Day 94: Mitch Williams & The Agony Of Defeat

originally published April 3, 2012

As we all know, it is mandated by law that every American boy grows up dreaming of wanting to play professional baseball, just as it is written that every Canadian boy must dream of becoming a professional hockey player. As a lifelong rule-breaker, I instead grew up with aspirations of writing a thousand words a day for absolutely no money. The authorities are still after me for that one.

Growing up to realize your dream is not always a cavalcade of confetti, parades and keys to various cities you’d never be caught dead visiting, even if they have a really, really good Denny’s. Just ask Mitch Williams.

Williams was drafted by the San Diego Padres fresh out of high school in 1982. The Texas Rangers snapped him up in 1985, and there he acquired his nickname ‘Wild Thing’. You may remember this as being the nickname of Charlie Sheen’s character in the film Major League – this is because both pitchers were known for their erratic, extremely physical wind up and throwing style, and their penchant for sending pitches on unpredictable trajectories, often nowhere near home plate.

I don’t want to suggest that Williams was cursed with a comical and/or potentially lethal inaccuracy – players like that only get to make a living playing baseball in movies. But his manic style did lead to some wayward tosses; unfortunately, Major League Baseball is downright rectal about keeping their videos off Youtube, so I can’t offer an example.

“Wild Thing” was a nickname coincidence. When Williams would walk onto the field, the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” would play to the stadium; I can’t remember if Sheen’s character used to get the same treatment, and because Paramount is just as litigious as Major League Baseball, I’ll have to wait until someone who remembers the movie better than I can verify this for me.

Williams was a relief pitcher, which drops him squarely onto that precipice of being either hero or goat at the end of a game. He was something to watch: not only flailing his body like a sock-monkey when he pitched, but notoriously sharp at picking off runners at first and second base due to his pre-pitch stance of tucking his head down.

In 1989, now a Chicago Cub, Williams had the best year of his career, throwing 67 strikeouts and racking up 36 saves. He went to the All-Star game and helped the Cubs win their division. In the decisive playoff game against the San Francisco Giants, tied at 1-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Williams pitched a perfect ball to Giants’ first baseman Will Clark. Clark connected with a line drive to bring home two runs and send the Cubs moping into the off-season. Williams was removed from the game, and he dejectedly threw a towel over his head in the dugout.

He hung on for one more year in Chicago before being traded to Philadelphia and starting anew. He started out with a good year in 1991, but there was no consistency in the quality of his play. Still, by 1993, the year the Phillies had a genuine championship-worthy team, he was chosen to be the team’s closer in the World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

I was not a big baseball fan in the early 90s, but when Toronto made it to the World Series, the entire nation took notice. We were just about to embark on a yet-unbroken streak of never ever winning a Stanley Cup championship with one of our Canadian teams, so this could be a pre-emptive strike of fair play. Every Canadian became a baseball fan that October.

Mitch Williams was sent in for relief in game 2, and he pulled out a win to tie the series. In game 4, Philadelphia held a solid 14-9 lead going into the eighth inning. Williams was pitching again, and he let six runs score.

Six runs. Final score: 15-14 for Toronto. Two confirmed death threats were phoned in that night to Veterans Stadium. Toronto took a 3-1 lead in the series. The Phillies’ Curt Schilling pitched a shutout for Philly in the next game, but in game 6 he was spotted with a towel over his head in the dugout. Not from shame, like Williams in ’89, but in fear. Williams was back on the mound, and Schilling was nervous.

Schilling had done this before in the series – in fact, some of his teammates had taken to mimicking the gesture in order to draw attention away from it. But Schilling was right to be nervous in game 6.

In the seventh inning, Philadelphia scored five runs to take a 6-5 lead. Williams was called in to finish the game out. Soon it was the bottom of the ninth, two men on base, one man out, 2-2 count. Williams pitches to Joe Carter, and…

The following year, Mitch Williams was playing with the Houston Astros. His career was over just a few years later.

Mitch was repentant, but he made no excuses. After a few more seasons had drifted under the proverbial bridge, the people of Philadelphia came to forgive Wild Thing, and in 1996 he opened up a bowling alley, adopting Philly as his home. With the ’96 All-Star game being played in Philadelphia, the network broadcasting the game thought it would be fun to pit Williams against Carter once more – but in the bowling alley.

Williams was happy with this shot at redemption; he’d been wearing rented shoes for months, playing at his own establishment every day. He could finally bring home a little Philly pride with this stunt.

Except that, for his first shot (or roll, or heave, or whatever the correct term is in bowling-speak), Joe Carter spun around and launched the ball backwards between his legs. And he rolled a strike. Yeah, he was a great bowler too.

Okay, so Mitch didn’t win that one either. But he’s since gone into broadcasting, and is currently a regular talking head on the MLB Network. What has Joe Carter done? He went into broadcasting too, but by 2002 that career was over. Now, I don’t know what he’s doing.

But I bet he doesn’t have his own brand of salsa.

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