On may 31, at about the time that the Houston Astros were announcing his release, pitcher Mitch Williams was sitting on the tailgate of his pickup truck some 215 miles away at his mother's home in Hico, Texas, wearing work boots, no shirt, short pants and a long face. The life was gone from his eyes, and he rarely smiled. Two months with the Astros, he said, "sucked out of me the desire to pitch. I swear to god, all I wanted to do when I got to the ballpark was sleep."
Wild Thing, always known for being upbeat, was now just beat up. He was a long way from being the excitable kid who, as a first-year pro with Class A Walla Walla in 1982, stood in full uniform at noon one day and started throwing a ball against the side of a hotel because he couldn't wait to get to the ballpark for a 7:30 p.m. game.
So much had changed even since last Oct. 23, when Williams played a riotous game of catch with Philadelphia Phillie teammate Roger Mason before Game 6 of the World Series in Toronto. Three nights earlier, in Game 4, Williams had given up the decisive runs as the Phillies blew a five-run, eighth-inning lead and lost to the Blue Jays 15-14. It was a defeat so devastating for Phillie fans that several of them made threats against the pitcher's life, one of the threats coming by telephone during Game 5, causing Williams to stay up all that night in his New Jersey home with a gun in his hand. Yet there he was at the SkyDome before Game 6, seemingly without a care, throwing sidearm, behind his back, between his legs. Baseball—simply competing—was so important to him. Nothing, it seemed, could suck the desire to pitch from this man.
"Baseball used to be important," Williams said, sitting on the tailgate, as the sun beat down on his bare back and right shoulder tattooed with the image of a cartoon Tasmanian devil and the words WILD THING. "My heart and my head aren't in it. I'm humiliating myself and the game. It's the first time I've ever gone to the ballpark and not cared about getting the ball, or anything. I don't want a baseball uniform on if I'm going to feel that way. I won't pitch again this summer."
This is an amazing crash-and-burn story. Eight months ago Williams was the closer for the National League champs, a 43-save man during the regular season. He couldn't imagine doing anything in the world other than pitching in the heat of the ninth inning. He was 28 years old, a central character in the wackiest clubhouse in sports, where, as he put it, "everyone in here is as screwed up as I am." The Phillies understood him and, for the most part, tolerated his idiosyncracies. But now Williams was home in Hico (pop. 1,352), talking about spending the summer on his 600-acre ranch and tending to his horses, chickens and cows. "I'll be enjoying life," he said.
Without baseball? Surely he will change his mind about not wanting to pitch again this summer. "No way," he says. In fact, Williams told agent Alan Hendricks not to call teams to solicit work for him, and if any team called Hendricks, to say he wasn't interested. For the first time in Williams's life, he is turning his back on the game. And that is odd, considering all of the challenges he has already faced up to: the opposing coach who wanted to fight him after he hit three straight batters in a high school game; the countless doubters who said he was too wild a pitcher to ever make it to the majors; the Texas Ranger teammates who in 1985 wouldn't hit against him in spring training and begged management to get rid of him because his errant pitches were so dangerous; the fans who booed him whenever he gave up a lead in the ninth for the Rangers, then the Chicago Cubs, then the Phils. "I've spent my entire life trying to prove people wrong," he says.
But the situation in Houston this year was different. When the Astros took away his job as closer, they, in essence, stripped Williams of his self-esteem. And instead of fighting back as he had done before, instead of trying to reclaim his job from rookie John Hudek, he went home to Hico. Officially, Houston released Williams; but in effect he cut himself loose.
After eight years in the majors, the last six of them spent making hair-raising saves, Williams needed the ball in the ninth inning. He was euphoric after each success, no matter that he might have walked the bases loaded before nailing down the final out. And if he lost a game in the ninth, he liked to show that he was man enough to take the heat, offering no excuses when pressed by the media. Being a man was important to Williams. Being the man in the bullpen was even more important. There was no satisfaction for him in working the seventh inning or pitching effectively in a blowout; for Williams to enjoy his work, the hitter had to have as much to lose as he did.
