The sign above the locker-room door in Kissimmee, Fla., reads THROUGH THESE DOORS PASS CHAMPIONS. Actually, through those doors pass comedians.
"So tell me, Mitch," says mock journalist Jeff Bagwell, "what was that last pitch you threw in the ninth inning of the sixth game of the World Series?"
"It was a fastball," says interview subject Mitch Williams, "and Joe Carter hit the——out of it."
"Will the effects of that pitch linger on into this season?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, they will. I'll probably be back on my ranch by July."
So much for the theory that Williams will never get over the pitch he threw to Carter that decided last year's Series. That's the reasoning that prompted the Phillies to trade him to the Astros during the off-season for another disfavored closer, Doug Jones, and starter Jeff Juden. But this spring Wild Thing showed that his psyche is healed and his fastball is back in the 90's; he won't be retiring to the 3 & 2 Ranch in Hico, Texas, any time soon. "New start, new town, new duds," says Williams.
Houston does indeed have new clothes to go with their new closer. The latest logo—a gold star that appears to be going to its left like third baseman Ken Caminiti—is a decided improvement on the Astros' old rainbow color scheme. More significant, Houston also has a new manager, former Pirate coach Terry Collins, who replaces the fired Art Howe.
Whether the fiery, gung ho Collins is an improvement on the quiet, well-liked Howe remains to be seen, but he certainly is a change of pace. The bantamweight Collins wears a T-shirt that says SECOND PLACE IS THE FIRST LOSER, and this season—you read it here first—he will lead the league in ejections.
In the off-season, owner Drayton McLane Jr. told general manager Bob Watson that he wanted the payroll down to about $30 million a year and that he didn't want to keep players who might have been decommissioned by the Boy Scouts. So the Astros lost portly free-agent starter Mark Portugal (18-4, 2.77 ERA) to the Giants and virtually gave away arbitration-bound setup man Xavier Hernandez (101 strikeouts in 96⅖ innings] to the Yankees and mercurial right fielder Eric Anthony (15 homers, 66 RBIs) to the Mariners.
The Astros, consequently, spent the latter part of the spring looking for a third outfielder to go with Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez; they had rookie James Mouton, a Triple A second baseman last year, and minor league third baseman Phil No in chasing fungoes in right. Mouton finally won the starting job.
If McLane and Watson leave well enough alone, the Astros might still have enough talent to win this black-and-blue division. First baseman Bagwell, second baseman Craig Biggio, shortstop Andujar Cedeno and Caminiti make up a very fine infield, and the rotation of Pete Harnisch, Doug Drabek, Darryl Kile and Greg Swindell is still the best in the Central. But as soon as one of the more pricey Astro stalwarts is traded this year—and they will be—Collins can start printing up signs that read THROUGH THESE DOORS PASS FIRST LOSERS.
BEN VAN HOOK
Befittingly, Williams gets a new uniform for his fresh start in Houston.