Oh!" cries Mitch (the pitch) Williams. "A bowling ball!" The young man with the ragged beard, wild hair, Speedy Gonzales tattoo on his leg and flaming, 97-mph, hit-the-deck-or-die fastball is excited. He tears open the box that was delivered to his locker at Wrigley Field before a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. "Hope it's a Rhino," he whispers.
Joy, joy! It is—a shiny, 16-pound black ball with orange lettering and no holes. Williams, the lefthanded reliever for the Chicago Cubs who now leads the National League with 31 saves, gives out a yip. Christmas in June! He lifts the sphere and studies it, explaining where he'll have the holes drilled for his thumb and the tips of his middle and ring fingers. He'll make it just like his other ball, the purple one he takes on road trips to work off his postadolescent energy on something other than terrified batters.
Williams pulls out the purple bowling ball from his locker and offers it to a visitor. The holes are so shallow it's hard to grip the ball, let alone swing it through the air. Somebody rolling this ball down an alley—a lefthander, for God's sake—would be like an ape working the pedals on a delivery truck. Awesome and wild—which Mitch the Pitch is. When he bowls, Williams hurls a whirling speedball that hangs on the left edge of the lane like a yo-yo at the end of its string, then spins madly toward the center of the alley and crashes into the pins. It's the same thing when he pitches.
Mitch says that he throws "like a man with his hair on fire." And it's true. He lifts his right knee up toward his head as if trying to douse the flames with his leg, curls his 6'4", 205-pound body ostrichlike around his glove and unleashes the ball in one of the most out-of-control-looking explosions of vector forces ever seen in the world of high-level sport. After every pitch he careens off to the right of the mound, catching himself with his glove hand before staggering back to an upright position somewhere near the third base line. Throwing hard is one thing, but Williams looks as though he's trying to destroy his rotator cuff with each fling. The whole wild process scares batters half to death. After narrowly avoiding a Williams scorcher in his ear, Pirate centerfielder Andy Van Slyke said, "If everyone were like him, I wouldn't play."
Williams, with his 1.71 ERA and .775 save percentage (31 saves in 40 chances), is a large part of the reason why the Cubs are in first place in the National League East and 18 games over .500 for the first time in five years. Those, of course, are scary enough statistics—step right up, all you Cubbie lovers who need your hearts broken one more time—but, who knows, maybe this really is the year Chicago wins the big one. Forget the near-misses of 1984, 1969, 1945, 1938, 1935, 1932, 1929, 1918, and 1910. Every 81 years a team ought to get lucky, right?
Certainly manager Don Zimmer's boys have been riding a crest of good fortune. Without much of a spark from outfielder Andre Dawson (.245, 14 homers) or a quality fourth starter, the Cubs have been getting just as much as they need from veteran second baseman Ryne Sandberg (.279, 24 homers, 60 RBIs); Rookie of the Year favorite Jerome Walton (.309, 40 RBIs, a 30-game hitting streak); stars-in-the-making Mark Grace (.311, 60 RBIs), Dwight Smith (.299, 40 RBIs) and Lloyd McClendon (.298); and an overachieving pitching staff. With a team ERA of 3.33 and the second-most saves in the majors (45), the Cubs' staff hardly resembles last year's motley crew, which gave up 625 earned runs and finished last in the majors with a .518 save percentage—thanks in part to designated closer Goose Gossage, who blew 10 of his 23 save opportunities. Williams alone already has more saves than the '88 staff, and the Cubs' righthanded closer, Les Lancaster, has three wins, five saves and a 0.96 ERA in the 37⅖ innings he has pitched since getting called up in late June.
Acquired from the Texas Rangers last December in a nine-player deal involving outfielder Rafael Palmeiro, Williams has already shattered the club record for saves in a season by a lefthander (15, set by Darold Knowles in 1975) and is on a pace to beat Bruce Sutter's alltime team record of 37. Palmeiro is doing well for Texas, but, as Zimmer says, "I don't care if Palmeiro is batting .350. With last year's pitching staff we'd be 10 games under .500."
The 24-year-old Williams, whose hero is flame-throwing, scatter-armed pitcher Ricky (Wild Thing) Vaughn played in the movie Major League by Charlie Sheen, has been a nearly perfect mop-up man for the traditionally docile Cubs. Nobody—not the catcher, the batter or Williams himself—knows exactly where the ball is going to go once it leaves his hand. "He's unique," says Zimmer. "You don't read about closers who are wild." And for good reason. They send managers into early retirement.
Consider Williams's debut as a Cub, on Opening Day at Wrigley against the Phillies. Entering the eighth inning with Chicago leading 5-4, Williams walked his first two batters but didn't allow any runs. In the ninth he gave up three hits to load the bases, then whiffed the next three batters.
"I'm 57, and you're hard on my heart," Cub general manager Jim Frey told the pitcher after the game.