That's why he was sitting at home in Hico. Contrary to popular belief, he says, his woes this season cannot be blamed on the '93 Series-ending home run he served up to the Blue Jays' Joe Carter in Game 6. "Anyone who knows Mitch knows that home run had nothing to do with it," says Phillie manager Jim Fregosi. Williams has digested all the pop psychology and media speculation about how his role as the Series goat may have ruined him. "That's a joke," he says. "I don't care what kind of game it is. If it's for the world championship to save a country, I'm not going to blow my brains out."
What did affect Williams was the trade last Dec. 2 that sent him from Philadelphia to Houston. He so enjoyed being one of the Phillies, toiling alongside guys who loved to play—and have fun—as much as he did. But after the death threats and the heavy blame laid on Williams by distraught Phillie fans, the club didn't see how he could still be effective in a Philadelphia uniform. Williams thinks otherwise. "I could have pitched there, I know it," he says. Williams believes he was traded partly because the Phillie brass feared an escalation of the friction that had developed between him and then staff ace Curt Schilling, "it wouldn't have been a problem, because I would have kicked his ass," Williams says.
Nevertheless Williams was his usual gregarious self when he showed up at the Astro spring training camp in Kissimmee, Fla. He stayed loose even after pitching poorly in exhibition games. "He made us laugh," Astro manager Terry Collins says. "He said they were Federal Expressing his fastball to him the next day." Everyone seemed to like Williams. He even got the club rule banning facial hair overturned. How, he argued, could he look intimidating to opposing batters without a beard? He liked the guys on the Astros, but, he says, "they were quiet. Walk in the clubhouse and...it was easy to sleep. That doesn't make it wrong. It was a different group, a group I didn't click with."
From the first day of the season he didn't click with Collins, who was making his debut as a major league manager. Before the opening game Collins told the pitchers that there would be no roles assigned to members of the bullpen. Williams took that to mean that he wouldn't always be the closer. "As soon as I heard that," Williams says, "I said, "Time to go.' " Asked about that last week, Collins said that what he meant was that he wouldn't designate anyone as a long reliever because it carried the negative connotation of a mop-up man.
Regardless, Williams began the season as Houston's closer, but he was horrible from his first game with the Astros until his last, leaving with a 1-4 record, six saves in eight opportunities and a 7.65 ERA. His fastball lacked its old zing. "Put some adrenaline in me and see what my fastball does," he said last week. On April 22 against the St. Louis Cardinals, Williams was so wild that the Cards swung at only one of his 22 pitches, and Collins lost patience with him. Williams told Collins that if his pitching made him nervous, then he shouldn't watch him. "Fregosi would give me the ball and walk up the tunnel [to the clubhouse]," Williams says. "When it was over, it was over—one way or another."
Even though Williams was struggling, he says Collins repeatedly told him that he was the manager's guy in the ninth. But on May 20 against the San Diego Padres, Collins brought in Hudek, who had been pitching well and was 2 for 2 in save opportunities, to protect a 2-1 lead in the ninth. Hudek got the job done. After the game Williams confronted Collins in the manager's office, and a screaming match ensued. "I was lied to," Williams says. "I had no problem with Hudek being the closer. He was throwing the crap out of the ball. But if you're not going to use me to close, have the guts to tell me. I can deal with anything as long as they're honest. I've earned that much. I was never treated with more disrespect than I was in Houston. The thing that kept crossing my mind was, I don't have to prove myself to this man. He's got to prove himself. He's never been here."
That incident essentially ended Williams's stay in Houston. His relationship with Collins was damaged beyond repair, and he had lost the respect of the Astro players. "That [argument] didn't look good in the eyes of his teammates," says Houston first baseman Jeff Bagwell. "Forget about personal stats: our job is to win. Mitch always said that."
