Being fast is something Marland Williams has had to live with his entire life. The 22-year old, former high school running back from Gainesville, Fla., has been so fast for so long that the proverbial "man" tagged him with a nickname fitting for those select few athletes who can track down a line shot supposedly destined for the gap or steal a base with little more than a pump fake and a sigh.
Known by most simply as "Smoke", Williams celebrated his first full season in double-A by stealing 48 bases for the now defunct El Paso Diablos. That performance plus his penchant for making the spectacular catch seem routine has earned him an invite to the prestigious Arizona Fall League where he will be roaming centerfield for the Scottsdale Scorpions starting in November. But before any of that, the man who smacked 21 doubles, drove in 43 runs and scored 82 more this season slowed down long enough to talk to FutureBacks.com about the challenges of batting leadoff, how he plans to help bring the stolen base back to baseball and of course his name.
Do you prefer to be called Smoke or Marland?
I've been called Smoke for so long, for about five years now so it really doesn't matter, I answer to both of them.
Where did you pick up the name?
I picked it up my freshman year in junior college. One of my buddies saw me running and I was running I was kicking up dirt and they said it looked like smoke was coming up behind me so he just called me that and it just stuck with me.
Is it true you first wanted to be a football player?
Actually football was the first sport I played. It was the first sport I fell in love with but as I grew up I think what changed my mine is that I had got hurt so I picked baseball over football.
So when do first pick up a baseball?
I started playing about seven years old. I just got hooked because sports is like a big thing to me. I watch basketball, football, baseball. Sports just hooked me right off the bat and it's stuck with me ever since.
Who are some of the players you like to watch?
You got 48 stolen bases this year and speed is a major weapon in your arsenal. How does that help you in the field and on the base paths?
I think speed is a big advantage. Coaches always say you can't teach speed. It's fun to get out there and run around the bases, run balls down in the outfield or just make things happen and make the game exciting. Speed is something I've been blessed with and I just go out there wanting to make the fans happy by show it off. I just use it to make people want to come to the game by making a good play.
What goes through your mind as you prepare to steal a base?
I tend to watch the pitcher and study their moves and any little thing that can help me out. I like to run early in the count so whenever I can go, I go but it's not a big thing to me stealing bases because I've been doing it my whole life.
It seems the role of the stolen base has diminished in baseball over the last few years. What do you think someone who can steal bases brings to a team?
You are always going to need somebody to get on a steal a base in the eighth or ninth inning when you are down by a run or in a tie game. It's been drifting away the last couple of years, but I think it's coming back. I know a lot of guys who I've played against the last couple of years that are good leadoff hitters and base stealers so I think it's coming back around and in two or three years it will be back.
Speed and to a lesser extent stealing bases are a prerequisite for being a leadoff hitter, but what else does it take to be effective at the top of the order?
You've got to get on base definitely. You've got to watch pitches so the hitters behind you can see what they have. You got to try and make the pitcher throw everything he's got. I think the lead off hitter is one the biggest parts of the game because if the lead off hitter is on then the whole team is coming up. Coach always tells me to lead and they'll follow me.
Cooley ( Diablos manager Scott Coolbaugh) said you are relatively new to baseball, so how would you rate your progression so far?
You can learn something new from everything from your coach to other players who've been around for a while but there's some things I still need to do and improve on but I think my defense is pretty good and I know I can get better at that and I'm pretty good at base running.
You've been invited to play with the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League this year, what do you hope to learn from that experience and what are your plans for the rest of the off season to prepare for next year?
I plan on playing a lot and going in there and making a big impact by just trying to get better and help out team win. Lee Tinsley is our hitting coach so I know I'll be working with him a lot and he's going to be a big help to me. We are going to be doing a lot of one on one work and I just plan on doing my best and see what happens. As for the off season, one of my buddies (Exis Snead) plays for the Mets and we work out together.
But you are going back to Florida?
Did you have any family affected by Hurricane Francis? And how do you keep your concentration knowing your family could be in danger?
My mother is supposed to be here tomorrow but they are alright right now. Me thinking about this and they being in the hurricane has been on my mind and it bothers me but I know I can't do anything about so I just got to come out here and play.
When can the fans expect to see you at the next level whether it is in Tucson or Phoenix?
Hopefully I'll get the chance next year but if I don't I think I'll be there in two years. I'm just getting better every year and when ever I get the opportunity I'll just go out there and try my hardest
What would it mean to you to get the call up and join the big leagues?
It would be a big relief. I've been thinking about it ever since they drafted me. To be on TV playing in front of everybody it will be very exciting. I'll probably have some jitters the first couple of innings but I get excited just seeing the people I played with on TV and that's good motivation because it doesn't matter what time or what level if somebody gets hurt your nothing but a phone call away. But being in the big leagues would just be a big thrill. It's everybody's dream. I know everybody isn't going to make it but if they do you just go to live in the moment and be happy that you are up there.