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Williams still ‘Wild Thing’

Tue., June 23, 2009

Former Phillie now on MLB Network

OK, once and for all, who was “Wild Thing” first: Mitch Williams or Charlie Sheen? Well, consider that in his debut as closer of the Chicago Cubs in 1989, Williams gave up two walks and three hits and committed a balk – yet still didn’t surrender a run in saving a 5-4 victory.

It was three days later that “Major League” hit movie theaters, featuring Sheen as the jailbird reliever with the zigzag haircut who entered games with the punk band X’s cover of the old Troggs hit blasting over loudspeakers.

Naturally, the movie was in production long before that.

But so was Mitch Williams.

His Wild Thing persona actually got its launch in the Northwest League, including a season in Spokane in 1983. He was, in fact, the first of the Indians in the post-Triple-A era to reach the major leagues and remains the most famous – or notorious – thanks to his mullet, helicopter-crash delivery, 192 cliffhanger saves and, yes, the ninth-inning fastball Joe Carter deposited in the left-field seats to snatch the 1993 World Series from Williams and the Philadelphia Phillies.

That pitch put Williams in the pantheon of Philly goats. He received death threats after an earlier blown save in the Series, so what happened after Game 6 – hooligans egging and stoning his house – seemed relatively tame.

“Didn’t bother me that much,” Williams said. “I was renting.”

Yet today he is regarded as something of a civic treasure, loved for his humor and candor on radio and Phillies post-game TV work – duties that led to his current gig as a studio analyst on the new MLB Network, where some of his Wild Thingness still pops up. On a recent telecast, he ranked the game’s top five closers – leaving off all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman.

“If I got a hit off you,” Williams proclaimed, “you ain’t making the list.”

So how do you go from pariah to prophet in such a hard town?

“The people in Philly appreciated that I didn’t run off and hide,” he said. “I was on the mound when we lost. It wasn’t something I was ashamed of. I don’t understand guys who are willing to talk about themselves when everything is going great and duck the media when things go bad.”

Williams grew some hard bark at a young age. He signed with the San Diego Padres at 17, pitching in Walla Walla in 1982. He wound up back in Spokane the next June after a rough two months in the California League.

“I wasn’t mad,” he said. “Hell, when you’re 1-7, you’ll go anywhere.”

Which, of course, is possible in the Northwest League.

“The bus ride to Bellingham – I had to have knee surgery after that,” he recalled. “Ten-hour ride and I was pitching that night. I walked off the bus, laid down on the bed in the really nice flea-ridden motel they had us in and went to straighten out my legs and the right one wouldn’t straighten. So I kicked it out and pitched that night. I’m walking to the Burger King after the game and my jeans felt really tight around the knee. It had just blown up.”

And Spokane? Mostly he remembers his manager.

“Eddie Olsen,” Williams said. “The most unfriendly man I’ve ever met in my life.”

A real drill sergeant?

“There were drill sergeants he scared the crap out of,” he said.

The Padres gave up trying to harness his wildness after three years (“they thought I was a drug addict – they didn’t think anyone sober could be that wild,” he once told Sports Illustrated) and traded him to the Rangers, who found a use for him.

“If I had a bad start and you gave me four days to think about it, I could figure out how to screw up the next one,” Williams said. “I kept telling them, I could go two innings – ‘The first two or the last two, you choose.’ ”

Any inning he pitched was an adventure. But after Carter’s homer, they were simply disasters. Weighing public opinion and an ugly rift with ace Curt Schilling, the Phillies decided they couldn’t bring him back and traded him to Houston – “after my best year,” he said. “I knew it would never be that fun again.” Calamitous stops with the Angels and Royals followed before he retired. He made a brief comeback in the independent Atlantic League as a player, coach and manager – but could never get a sniff with a major league organization.

“Shockingly enough, teams are hesitant to hire a guy with the nickname ‘Wild Thing’ to work with pitchers,” he said. “It’s like having the nickname ‘Robber’ and trying to get hired by a bank.”

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