The Scariest Man in Baseball
Mitch Williams laughs when he recalls the first batting practice he threw in a major league camp, in 1985 as a Ranger. "I was everywhere," he says. "Any pitch was liable to miss the cage entirely. The first pitch I threw hit Alan Bannister. He said, "That's enough,' and walked out."
Not much has changed with Williams, who is now the Phillies' closer. His control has improved somewhat, but when we asked a number of players from every team to name the scariest pitcher they've faced—or at least the one who makes them feel the most uncomfortable—Williams was the one most frequently mentioned. Of the 90 responses we received, Williams got 26 votes, followed by Cincinnati's Rob Dibble with 22 and Seattle's Randy Johnson (page 46) with 13. "I love it that hitters don't want to face me," says Williams. "When a hitter is up there thinking about nothing but hitting, there's a good chance he's going to get a hit."
Because of Williams's wild-ness, his 90-plus-mph fastball, his no-look, stumble-off-the-mound delivery and his love of pitching inside, hitters "pretty much think safety-first against him," says Cub first baseman Mark Grace, a former teammate. Says Mariners outfielder Henry Cotto, "He can kill you, man. You never dig in against him unless you're a fool." And a National League hitter, who requests anonymity, says, "He's as liable to hit the Phillie Phanatic as he is to hit you."
Adds Seattle first baseman Pete O'Brien, another former teammate, "I remember when Mitch came in to pitch against the Orioles in 1986, and he hit three of the first five batters he faced. It was a procession from the dugout to the plate to the training room."
Says Braves first baseman Sid Bream, "He has no problem knocking you down." When Williams hit Pittsburgh's Barry Bonds on April 18, Bonds yelled at him and then blasted Williams in the press for having thrown at him. "The thing that annoys me is when I hit a guy, he wants to charge the mound or talk garbage," says Williams. "Getting hit is part of the game. It has been for a hundred years. Some hitters act like it's illegal to pitch inside."
Our poll also unearthed some interesting sidelights. The Rangers' Nolan Ryan was named quite a few times. He's the best-liked, most-revered player in the game, but he has a reputation among hitters for brushing back anyone he thinks has shown him up. "The more you dig in, the more ticked off he gets," says Giants second baseman Robby Thompson.
Former Royals second baseman Terry Shumpert, who was sent to the minors last week, says of Ryan, "He's the kind of guy who, if you get a good swing off him or you do something he doesn't like, wants to throw at you. Instead of being the great pitcher he's supposed to be and challenging you and trying to get you out, he wants to brush you back as some sort of intimidation factor. It puts you in a position where you don't know what to do. He's Nolan Ryan. Do you know of anybody who ever charged the mound on him?"
The most surprising name to surface in the poll was Gibson Alba, a longtime minor league lefthander who's now out of baseball. Baltimore's Sam Horn, Brady Anderson and Randy Milligan all spoke in almost reverential tones about Alba, whom they faced in the minors in the mid-1980s. "He was probably the scariest guy ever." Horn says. "He threw about 100 miles per hour, he threw sidearm, and he never looked at the plate."
Says Milligan, "He was the hardest-, wildest-throwing lefty ever to live on the planet. He's the only lefty I've ever feared. When I used to get in there, I wouldn't put my spikes in the dirt."
The Fall of Oz
The loss of shortstop Ozzie Guillen, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on April 21, will undoubtedly hurt the White Sox. But his replacement, Craig Grebeck, is "one of the most underrated players in the league," according to Rangers manager Bobby Valentine. Tiger manager Sparky Anderson, another Grebeck fan, says, "I love him. He's better offensively [than Guillen]." One clue to Grebeck's value: This spring he and pitcher Wilson Alvarez were the White Sox players most often inquired about by teams looking to deal with Chicago.
White Sox manager Gene Lamont says Grebeck was the best utility infielder in baseball last year. Grebeck also showed surprising pop at the plate—he hit .281 with six homers in 224 at bats. Still, questions remain about his ability to play every day because, at 5'7", 147 pounds, he is the American League's smallest player. Overcoming doubts is old hat for Grebeck. "It's tough even to get signed when you're small," he says. "Scouts don't want to sign you because they're afraid of making a mistake. But I don't consider myself small; I think of myself like I'm six-foot-one."
Those who think Grebeck's durability could be a problem should keep in mind that Guillen weighs only 150 pounds and had been one of the most durable players in the game before his collision with leftfielder Tim Raines knocked him out for the year. Guillen played at least 149 games in each of the past seven seasons.
Jones Is Keeping Up
A big reason that the Astros were atop the National League West at week's end was the work of closer Doug Jones, 34, whose career has been suddenly revived. He was 1-0 with a 1.15 ERA, six saves and 20 strikeouts in 15⅖ innings for the season. Jones, who is the Indians' all-time save leader, was not tendered a contract by Cleveland after last season, during which he had only seven saves in 32 relief appearances and was sent down to Triple A Colorado Springs for 6½ weeks. The Indians balked at Jones's $2 million-per-year contract, so he signed a minor league contract with Houston in the offseason, and he will be paid $750,000 this year.
"I told Art [Howe, the Astros' manager] this spring that Doug would be the best find of '92," says Sparky Anderson. "We really wanted him. He's got good stuff. They're not going to hit that changeup in that league. He'll make the All-Star team."
