Less than 48 hours after he learned that threats had been made on his life, Philadelphia Phillie closer Mitch Williams was slinging the ball from all angles in a riotous game of catch with teammate Roger Mason and telling hilarious tales about his habitual control difficulties. If something was bothering this man two hours before Game 6 of the World Series, you would never have known it.
Police informed Williams of the death threats when he arrived home at 2 a.m. last Friday after the Phillies' 2-0 victory in Game 5. One caller, apparently distraught because Williams had given up the final three runs in a furious Toronto comeback that Game 5. One caller, apparently distraught because Williams had given up the final three runs in a furious Toronto comeback that gave the Blue Jays their improbable 15-14 win in Game 4, had phoned the Phillies during Game 5 and made a threat, seemingly determined to keep Williams from getting into the game and blowing another lead.
"I was scared. I stayed up until 8 a.m., walking around, holding my gun like this," he said, making a pistol with his right thumb and forefinger, placing it next to his ear and pointing it skyward. "But I couldn't hit anything with that thing. If I had to shoot, I'd let. my fiancèe do it."
Then he laughed. In his role as a major league closer, Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams sees plenty of adversity. He steps into panic situations and tries to rescue his team, and. even if he gets beat, he gets on with his life. Thank goodness. For Williams is now among the most famous goats in baseball history, joining two Ralphs as men marked for life by the home runs they gave up: the Brooklyn Dodgers' Ralph Branca, who served up the homer that the New York Giants' Bobby Thomson hit to decide the 1951 National League playoffs, and the New York Yankees' Ralph Terry, who threw the one that Bill Mazeroski hit in Game 7 to win the '60 World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates. And joining that list now is Williams, who gave up the Series-ending homer to Joe Carter last Saturday night.
While the blown save in Game 4 came in what, for Phillie fans, was one of the most excruciating losses imaginable, it was nothing compared with the decisive loss in Game 6. Summoned to protect a 6-5 lead in the ninth, Williams walked Rickey Henderson on four pitches, got Devon White to fly out and then gave up a single to Paul Molitor. "We were hoping he would come in," Henderson said. "Maybe he would walk a couple guys, and someone would come up with a big hit-and that's what happened."
After Carter swung and missed on a slider to make the count, 2 and 2, Philly catcher Darren Daulton called for another slider. But Williams shook him off and threw a fastball that was supposed to be away from the batter. Instead, the pitch came in on Carter, who drilled it over the leftfield fence. Never before had a pitcher given up a home run that simultaneously erased a deficit and ended the World Series.
As the SkyDome exploded in celebration, Williams walked slowly off the mound, went into the clubhouse, sat at his locker and stared at the floor. He didn't throw anything, he didn't scream, he didn't cry. "He was very composed," said Phillie pitcher Larry Andersen. "He said, 'I made him [Carter] look so bad with the slider. Why didn't I throw another one?' " When the media was allowed in 15 minutes after the game, Williams looked at Andersen and said, "It's time to face the music."
And so he did. "Don't come to my locker and expect excuses," Williams told reporters. "I don't make excuses. I blew two games in the World Series. I feel terrible for letting my teammates down. But sulking doesn't bring the ball back over the fence. Life's a bitch. I could be digging ditches. But I'm not."
No, he's the closer for the National League champions, a pitcher who made good on a club-record 43 saves in 51 save opportunities this season. He has always performed without a net, torturing teammates and fans with great escapes from jams he usually created himself. "I used to get nervous when he came in, but I learned to relax because he almost always gets it done," said Andersen. "It's a wild ride, but you enjoy the show." The fans in Philadelphia didn't always appreciate his methods, however, and they occasionally booed and jeered him during the season. Yet Williams remained undaunted.
Before Game 4 he gave another Phillie pitcher, Curt Schilling, a button that read I SURVIVED WATCHING MITCH PITCH. Manager Jim Fregosi says he has ulcers because of Williams. After one miraculous escape this year, Phillie first baseman John Kruk said, "I was going to kill him, but they told me I couldn't because it was illegal." Then, after Williams blew Game 4, someone really did threaten to kill him.
"That had nothing to do with tonight," Williams said after Game 6. "I blew it. Ain't nobody in this world feels worse right now than I do. When someone threatens my life, it doesn't make me feel worse than I feel now. No one's going to scare me. No one will make me hide. I'm proud of what I've done."
According to Williams, 28, his wildness has infuriated people since he and his older brother Bruce-a former minor league pitcher who, in his six-year career, was even wilder than Mitch- played catch in the front yard as kids. "Mothers would scream to their kids, 'Get in the house, the Williams boys are playing catch!' " said Mitch. "We broke a lot of windows."
The Texas Rangers acquired Mitch from the San Diego Padres in 1985, but in his first major league camp that year, he hit so many teammates in batting practice that they refused to hit against him. Later that spring a number of veterans pleaded with manager Doug Rader to keep Williams off the team for fear that one of his pitches might seriously hurt someone, prompting opposing pitchers to retaliate against Ranger batters.
Williams reached the majors in '86, but he was so wild that he once hit three of the first five Baltimore Oriole batters he faced. Yet through all the walks and hit batsmen, the bad outings and the booing he took first in Texas, then while with the Chicago Cubs (1989-90) and since '91 with the Phillies, Williams has always taken the ball. He has never complained. He has bounced back with strong outings after blown saves. But Game 6 represented the ultimate blown save for the Wild Thing.
Williams said he will forget about Game 6 "in no time," but fans will undoubtedly remind him about it for the rest of his life. "I wouldn't wish what happened to Mitch on my worst enemy," said Schilling. "Think of what's going to be heaped on him."
Williams approaches that prospect with an attitude befitting a big league closer. "If anyone in this room can deal with it," he said, "I'm the one."
RONALD C. MODRA
Williams turned a lead into a loss for the ages.
Schilling couldn't bear to look whenever Wild Thing was pitching.