"If I've seen him load 'em up and strike 'em out once, I've seen him do it 30 times," added Cub pitcher Paul Kilgus. a teammate of Williams's at Texas. "You'd better drink a lot of milk this season, Zim. Mitch is Ulcer City."
Back in West Linn, Ore., where Williams was the winningest pitcher in state history his senior year of high school—he went 17-0, with 191 strikeouts—his teammates didn't get too many fielding chances. "There were lots of strikeouts and walks when he pitched," recalls San Francisco Giants pitcher Trevor Wilson, who went to nearby Oregon City High School. "I don't see him as the Wild Thing, just as a pitcher who throws the crap out of the ball and sometimes doesn't know where it's going."
Cincinnati manager Pete Rose wore a batting helmet in the dugout after watching Williams walk two batters, hit two and commit a balk in just one inning against the Reds. In 1986, Baltimore manager Earl Weaver saw Williams hit three of the first five Orioles he faced and said, "That guy's more hazardous to your health than cigarettes."
Williams has two pitches: fastball No. 1 and fastball No. 2, both of which could kill the Bull Durham mascot from second base. All of his pitches move, and some take off like a Titan missile with a broken homing device. "His ball runs away from righthanders," says Frey. "And I think lefthanders would rather have a root canal than face him."
"I throw a whole bunch of fastballs," Williams admits, adding that some batters just stand in the box waiting for him to prove he can throw a strike. Two years ago in a game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, Williams was called in with the score tied 6-6 in the eighth and the go-ahead run on first. He walked the first two batters, loading the bases. Then Wade Boggs came up with his bat almost rooted to his shoulder. As Boggs watched four balls go by to bring in the winning run, Williams yelled, "Swing the bat, you——!"
Amazingly, Williams was even wilder in the minor leagues. He was drafted in the eighth round out of West Linn High School, by the Padres in 1982. Two-and-a-half years later, he was acquired by the Rangers in the minor league deal. "The Padres thought I was a drug addict," says Williams. "They didn't think anyone sober could be that wild."
He recalls the time in the Class A Northwest League when he walked seven straight batters, and his manager left him in because, as Williams puts it, "I was starting to look better." Early on, he says, "I played a lot of catch with catchers, backstops, fans, whatever. In Salem, Virginia, one time I had a guy on third and I threw back-to-back pitches off the wall behind home plate. It was a cement wall and I fielded the ball each time, and the guy couldn't score."
In the stands at Wrigley now is Williams's wife, Dee, and her six-year-old daughter, Lindsey. They watch as Wild Thing marches in from the bullpen with the Cubs ahead 1-0 in the eighth. Dee is 34, ten years older than Williams, and she also has a 14-year-old son, Jamie, from her previous marriage. She and Williams have been married for 1½ years, and at times. Dee says, it seems as though she has two sons. "Patience is not Mitch's greatest virtue," she explains. " Wild, Impulsive Thing should be his song."
The Cub starter, righthander Mike Bielecki, walks off leaving two men on with two out and Van Slyke coming to the plate. The Cubs' organist plays Thriller as Williams warms up. At the start of the season, his theme song was Wild Thing, but pitching coach Dick Pole got it changed because it underscored Mitch's control problem.
Unfortunately, Williams pitches like Daffy Duck today. Van Slyke singles, scoring a run, and third baseman Bobby Bonilla follows with a triple for two more. The Cubs lose 3-1, and Williams is disgusted with himself. But at least he got to pitch. For him, the only thing worse than stinking the place up is having to sit and watch.
Williams began in the minors as a starting pitcher, and the wait between games almost did him in. "The biggest misconception in baseball is that you come in at 18 and you gotta get in as many innings as possible," says Williams. "But it's not the innings that affected me, it's how many times I got into the game, how many times I got to deal with the adrenaline. I'd be going 90 miles a minute, and it's better to deal with that 80 times a year than 26."
After spending four years in the minors as a starter, with a 28-36 record and a career 5.19 ERA, Williams was rescued by Texas pitching coach Tom House, who realized that the youngster was a 45-rpm record being played at 33‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® and sent him to the bullpen. In his three years with Texas, Williams made 232 appearances, including a major league rookie record of 80 in 1986, going 8-6 with a 3.58 ERA and eight saves. This year he's on schedule to appear in almost 80 games, which should keep him under control until the playoffs. "I live to pitch," Williams says, in case anyone has any doubts.
Williams's father, Geoff, a machinist, and his mother, Larrie, divorced when Mitch was 12. Mitch and his older brother, Bruce, who pitched for a time in the minors, lived with their dad, while the youngest son, Scott, resided with both parents. All the male Williamses have tattoos and are, according to Mitch, fun-loving guys. "Our family has never been accused of being all there," Williams has said. Indeed, there are those who would say that Mitch the Pitch was basically separated from his brain during the early part of his career.
