Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners and Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox are indisputably the glamour-pusses of this year's big home run parade, their faces and forms adorning magazine covers and newspaper sports pages, their meteoric careers and adorable personalities examined in countless television features. But trotting unobtrusively alongside them in the chase to overtake Roger Maris's home run record, minding his own business and begging your pardon, is another formidable, if mostly ignored, power hitter, Matt Williams of the San Francisco Giants.
At week's end Griffey had 35 home runs and Thomas had 33, but Williams had shouldered his way between them on Sunday, hitting his 34th home run to help the Giants beat the Montreal Expos, 6-4, for San Francisco's eighth straight victory. Williams hit 29 homers before the end of June, thereby breaking a somewhat esoteric National League record set by the Pittsburgh Pirates' Willie Stargell in 1971. If he continues as he has and the season continues without interruption by a players' strike, he could threaten the Giants' franchise record of 52 home runs by Willie Mays in '65 and the National League standard of 56 established by Hack Wilson of the Chicago Cubs in '30. Not to mention Maris's record of 61.
But Williams is doing all this under a virtual cloak of anonymity, which is just fine with him. "I really don't care if Griffey and Thomas get all the attention," he says mildly. "They can have it. The thing about a home run is, you never know where or if it will ever happen again." This comes from a man who this year has hit one out about every 10 at bats. Williams's aversion to fame both baffles and amuses his teammates, but they cannot for the life of them figure out why the rest of the sports world hasn't yet caught up with his prowess.
Williams, though, has grown accustomed to playing in the shadow of others, even on his own team. When he first joined the Giants in 1987, Will Clark was all the rage. Then along came Kevin Mitchell and his home run binge of '89. Lately the focus has been on Barry Bonds, the brooding superstar. And now, with Bonds having started slowly while Williams was soaring, there appears the newly rehabilitated Darryl Strawberry to steal Williams's thunder. Williams contentedly roots for them all, pleased just to be in their august company.
One explanation for his relative obscurity is his old-fashioned rejection of the theatrical gesture, his distaste for, in his words, "showing guys up." When Bonds hits a ball out of the park, he first postures Reggie-like at the plate, admiring the flight of the ball, a Renoir appraising his brushwork. Then he enters into his majestic home run trot, a Barrymore at the footlights. When Williams hits one, he lowers his head apologetically and steams off for first as if he were trying to beat out an infield hit. It is a gallop, not a trot. "As far as he hits them," says San Francisco shortstop Royce Clayton, "he's crossing home plate before the ball comes down."
Williams's demeanor on the field is entirely solemn. "Look at him out there," says Giant first baseman Todd Benzinger, chuckling at Williams in the Candlestick Park batting cage. "The hat's pulled way down. There's no smile. Matt has qualities that players of the past can relate to. He's like a DiMaggio—all business, no flash. The way things are today, with guys wearing their caps on backward, I find that refreshing. Then again, Matt takes everything hard on the field, maybe too hard."
"At times Matty puts too much pressure on himself," says San Francisco manager Dusty Baker, "but I'd rather have someone like that than one who doesn't care. I'll tell you one thing, he's one of the finest young men I've ever known."
That is the prevailing sentiment among the Giants and, for that matter, most anyone who has spent time off the field with the amiable Williams. "He may look intimidating on the field," says Clayton, "but he's a teddy bear in the clubhouse."
He can also be a comedian. Witness his impersonations of Babe Ruth rounding the bases with mincing steps, of Clark's fright mask of a game face, of Reggie Jackson adoring one of his own homers. "I can't do normal people," Williams says. "They have to be eccentrics. I can't do me."
In fact, there is nothing at all normal about Williams at the plate. Settling into the box, he has more nervous tics than Captain Queeg. First, he rocks the bat back and forth as if practicing his golf swing, nuzzling his left shoulder with every forward rock. He awaits the pitch in a paroxysm of bat wiggling, foot lifting and hip swiveling. "Somehow," says a bemused Baker, "all that movement seems to give him power."