Pay No Attention To His Past Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams nurtures young pitchers for the Atlantic City Surf

June 24, 2001

Just before a 24-year-old former New York Mets farmhand named John
Mangieri took the mound in relief for the Atlantic City (N.J.)
Surf, his pitching coach gave him a pep talk. "You never want the
hitter to know what's in your mind," the coach told the kid.
"That's how I pitched."

When word got around in February that the Surf, one of eight
teams in the independent Atlantic League, had hired Mitch
Williams--yes, that Mitch Williams--as its pitching coach, the
jokes began. Yeah, one went, and Mario Mendoza will be the
hitting coach. So improbable was the idea of Wild Thing teaching
the finer points of pitching that media outlets had trouble
discerning fact from fiction. The Chicago Tribune and the New
York Daily News ran stories that Mendoza, whose .215 career
batting average is the measure of offensive futility, was the new
Surf hitting coach. Not even in a league in which publicity
stunts sometimes pass for news was the Surf bold enough to try
that one.

Williams is only 36, but he's four years removed from an 11-year,
six-team major league career. In 1986, while with the Texas
Rangers during his rookie season, he hit 11 men in 98 relief
innings. After Williams plunked three Baltimore batters in one
inning, Orioles manager Earl Weaver said, "He's more hazardous
than cigarettes."

During his delivery Williams whipped his left arm so violently
across his chest that the momentum propelled his body off the
mound, toward the third base line. "I thought it was a joke when
I heard [about Williams's hiring]," says Surf pitcher Andy High,
27, a five-year veteran of independent baseball. "I thought, All
he can teach me is how to fall off the mound and scuff my shoes
with my glove."

Whether Williams, who walked an astounding 544 batters in 691 1/3
major league innings, knew where the ball was going was always an
open question. Folks remember him for the three-run homer he gave
up to the Toronto Blue Jays' Joe Carter that ended the 1993 World
Series. Fewer seem to recall that Williams saved 43 games in 49
chances that year.

"People have a misconception that I was an idiot," Williams says.
"They thought I just reared back and threw. I knew how to pitch.
I knew every hitter in the National League. I stayed in the
clubhouse and watched the first six innings of every game on
television. I had two pitches [a fastball and a hard slider], so
I had to learn every hitter's strength and weakness."

High, a 6'4" lefthander, has been a project for Williams from the
start of spring training, when Williams noticed that High's
mechanics were worse than his own. "My back leg was breaking
down, and it felt like I was throwing uphill," says High, who
through Sunday was 7-1 with a 2.55 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 53
innings. "Mitch had the same problem. He said I was making myself
seven inches shorter. Now I'm standing straight up and just
falling toward the plate. The ball has more pop, the approach has
been easier and my recovery is quicker."

Those changes were clearly beneficial against the Bridgeport
(Conn.) Bluefish on May 29. Mixing a fastball in the low 90s with
a changeup and a slider that breaks in on the hands of
righthanded hitters, High pitched seven innings, allowing three
runs on seven hits in a 10-3 win. "All these pitchers come in
with problems in their delivery," Williams says. "They want to
jerk their head around instead of driving it toward the plate.
They don't stay behind the ball. Every problem they've got, I've
had."

Williams left baseball in 1994 when he suddenly lost his desire
for the game. He retreated to his 600-acre ranch in Hico, Texas,
reappearing to attempt comebacks with the California Angels in
1995 and the Kansas City Royals in 1997. A torn left biceps
tendon ended his career in August '97. It was former Philadelphia
Phillies reliever Tug McGraw who recommended Williams to Surf
general manager Mario Perrucci. "You can't sit around when you're
36 and do nothing," says Williams, who hopes to return to the
majors as a coach.

At week's end the Surf had lowered its staff ERA from 4.85 last
year to 3.87, though the true gauge of Williams's success will be
how many of his students are plugged into big league farm systems
after the season. "If a guy pitches well and stays here," he
says, "I'm not doing my job."

How serious is Williams about this gig? He's trying to sell the
ranch and move his wife, Irene, and their three kids to New
Jersey. "I enjoy being back," Williams says. "It's the only thing
I know I'm good at."

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS

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