Baseball lifer Jimy Williams helped shape Blue Jays during formative years

Jimy Williams, the 1999 American League Manager of the Year for Boston who won 910 games over a dozen seasons that included stints with Toronto and Houston, has died. He was 80. (Mike Mergen/AP)

For me it’s the fungo. As someone who wasn’t around the Toronto Blue Jays when Jimy Williams was here — someone whose dealings were a few interviews for anecdotes or insight when he was in someone else’s uniform — it’s the sight of him in the warm sun leaning on a fungo bat.

A teacher ready to teach. Fielding drills to be done. The rhythms of an unforgiving sport played by eternal optimists about to commence. There will be a test on this, gentlemen. Starting around 7 o’clock.

The Blue Jays’ social media accounts announced Williams’ death at the age of 80 Monday, and given the way the game is going I’m not certain we’ll see many of his like again.

Williams had a brief career as a player, appearing in 13 games for the 1966 St. Louis Cardinals before a torn rotator cuff ended his career in 1969. His last game was for the Montreal Expos’ triple-A affiliate in Vancouver, after the Expos selected him in the 1968 expansion draft. Williams was out of the game until 1973 when the California Angels hired him to be their Midwest League manager in Davenport, Iowa. In 1980, he was hired by the Blue Jays to be Bobby Mattick’s third base coach and was the logical choice to replace Bobby Cox as manager when Cox left the Blue Jays following the 1985 season. Williams was fired in 1989 after starting the season 12-24 and replaced by hitting coach Cito Gaston. You know what happened next.

Firing managers in-season has been a thing in recent years for this organization. The Blue Jays’ current manager, John Schneider, was hired in the summer of 2022 as a replacement for Charlie Montoyo. John Gibbons was fired after 74 games in 2008 and replaced by Gaston. Gibbons — who would of course return in 2013 — replaced Carlos Tosca after 111 games in 2004.

In their early years, the Blue Jays very much valued stability. Cox left following the Blue Jays’ loss in the 1985 ALCS because his family wanted to settle down in Georgia, and the Atlanta Braves offered him their general manager’s job. He had been preceded by Mattick — whose fingerprints are still on the organization — and before that by Roy Hartsfield.

Williams went 281-241 in a little more than three years as Blue Jays manager, but his time was marked by public discontent on the part of players such as Damaso Garcia and especially George Bell, who directed his frustration toward Williams upon being moved to a full-time designated hitter role even though it had been an organizational decision. Williams was manager when the team blew a 3.5-game lead in the final week of the 1988 season and was fired in 1989 after a three-game sweep at the hands of the Minnesota Twins, capped off by a 13-1 loss in the series finale.

There were suggestions that Williams’ temperament was not cut out for a manager’s job, that he was a better lieutenant than general. The game thought otherwise: Williams was given two more chances, managing the Boston Red Sox from 1997 until late in the 2001 campaign, taking the team to the post-season twice and winning American League manager of the year in 1999. His final managerial stint was a two-and-a-half-year run at the helm of the Houston Astros from 2002-2004.

In total, Williams accumulated a .535 winning percentage as a manager (910-790). In and around those gigs, he was a coach on Cox’s Braves staff and won a World Series ring as bench coach for the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies. He was also a roving instructor for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Williams is survived by his wife of 47 years, Peggy, as well as two sons, two daughters and eight grandchildren. Both of his sons are active in the game: Brady as the Rays’ third base coach, and Shawn, a minor league manager in the Phillies’ system.

My friend Stephen Brunt’s book Diamond Dreams is the go-to chronicle of that time in Blue Jays history, and Brunt’s adroit and thoughtful explanation of Williams’ hiring and firing is, for me, one of its highlights. Among the gems? The spelling of Williams’ first name, the result of a just-for-yucks decision to spell it ‘Jimy’ on a high school test.

“Who knows what a Jimy Williams is?” Brunt quoted Williams as telling him before he was about to embark on his first season as Blue Jays manager. “There are no statistics to show what Jimy Williams did in the big leagues because he didn’t do (expletive) in the big leagues. So, the only way for me to show that I deserve an opportunity is to, provided they are capable of winning, that I keep them from losing.”

Given where the Blue Jays were at that time, not losing wasn’t the same thing as winning.

“I think now at the end of ’88 we should have made a change,” then-Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick told Brunt. “It was at my insistence that we give Jimy another shot. That’s why he came back in ’89. I really thought we didn’t support him as strongly as we should have… we shared the responsibility, so I thought he deserved another opportunity.”

Now, I didn’t know Williams well enough to know whether he’d made peace with his time here. I broached it with him a few times in interviews — as one does — but it was clear he didn’t much feel like going down that path. And that’s OK. As a baseball lifer, Williams collected a lot of scar tissue and was very much within his rights to say what he wanted to say to whomever he wanted to say it to. My guess is it depended on who was doing the asking, because that’s sometimes the way it is with baseball lifers.

And Jimy Williams was a baseball man. Full stop.

Jeff Blair hosts Blair & Barker. The show returns to Sportsnet 590 The Fan at 11 a.m. ET on Feb. 20 and is available wherever you get your favourite podcasts.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.