Williams takes long road to majors

Originally Published: June 29, 2005
By Alan Schwarz | Special to ESPN.com

You probably don't realize how special this is. Imagine if Sam Bowie started sinking hook shots for the Boston Celtics. Or Ki-Jana Carter was scoring touchdowns for the Seahawks. Or if you turned on SportsCenter and learned that Brien Taylor just struck out 13 for the Padres.

For insanely hard-core fans, or at least accountants for the Atlanta Braves, those inexpressibly bizarre scenarios are the rough equivalent of looking at a Twins box score this month and seeing:

Glenn Williams
Third baseman Glenn Williams was hitting .425 in 13 games.
GWilliams, 3b 4 1 2 1

Could that be Glenn Williams, the best Australian baseball prospect who ever lived? The former 16-year-old phenom who got a jaw-dropping $825,000 bonus from the Braves in 1993 as one of the most coveted international signees of all time? The white-hot talent who immediately fizzled, who was all but washed up at 21 and quickly forgotten?

Yep, same one. Same guy who endured 11 seasons in the minor leagues without a sniff of the bigs. And before we go any further, the same guy who not only surfaced in Minnesota this month as its emergency third baseman but who has hit in every one of his first 13 games (tying a major-league record), has played himself into being a regular on a contending club and is hitting a stunning .425 overall.

Williams' storybook season was interrupted Tuesday night moments after he singled to extend his streak – he dove back into first and separated his shoulder, meaning he'll be out for several weeks at least. But after all these years, after being called a washout and worse, Glenn Williams can now call himself a productive major-league player.

"It's something that, obviously, when I first signed I wanted to achieve – it's something I've dreamed of my whole life," Williams said Tuesday, hours before the injury. "To finally be able to get the opportunity after a lot of years of hard work has been great. It's good to be able to have some positive stuff coming out of my career for once. I've always kind of said that I wasn't going to settle for being just a Triple-A baseball player."

That's what Williams, who's still only 27 despite his 11 minor-league seasons, had been for all of the last three seasons. The switch-hitter toiled in Syracuse in the Blue Jays' system and never got a call-up – even when he hit .264-23-79 last year. It was the first truly positive production of his career, and the Blue Jays cut him loose after the season.

In yet another overlooked, prescient move, the Twins picked up Williams – and soon looked brilliant. Michael Cuddyer lost the third-base job with unproductive offense and disastrous defense, and when replacement Nick Punto got hurt, the Twins needed a spot starter – and called up Williams from Triple-A Rochester, where he'd been hitting .302-4-19 in 47 games.

Williams stroked a single in his first appearance, as a pinch hitter June 7, and rewarded manager Ron Gardenhire's decision to give him his first start with two more hits. He soon earned the starting job and has hit in every game since, including a game-winning, pinch-hit single against the Padres.

Tuesday's injury hit the Twins harder than you'd think – the Aussie had grown on them.

"To see this happen to him, after how long he has been trying to get up here [the major leagues], is sad," Gardenhire told reporters after the game. "He was really playing well for us. I feel for him."

Yes, it had been a long time, stretching all the way back to 1993. Heck, Williams has been a pro longer than 35 players on the Twins' 40-man roster.

Discovered at 14 while starring on Australian youth teams, Williams, a smooth and strong switch-hitting infielder, was the most polished young prospect his country had ever produced. And he wasn't some raw project from the Outback; Williams had been around baseball all his life. His father, Garry, had been a member of the Australian national team a generation before, playing in international tournaments against Tim Wallach and other future big-leaguers. The day Glenn left the hospital after being born in July 1977, Garry took him straight to the ballpark.

A half-dozen organizations fell all over themselves trying to sign Williams when he turned 16 in July 1993, and the Braves won out with that $825,000 offer – the highest bonus international baseball had ever seen. Atlanta brass predictably compared him to its top prospect and a fellow switch-hitting infielder, Chipper Jones.

Williams never showed that type of talent again. From 1994 to 1999, playing just 57 games above Class A, he hit in the low .200s with little power but lots of injuries. A fungo bat slammed into his shoulder. A pitch crashed into his elbow. Another pitch hit his bad shoulder. He dislocated a finger before dislocating his left shoulder twice and his right shoulder once.

Just like any American bonus baby, Williams knew he hadn't lived up to the hype.

"It was tough – you never see yourself failing," Williams said. "What got to me was the expectations. There were a lot of things said about me and a lot of things written about me that I tried to live up to, and whenever you do that and you stop concentrating on what you have to do, it makes it tough."

Williams' huge bonus was a byproduct of baseball's industrywide Australia fix in the early 1990s, when scouts believed the huge nation could become a serious talent hotbed. Australia hadn't produced much before – its only notable export was a 19th-century second baseman, Joe Quinn, who later managed the historically inept 12-104 Cleveland Spiders of 1899 – but with Dave Nilsson and Graeme Lloyd just breaking in with the Brewers, scouts thought investment in Australia would reap future All-Stars.

They were wrong. No Australian ever proved even half as good as Nilsson – particularly Williams, who at least symbolically soured the scouting community on the nation as a whole.

"I would say that's right," said Dan Jennings, Marlins assistant general manager and longtime scout. "I think Australia still gets scouted pretty heavy, just not as much as in the past. Probably Japan has taken the place of Australia in terms of priority."

Released by Atlanta after the 1999 season, Williams got picked up by Toronto and spent the next five seasons in that system, including 2002-04 with Syracuse. It began to look as though his finest moment would be helping his home country win the silver medal in last summer's Athens Olympics.

But he pressed on with the Twins this year, and finally got his first call-up this month. If we see a sharp drop in Australia's GNP in June 2005, Williams will be the reason: With Twins games webcast live during the morning business hours, Williams' fans – he's still very well known and popular back home – spent most of their time on the Internet.

"Yeah, they've been checking it out," Williams said. "I guess people in offices have fast connections."

They'll have to get back to work now that Williams is out for a while. But the story is still a wonderful one for people who have known Williams since he was the 16-year-old phenom showered with praise and promise. He dropped off the face of the earth, yes – and climbed his way back on.

Not to be sadistic, but the worst-case scenario – that Williams' shoulder injury is a devastating one, and he never plays in a major-league game again – is still infinitely better than it was a month ago. He made the big leagues. After all these years, his perseverance paid off – he's not just the answer to a trivia question anymore.

If Glenn Williams never sets foot in another batter's box for the rest of his life, he will finish with the highest batting average ever (.425) for any major-leaguer with at least 30 plate appearances. As trivia answers go, that's quite a change.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer for Baseball America. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," can be ordered on his website, www.alanschwarz.com.