Williams acknowledges that he's not the smartest guy in the world. When he snapped his elbow in American Legion ball before his senior year in high school, he kept on throwing because he knew baseball was his only hope for a shot at the good life. "They said it was only a strain, so I figured I could pitch through it," he says. "I knew I wasn't gonna get an academic scholarship anywhere. I wasn't gonna end up a brain surgeon." But the bones in his elbow were separated and it took an operation and a six-inch screw to put his left arm back together. "I had the surgery on October 5, 1981, had the screw taken out on January 5 and pitched the first game of the season on March 13," he says proudly.
Mitch is tough. Cub TV announcer Steve Stone says that "his greatest attribute is that he is absolutely fearless." But at Texas, Williams wasn't much loved for his me-first attitude. "He gives off a personality, that tees you off," said Ranger pitcher Charlie Hough. "When you first see him, you have a tendency to hate him."
Williams's inclination to pout turned off the rest of the Rangers' pitching staff. "I think maturity was the thing he needed," said Texas reliever Jeff Russell, whom Williams once accused of having no guts. "I don't think he had a right to do that, no matter what he accomplished on the field. The one time that sticks out was when Craig McMurtry pitched unbelievable [to earn a save] and Mitch didn't say a word to him because Mitch was upset about not getting into the game. He showered real quick and stormed out. When you see a guy moping around when you are ready to go in, it takes a lot of confidence away."
"A lot of pitchers have been emotional, but there's a difference between being emotional and being a jerk," said Texas manager Bobby Valentine. "The hang-up in dealing with Mitch is not whether or not he can get the batter out. It's whether it's worth the problem."
Time to move on, Wild Thing.
Williams has since patched things up with Russell and has worked hard at trying to mature generally. Zimmer has helped by giving him lots of work. "I understand he needs to pitch," says Zimmer. "And if I haven't used him for a while, it dawns on me to put him in. But I can't get all wrapped around Mitch Williams. I don't care if he's happy, but if using him makes him more successful, then I'll do it."
Thanks to his and the Cubs' success, Williams is reasonably happy these days. "I love his humor," says Dee, who met the pitcher at a party in Arlington, Texas, and tried to fix him up with younger women before falling for him herself. "He's great with the kids. He'll say, 'Look over there,' and steal your food, or 'Smell this,' and do something funny to your nose."
"That beard of his," says Cub pitcher Pat Perry. "I told him he looked like a Quaker yesterday. But he seems to be pretty proud of it." Williams shaves the patchy whiskers after every 11 saves, saying he would like to shave four times this season. "He tells me I'm goofy," says Perry, "and that scares me."
In July, Williams played in his first All-Star Game, coming on in relief in the eighth inning. He walked the first batter, former teammate Ruben Sierra, on four pitches, then picked him off first before retiring Steve Sax and Mickey Tettleton. That was a big moment for Williams, but in the following weeks he found himself being pulled out and replaced by Lancaster in save situations. On July 22, after a joyous 5-2 win over the Giants at Wrigley Field in which Lancaster gets the save and Williams only gets to warm up, it looks as if Wild Thing is ready to detonate. Everybody on the team swarms into the clubhouse lounge to watch third baseman Vance Law on national TV. Dawson had smashed a shaving-cream pie into Law's face, and Law is trying valiantly to talk to the interviewer through a coating of white muck. The players howl, but Williams is not with them. He has dressed fast and is headed off to Marigold Arcade, a bowling alley a few blocks from the field. He needs therapy.
"He really needed to pitch today," says Dee, looking sadly at her man. "I've never seen anybody who needs to pitch as much as him."
"Yeah, I'm going nuts," says Williams as he bombs one down the lane. "But since Lester came up, he's been pitching so good...."
Williams has left the 7-pin standing. He switches the ball to his right hand and heaves a moving fastball that sails into the left gutter, bounces out and slips the pin for a spare. This is helping somewhat. "Warming up isn't the same as going in," he says. "I need opportunities."
Lindsey gets her finger squashed between two balls and starts to cry. Williams picks her up and rocks her gently. Things seem to fall into perspective as he cradles her. "I have two of the best kids in the world," Williams has said earlier. "They both call me Dad, and that, to me, is like a dream come true."
Against the Pirates two weeks later, Williams gets all the work he can handle. In the ninth inning, he is hit in the head by a screaming liner off first baseman Jeff King's bat and crumples to the ground in pain. After a few seconds, however, he gets to his feet and declares himself fit to pitch. But Zimmer takes him out, anyway. Later, in the clubhouse, Williams insists the blow was no big deal. "I've been hit in the head with other objects before," he says. "I was hit in the head repeatedly by my brother."
The work has made him whole again; his humor has returned. But goodness, wasn't he knocked unconscious by the line drive?
"Not that I know of," says the lefthander.
Pitching isn't brain surgery. And ain't that a sweet thing.
TAKE THAT, MITCH
"A lot of pitchers have been emotional, but there's a difference between being emotional and being a jerk."
"He gives off a personality that tees you off. When you first see him you have a tendency to hate him."
"That guy's more hazardous to your health than cigarettes."
ANDY VAN SLYKE
"If everyone were like him, I wouldn't play."