TAMPA — Reggie and Rose Williams came across each other while working out at a gym in Albuquerque, N.M. He was a Los Angeles Dodgers farmhand trying to get back to the majors. She was a suddenly-single mom who was just trying to get by.
The couple recently celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary, and in the process, have groomed what might be Tampa Bay’s most successful baseball family.
Williams, who played for the Angels and Dodgers in the 1990s, is the third-base coach at Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School, a third-year program that will make its state tournament debut — in its first year of postseason eligibility — Friday. The Phoenix faces Orangewood Christian, ranked No. 11 in the nation by ESPN Rise, in the Class 2A semifinals.
Two of Williams’ sons, 21-year-old Reggie Jr. and 20-year-old J.D., have already been drafted — by the Cardinals and Twins, respectively — and are playing pro ball. Another Brooks-DeBartolo alum mentored by Williams, Kelvin Mention Jr., was drafted by the Twins last year.
Next in line is Phoenix senior left-hander Javier Reynoso, Williams’ stepson whose fastball tops in the low 90s. Reynoso, along with teammate and fellow Coastal Carolina recruit Adam Eggnatz, could be picked in next month’s Major League Baseball first-year player draft.
When Rose met Reggie, she was still getting over the loss of her husband, also named Javier, who was killed when young Javier was just 2 (Rose said he was shot while sitting in his car).
Williams could relate. His father died in a car accident while driving to the hospital to see his newborn son. Williams took in Reynoso as his own son and passed along the game.
“He’s been here with me the whole way through,” Reynoso said. “He molded me into the person I have become. It was tough to have your father pass away, but a blessing at the same time, because he would have never have come into my life. He taught me how to work hard. Without him, everything I’ve accomplished would not be possible.”
“He knows Reggie as his dad,” Rose said. “If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think he ever would have seen a ball field.”
• • •
Williams, who played in just 88 major-league games over four seasons, still remembers the way his legs shook when he ran out to the outfield in his first game at Yankee Stadium. He remembers the fear of failure.
In teaching his sons, he was determined to make sure they didn’t have the same fear. He always gave them a green light to steal bases and they had free reign to swing on 3-0 counts.
Williams, 45, said he learned his aggressive strategy playing in the Angels system under the likes of current Rays manager Joe Maddon. Maddon, then an unconventional-thinking minor-league instructor, remembers working with Williams after he was released by the Giants in the early 1990s.
“I love the man,” Maddon said. “He was prone to the mental mistake back in the day, but we got him better. But he was really physically gifted, a switch hitter with some power — really good power — ran well, threw well. He did everything well, a toolsy kind of guy. We kind of put him back together after his release. He was a guy we all loved because he was absolutely hysterical. …I know how serious he is about teaching, so it doesn’t surprise me right now (that he’s a coach).”
Williams created the Dawg Pound travel team in Tampa to groom other local players. His goal isn’t to win championships or tournaments, but to ready his players to become prospects. He admits he’d rather his players have five tools than multiple championship rings.
“I’m not into the regular trophies,” he said. “Those just gather dust. I’m into the walking trophies.”
Williams knows he is a polarizing figure in the local baseball community. Parents have pulled their sons from his program in a huff, questioning the way he teaches the game. But others say he has been a life changer.
“Kids need to have someone who believes in you,” said Richard Eggnatz, whose son is a starting outfielder and closer for the Phoenix. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world. And we’ve been fortunate to meet a man who has given us the opportunity. He’s a pretty intense guy. And there were a lot of kids who had the opportunity, but for whatever reason decided to go elsewhere.”
When Richard Eggnatz first encountered Williams at a local batting cage, he never thought his son would become a starter, let alone a Division I-A recruit who enters the state tournament hitting .598.
“I think he’s the best coach ever,” Adam Eggnatz said. “If I didn’t have him in life, I don’t think I’d be playing baseball. When we first met, I didn’t think I was capable of starting on any traveling team. He’ll go the whole nine (yards) for you, as long as you’re in it with him.”
• • •
The Phoenix (14-14) will go into Port St. Lucie’s Digital Domain Park, site of the state tournament, as an underdog. But that’s nothing new for Williams.
Growing up in rural South Carolina, his mother, Margie, worked two jobs to buy a washing machine so she could make sure he wore a clean baseball uniform. But he never had a father figure.
“I never had anyone to tell me how it went,” he said. “I take every young man, and most guys don’t have anything. They’re raised by single moms. I try to bring them a chance. My momma raised me by herself. I never had a dad. If I see a kid I can help, I try to hang with them.”
As for his and Rose’s kids, 13-year-old Cameron, nicknamed “Hammer,” might be the best baseball player yet. And Rose is three months pregnant with their fourth child.
“I had no idea these boys could turn into these kind of players. All I did was believe in them enough to try to get them to the next level,” Williams said. “I’m the guy who tells them to go for more, instead of worrying about it. I want them to think, ‘I can be Superman and Coach don’t mind.’ ”
Digital Domain Park, Port St. Lucie. Admission is $8 per session. Finals are on BHSN.
6A: Alonso vs. Lake Worth Park Vista Community, 5 p.m. Monday
4A: Hernando vs. Jesuit, 1 p.m. Monday
2A: Brooks-DeBartolo vs. Orangewood Christian, 10 a.m. Friday
On the Web: We’ll have live updates from the games involving local teams at tampabay.com/hometeam
Staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.