Collins can hardly be blamed for going with the hot Hudek instead of the erratic Williams. But he erred—and he admits it—by earlier promising Williams he would be the closer. When the Astros went to Philadelphia for a May 27-29 weekend series against Williams's old teammates ("The only fun I had all year," he says of the reunion), the situation spun out of control. After pitching terribly on Friday and Sunday, Williams told reporters that he expected to be released and then told them the only place he wanted to play was Philadelphia. That angered a number of his Houston teammates.
On Monday, May 30, Williams arrived at the Astrodome at 8:30 a.m. for a 1:35 p.m. game and packed his gear, ready to go to Hico. Bob Watson, the Astros' first-year general manager, who had traded for Williams, asked him if he would go to Triple A Tucson to get back on track, promising that such a demotion would last only two weeks. Williams refused. Collins, Watson and owner Drayton McLane Jr. then met to discuss Williams's fate, after which Williams asked Collins if he was being released. Collins said yes and that the announcement would be made the next day. Williams asked if he had to stay for that afternoon's game. Collins told him he could leave.
Williams stopped by the Houston house where he had been living, gathered some essentials and headed for Hico. One Astro player was quoted in the Houston Chronicle as saying, "Twenty-four guys would have helped him pack."
"I like Mitch, but he became a distraction," Bagwell says. "Here we are in first place, and he's talking about going back to the ranch. He just didn't want to play for us anymore." Watson says he has never seen anything like Williams's case, calling him "a strange duck."
"If he had said he would take a backseat for a couple weeks and get himself straightened out, he would still be here," says Watson. "He's a lefthander who throws in the mid-80's. He has value. But with the attitude he had here, he had no value to us."
Watson might have saved himself a lot of grief if he had done a background check before taking on Williams and his '94 salary of $2.5 million, all of which the pitcher will receive. The Rangers could have told Watson that there was no greater competitor than Williams, but that on nights when he didn't get the ball in a save situation, according to former Texas pitching coach Tom House, "he would throw a temper tantrum like a two-year old. Before every game I told Mitch exactly how he'd be used. It had to be concrete, or he might interpret it the wrong way."
As happy as he was in Philly, Williams even threw a few tits last year. Says Fregosi, "If a guy was throwing a no-hitter, Mitch would want to pitch the ninth. He thrived on it." Once Vast season Fregosi came out of the tunnel and removed Williams in the ninth—a rarity. Williams Went crazy in the clubhouse after the game. Finally, catcher Darren Daulton, the Phillies' leader, more or less told Williams to lose the baby act or Daulton would beat the hell out of him. This season no Astro player took that kind of initiative.
Watson says he wasn't aware of the depth of Williams's need for the ball late in games. "But in Philly they had a last-place team before last year, and then he was the only one there [capable of closing games]," says Watson. "Plus Jim Fregosi wasn't a rookie manager, Lee Thomas wasn't a rookie G.M., and Bill Giles wasn't a rookie owner. Here we have a rookie manager, a rookie G.M. and a rookie owner. We couldn't deal with that."
The Astros, in sum, were the wrong team for the Wild Thing. "This team has got to win now," says Bagwell, noting that because of payroll restraints imposed by ownership, the club may not seek to keep some of its best players after this season. "There's no time to say, 'Let's see if he can work out of it.' There's no time to lose games. This is the big leagues. If you don't get it done, someone will take your job."
On Sunday, Hendricks said that three teams had expressed interest in Williams after his release. But pitching for another team wasn't an option Williams was considering as he reflected on his plight in Hico last week. In his mind there were no options. "I had all the love for the game drained out of me," he said. "Now I'm going to take the next four months and see if I can get it back. If I can, I'll be back next spring. If not, I won't."
With that he walked away, apparently prepared to spend the summer in a town that has a sign on its outskirts reading WELCOME TO HICO, TEXAS, WHERE EVERYBODY IS SOMEBODY. And where Mitch Williams is a rancher, not a closer.