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WILLIAMS: SILENT-BUT-DEADLY GIANT

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It is somehow fitting, though hardly fair, that self-effacing Matt Williams, baseball's most reluctant superstar, probably will have an historic season erased by a work stoppage.

Until the San Francisco Giants third baseman took over the major-league home run lead on July 25, all the talk about the players chasing Roger Maris' 61-homer record centered on Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas and Albert Belle. Williams was overlooked, which was nothing new.You see, Williams is a power hitter who doesn't give a hoot about power. Over and over, he's said he would rather count his RBI than the number of balls he hits out of the park.

"I'm not concerned about home runs. I'm concerned about driving in runs," he said. "Whether it's a single with Barry (Bonds) on base or a home run with Barry on base, it doesn't matter."

Playing in the shadows of first Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell and now Bonds and Darryl Strawberry, the reserved Williams has been content to go unnoticed. He even opted out of the home-run hype at the All-Star game, declining to compete with Griffey, Thomas and the rest of the big-bicep bunch in the homer hitting contest.

"You look at Matt, and he's quiet," said Giants second baseman Robby Thompson, who has spent more than five seasons in the same infield with Williams. "He goes about his business in a professional manner. He doesn't do or say anything that's controversial. He lets his play speak for itself."

His numbers speak much louder.

Going into the Giants' weekend series at Houston, Williams had more home runs - 41 - than Griffey, Thomas or Belle; 92 RBI (third in NL); and a .609 slugging percentage (fourth in NL).

Among the records he won't have a shot at if the players lay down their bats and gloves on Aug. 12 as threatened:

- Maris' 33-year-old mark for most homers in a major-league season.

- Hack Wilson's 1930 NL record for home runs in a season .

- The Giants' season home-run record of 52, set by Willie Mays in 1965.

True to his nature, Williams has voiced few opinions about the impending strike.

"If it needs to be done, it needs to be done," he said.

His teammates all say it's unfortunate Williams' big season will be short-circuited by the strike, but no one doubts his commitment to them.

"You want to see Matt break the record," pitcher John Burkett said. "Everybody has something to sacrifice, so that's just part of it. He knows what we have to do."

The 28-year-old Williams been doing it all year long. He homered twice in the first game of the season. He broke Willie Stargell's 1971 NL record for most homers before July. Then he set a new league mark for home runs through the end of July, topping a record held by Mays, Johnny Bench, Stargell and Mike Schmidt.

Not bad for a player who spent three seasons shuttling between the majors and Triple A. In 1990, his first complete season in the majors, he led the NL with 122 RBI.

In 1992, without Mitchell in the lineup, Williams slumped, hitting .227 with 20 home runs and 66 RBI. He had recurring back problems, struggled more than ever to hit breaking pitches and led NL third basemen with 23 errors.

But with the addition in 1993 of Bonds, and more particularly Bobby Bonds as hitting coach, Williams shone again. His average jumped to .294, he drove in 110 runs, and his 38 homers were a career high. And he was awarded his second Gold Glove.

All along, he's played with a modesty that can be almost comic. His head-down, almost apologetic home-run trot amuses his teammates, who have to practically push him out of the dugout for curtain calls.

"I can't say enough about what Matt's doing," Barry Bonds said. "He's hitting the ball all over the place and driving in runs when they're needed."

Williams became the game's highest-paid third baseman last December with the signing of a five-year, $30.75 million contract. One of the first things he did was endow a baseball scholarship at UNLV, where he spent three years, that is said to be worth close to $250,000.

In the clubhouse after games, no hangers-on mill around his locker, only his 3-year-old son, Jacob, one of his three children.

But as good-hearted and family-oriented as Williams is, he is intense and sometimes fiery.

When then-Houston Astros pitcher Mark Portugal - now a Giant - struck him out last season and yelled in triumph, Williams cursed back.

After the Dodgers ended the Giants' pennant hopes on the last day of the '93 season with a 12-1 pounding, Williams angrily vowed the team wouldn't lose a game to Los Angeles this season. What's more, he promised to pepper Dodgers' pitcher Orel Hershiser with line drives up the middle. Williams later apologized.

Both incidents, said Thompson, were out of character for Williams.

"He's a quiet leader," Thompson said, "and he does it without a lot of media hype."

The hype around Williams has been growing exponentially as his home run total has increased. He just shrugs it off.

"It's nice that people want to talk about it," he said. "But my job is to play baseball and help us win anyway we can."

And do it as quietly as possible.