This year's setting is different, but Wild Thing is still himself

March 04, 1994|By John Harper | John Harper,New York Daily News

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Fresh from terrorizing a TV reporter trying to interview Doug Drabek, Mitch Williams barged into the manager's office for no apparent reason other than to interrupt a press conference and abuse Terry Collins.

The Astros' new manager stands 5-foot-8, a good deal shorter than Williams. Wild Thing points out the presence of relatively short players on the Astros like Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, and demands: "Is there a fine on this team for being over 5-8 or something?"

Collins laughs. Good thing. This is the way they did it in Philly, where Jim Fregosi was as much a bouncer as manager, and Mitch Williams is not about to change, even if he did give up The Home Run.

Even if he did get run out of Philly for that fateful pitch.

From the moment Joe Carter's home run ended the World Series in October, Williams has handled the role of goat with a poise and class that clashed with his image as the scruffy Wild Thing.

He fielded all the questions that night in Toronto. In the following weeks he shrugged at the death threats, said he wanted to stay in Philly. When he was traded anyway, he said thanks to Phillies' fans for their support over the years.

And now, as writers and TV crews all too regularly search him out here in central Florida, Williams still looks you right in the eye and answers for his celebrated failure.

"I may go down in history as a guy who gave up the home run that lost the World Series," Williams said Wednesday, "but I'll also go down as a guy who gave everything he had every time he went out there.

"To me that's more important. That's why I have no problem living with it."

It is hard to believe he was not haunted in some way this winter. He says there were no sleepless nights, swears there were no flashbacks. A few minutes in the Astros' clubhouse, however, and it's tough to doubt him.

You would never guess Williams is new to this team, that's for sure. It is a loud, loose locker room, reminiscent of the Mets in the '80s, and Williams seems to be at the center of it all, giving and taking the needle, going from locker to locker the other day to organize a post-workout get-together.

A couple of days of such observation convinced Mel Stottlemyre, who has landed here as pitching coach after the New York Mets let him go, there was no need to engage Williams in discussion about October.

"I felt I had something in common with him," Stottlemyre said. "I lost Game 7 of the 1964 World Series for the Yankees. I came here ready to talk to Mitch if I thought it was necessary. But I haven't seen any lingering effects."

Stottlemyre laughs; this was meant as understatement. Still, you wonder.

The label isn't going to go away, as other infamous goats like Bill Buckner and Ralph Branca have found out over the years. That may be the real test. Will it get to Williams eventually, the way it finally forced Buckner to move out of Boston, seven years after the ground ball trickled through his legs?

That's what the Phils thought when they traded him in December. Other players, notably Lenny Dykstra, had said publicly it was a deal the team had to make for the good of Williams and the club. Williams still wishes he had been given another chance.

"I still don't think the trade was necessary," he said. "Nobody hated losing that game more than me. I don't care if it's dominoes, I want to win. But it was baseball. Once it was over, it was over.

"I have no problem with the fans in Philadelphia. The death threats. . . when people make threats on your life, to me that means they gambled and probably lost more than a game. But if fans wanted to boo me, I've never had a problem with that. They pay good money to see a good performance, and when they don't get it, they let you know. That's the way it should be."

With that in mind, the lefthander comes to the Astros with no intention of being anything but the Wild Thing he was in Philly: arms and legs flying, sure of nothing except that he'll throw the ball hard.

"I've had people try and change me from Day 1," he said. "I'm looking forward to getting back out there. When it's not good enough, I'll pack up and go home."

Off the field, the same rules seem to apply. Turns out that Williams marched into Terry Collins' office not just to insult his manager but to lobby for the return of his beard. He shaved before spring training to adhere to owner Drayton McLane's rule, but Williams was imploring Collins to take up his case.

"Tell them that when they traded for me," said Williams, "they traded for all of me."

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