williams's cumulative batting average with San Francisco for those three years was .198. His confidence was nearly shattered. A sorrowful countenance and hunched shoulders betrayed his anguish to the fans, who pitied him more than they decried him. When he would strike out—a far from uncommon occurrence—he would trudge back to the dugout like a chastened schoolboy, amid sighs, not boos, from the stands.
And then came the eventful and potentially career-ending day of May 1, 1989. It began with his fiancée and soon-to-be wife, Tracie, announcing she was pregnant. This was not bad news. The marriage was scheduled for July, and Matt loved children. "I could tell when I first met him," says Tracie, "that this was a family man." And so he has become, with two daughters, Alysha, 4, and Rachel, 1, and a son, Jacob, 3.
Then, later that day, his mother called from Carson City to tell him that a close friend from his school days had committed suicide. Williams was devastated. That night, still grieving, he struck out as a pinch hitter against the Chicago Cubs and was told he was being sent back to Phoenix, yet again. "I had reached the point where I didn't know what to do," he says. He called home, saying he was thinking of quitting and going back to school. "I just don't think I can play with these guys," he told his mother.