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Williams a combo of talent, humility

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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 3, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- In a world that spins with showy, in-your-face, mouthy, self-aggrandizing athletes, Gerald Williams is a mute key.

Tampa Bay's reluctant hero.

Okay, sir, about your four game-winning hits in five nights. "You're educating me," Williams said, indicating an absence of sizzle streak knowledge. "As you interview, I find out things about myself."

This is an unusual bird. He's from New Orleans, with no Bourbon Street flamboyancy. Introverted jock antithesis of Pete Rose, Warren Sapp and Allen Iverson. "That's not me," the centerfielder said. "I have no use for anything that is not an absolute component that leads to winning."

Williams won't talk statistics. His numbers in 2000 are rather heroic. Don't tell Gerald, but he's a leadoff batter with 16 homers and 73 RBI, plus leading his team in runs scored (62), hits (121), total bases (192), doubles (22) and sacrifice bunts (7).

MVP of the Rays, I say.

After bounding the minors a half-dozen summers, Williams had sporadic success with the Yankees, Brewers and Braves before becoming -- for his first time, really -- an indelible everyday starter at age 34 with the Rays.

"Give credit to (general manager) Chuck LaMar for getting me this opportunity," Dr. Shy said. "He took a chance, I took a chance, allowing some things to come together in a positive way."

In Gerald-talk, a screaming endorsement. I figured this has to be his happiest baseball year, playing top-shelf defense while consistently delivering clutch hits. Knowing his name is inked, not penciled, into Tampa Bay's lineup

"No, not the happiest time," he said. "Because we're not a winning team. I do feel things are getting better. Continuing on an upswing. We must learn to succeed with consistency.

"Greg Vaughn and I talk often about changing attitudes and mind-sets in this organization." (Their lockers are adjacent.) "We both expect to win. Anything else is unacceptable. Anything. There are talented guys here. No matter what happens individually, happiness comes only through winning."

So, would this old pro, playing a millionaire game where hot individual numbers can lead to eight-figure contracts, swap a .340 season of thereabouts, with 135 RBI and a league MVP award for, say, batting .265 as a regular on a World Series champion?

"Any time, any day," Williams said. "Where do I sign up for such an exchange? Perceptions (from outsiders, like public and media) are of no real concern. I love studying pitchers and competing with them. All in the interest in being a component that helps my team be a winner."

Williams has some ultra-ugly plate expeditions with his dynamic production. For a leadoff chap, he seems especially into guess hitting, which leads to some strikeouts where No. 4 has the appearance of rank futility.

"Perceptions," he said.

"If your response to a bad at-bat is to follow it by being really productive the next time, I've got no trouble with that," manager Larry Rothschild said. "An out is an out. Pretty outs no better than ugly ones.

"Who's to say Gerald isn't playing with the pitcher, setting up something in a future at-bat? As for guessing, I'd say just about everybody is a guess hitter. Gerald is one I want up there in really critical situations."

Williams grew up in the Louisiana neighborhood of LaPlace, where his mom still lives. They talk by phone almost every day. "My mother taught me (that) if you really want something, you must put in the work," he said.

Dorothy Williams told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year, "When Gerald had a chore to do, he'd always get to it early. One of the neatest guys I've ever seen. Most patient guy I know."

Patience that must've helped as Williams did professional baseball work in places like Oneonta, Prince William, Albany and Fort Lauderdale before getting a big-league shot at the shank of his sixth season.

"Gerald plays with boyish enthusiasm," said Wade Boggs, the 3,000-hit gent who retired from the Rays after last season. "He's a guy who has found a home. It shows in Gerald's production. I wouldn't mess with his approach at the plate, fearful it might take away some of the aggressiveness that is so important to his game."

Once more, Williams was asked about all the game-winning RBI. How it feels for a pro in his mid-30s. "It's no different than when you're a kid on a playground," he said. "Do you think batting in the winning run would be any less fun if you were 10 or 12 years old?

"When the enthusiasm for challenges and winning isn't at the ultimate level, why play?"

Gerald said a lot.

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