Phils' Wild Thing controls 9th inning he just has a unique way of doing it

October 19, 1993|By Mark Whicker | Mark Whicker,Orange County (Calif.)Register

PHILADELPHIA -- The highlight of John Kruk's very first day in professional baseball was Mitch Williams.

There was a batting cage, and there was Williams. Kruk was supposed to use the cage for practice.

Williams, 17 at the time, wound, threw -- and missed the cage.

Kruk went inside the cage. Safest place in town.

So it's not so bad now. Williams actually connects with the catcher, most nights. A city and a crowd might think he's putting them into the spin cycle. But it all comes out in the wash.

Williams saved 43 Phillies games in the regular season (and missed a month with a knee injury), and he had two National League playoff saves. He had two victories, too, because he couldn't get saves, but the Phillies made errors both times.

He has ended two postseason games, including World Series Game 2, with double-play balls. More and more, you understand why Jim Fregosi calls Williams and sees no need to cover his ears. Watching him still beats hitting him.

"I used to be really wild," said Williams, who walked 44 and struck out 60 in 62 innings. "My first year of A ball, I walked seven in a row one time. I kept looking in the dugout, waiting for the manager. Finally I said, 'What, do you think I'm on the verge of figuring this out?'

"But I was a starting pitcher then. Every year I asked them to put me in the bullpen, and every year they turned me down. My ERA was never under 4-something in the minors. If I was a starting pitcher now, I'd weigh 300 pounds. Too much adrenalin. In the end, I told them I'm a guy who can pitch two innings. First two or the last two. Your choice."

"Them" were the San Diego Padres, who traded Williams to Texas for shortstop Randy Asadoor. They were not second-guessed then, nor should they have been. The year before he was dealt, he totaled 165 walks in 132 innings (but just 74 hits). The year before that, he led the California League in walks with 127 (his brother Bruce led the same league in hit batsmen).

"The Padres thought I had a drug problem," Williams said. "That's what they said in the paper, anyway."

But the Rangers had Sandy Johnson, who had signed Williams '' for the Padres. "Just a 140-pound kid out of Oregon with a great arm," Johnson recalled. He knew that no self-respecting drug would dare get near Williams. So Williams had 32 saves in three years for Texas. Mostly, he set up Greg Harris in Texas, in the same way George Bush was Bill Clinton's setup man in Somalia. Not very fair to Harris.

"I was playing for Bobby Valentine, and his idea of a save was one out, man on third," Williams said. "I never got to start my own innings. Plus, I was hyper when I didn't get to pitch. I'm dealing with that better now. But I've had at least 60 appearances each of the last eight years and I've never had a bad arm. I can appear 100 times, easy."

On to the Cubs, where Williams became "The Wild Thing" and had 36 saves in 1989 on the way to the NL East title. He also gave up the playoff-losing single to Will Clark in San Francisco. He was 1-8 with 16 saves in 1990, so call the airport.

"[General manager] Jim Frey didn't like the way I was, didn't like 'The Wild Thing,' " Williams said. "I said, 'Hey, you guys created it.' He also wanted me to throw changeups and curves. When I have to become that kind of pitcher, I'll leave the game."

The Phillies got him for long relievers Bob Scanlan and Chuck McElroy.

"First thing they said was, 'We won't change the way you pitch,' " Williams said. "I said, 'Amen.' "

That was 105 saves ago.

The career numbers are unmistakably his: 654 innings, 492 hits, 492 walks, 620 strikeouts. He has parlayed his book-defying style and his centrifugal delivery into the highest salary on the Phillies ($3.5 million).

His teammates roll their eyes, but they have come to appreciate those Mitch moments as true entertainment, and Lord knows this Series needs some. Leave him alone, like Batman, and he will figure it out. Just in time for the news.

"Nobody can get into the jams he does, and nobody can get out of them, either," rookie shortstop Kevin Stocker said.

How does Williams escape the crocodiles? Well, you can't hit him, you certainly can't bunt him, you can't steal off him -- and the only hitters patient enough to draw four consecutive walks from him are on his own team. Only Don Slaught, Candy Maldonado and Glenallen Hill have homered off Williams in 1993.

"I don't throw as hard as I used to," Williams said. "I still get people out because it's hard to pick up the ball. I hold my hands high and the ball comes out of my uniform. That's also why I lose my balance, because my hands are so high and I'm throwing across my body. But I don't get worried out there. Everybody else does. I don't."

Williams tells us we had better appreciate him, walks and all. He says we will not see him when he retires. Other players also have said that, and become roving minor-league pitching instructors somewhere. Williams hasn't lied to us yet.

"Bought a ranch in Hyco, Texas," Williams said. "That's where I'll be when I quit. I'll have my cattle and I'll work 'em. I don't like to travel that much. In fact, being on the mound and being around my teammates are about the only things I enjoy about the game."

And just what is Hyco close to?

"Hell," Williams said.

Must be right on the edge of it.

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