Jones saved 112 games as the Indians' closer from 1988 to '90 but was hit hard (6.67 ERA) in the first half of '91 before getting sent down to the minors. When he returned, he was put in the starting rotation. He was 3-1 with a 3.66 ERA and one save in five appearances, four of them starts.
"People said I lost my changeup, but I didn't lose my changeup; I just lost work," says Jones. "At the beginning of last year we had a tough time getting a lead. Late in games I was told not to throw, not to get my work in, because I might be needed in the game. I lost arm strength, my velocity went down, and my sharpness went. When I went to Colorado Springs, I threw every day for two weeks."
Jones said he picked the Astros over the A's, who also wanted him, because Houston has a young team and was looking for an experienced pitcher to help its young staff. "Apparently some veterans here were reluctant to share with the younger players their abilities and techniques," says Jones. "I like doing that."
Jones was excited by the Astros' 10-8 record through Sunday. "They're a couple of steps ahead of Cleveland in building a team," he says. "They've got a nucleus. It's neat to see the attitude here. There are no bad apples, and everyone tries to help one another."
Without a doubt, the best-throwing catcher in the American League is Pudge Rodriguez of Texas. "He still amazes me," says Rangers infielder Jeff Huson. "Some of his throws handcuff me. I expect them to sink when they get to the bag, then they sail. He throws so hard, I don't even like to play catch with him." Through Sunday, Rodriguez had gunned down 10 of the 12 runners who had tried to steal on him this season....
On a recent flight the Indians were welcomed on board over the plane's public-address system by a member of the crew who called them the Cleveland Chiefs....
The fistfight that erupted on April 18 between St. Louis teammates Pedro Guerrero and Todd Worrell, because Guerrero had invited Cub outfielder Sammy Sosa into the Cardinals' clubhouse after a game, was understandable. Opposing players are far too friendly these days. Cardinals manager Joe Torre tells of the time he made the National League All-Star team in 1967 while playing for the Braves. After the game Torre tried to talk to St. Louis pitcher Bob Gibson in the shower. Gibson ignored him because Torre played for another team. Torre says the Dodgers' Don Drysdale was the same way. "I knew he was getting ready to retire when he said hello to me at the batting cage before a game one day," says Torre.
According to our poll, batters fear the out-of-control Williams more than any other pitcher.
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April 30, 1977: The Dodgers' Ron Cey hits a seventh-inning homer against the Expos that gives him 29 RBIs in April, a major league record for the month.
Between The Lines
A Crash Landing
You can't help but think of Crash Davis, the journeyman catcher played by Kevin Costner in the movie Bull Durham, when you consider Doug Davis, a 29-year-old catcher who the Rangers called up from Triple A Oklahoma City last week. A minor leaguer for 8½ years, Davis got the call because catcher Ivan Rodriguez left to attend his grandfather's funeral. This is Davis's second big league tour; he was 0 for 12 in a two-week stay with California in 1988. Davis was issued uniform number 66, meaning he may not stay up in the majors for long. "You'd think they'd have given me a little lower number," he said, smiling. "But at least I have a number." And he has a hit. Last Thursday he got a single, and he called for the ball afterward. "I'll put that ball and the bat somewhere special," he said.
He May Be onto Something Here
Only three teams in baseball history have started a season with a 1-16 record or worse, and pitcher Mike Boddicker has played for two of them—the '88 Orioles, who lost their first 21 games, and this year's Royals, who were 1-16 before beating Toronto on Sunday night. (The 1907 Brooklyn Dodgers were the third team.) Even Boddicker is starting to wonder. "Do you think it's me?" he asks.
Life in the Fast Lane
The Orioles' most pleasant surprise this season may be the standout play of speedy leftfielder Brady Anderson, who has filled their desperate need for a leadoff man. Through Sunday he was hitting .309 with the second-highest RBI total in the league, 18. That's quite a turnaround for Anderson, who hit .230 with 27 RBIs in 1991. This is how bad things got for him last year. He was in a car with former teammate Rene Gonzalez when a rainstorm hit, making driving dangerous. Gonzalez, though, continued to zoom along at 60 mph. "Gonz, if I wasn't hitting. 178, I'd ask you to slow down," Anderson said.
Tiger catcher Mickey Tettleton had an unusual week at the plate. On April 19 he became the first player to hit a homer over the 25-foot-high rightfield wall at Orioles Park at Camden Yards. The next night he belted another homer that fell only about 25 feet short of reaching the warehouse behind the rightfield wall. (The first player to hit the warehouse wins a car.) On April 22, against an exaggerated shift put on by the Rangers, Tettleton dropped a bunt down the third base line for his first bunt single in five years. "I don't think I'll be breaking that one out again for a while," he said.
He Also Shoots Baskets with a Medicine Ball
Texas second baseman Julio Franco sometimes takes batting practice with the weighted batting doughnut on his bat. "He hits the ball right on the button, to wherever he wants on the field, just like without the doughnut," says Rangers manager Bobby Valentine. "How does he do that?"
By the Numbers
•The next homer for the Mets' Eddie Murray will be number 400. When he gets it, he will become the 15th player in history with at least 400 homers and 2,500 hits. Of the 14 players who have accomplished this feat, 12 are in the Hall of Fame and the other two, Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield, will most likely join them when they become eligible.
•Free-swinging Cubs Shawon Dunston and Sammy Sosa are among the least likely players in the majors to walk, but twice this year Phillie pitcher Tommy Greene has walked them back-to-back to open games.