The Scariest Man in Baseball
Mitch Williams laughs when he recalls the first batting practice he threw in a major league camp, in 1985 as a Ranger. "I was everywhere," he says. "Any pitch was liable to miss the cage entirely. The first pitch I threw hit Alan Bannister. He said, "That's enough,' and walked out."
Not much has changed with Williams, who is now the Phillies' closer. His control has improved somewhat, but when we asked a number of players from every team to name the scariest pitcher they've faced—or at least the one who makes them feel the most uncomfortable—Williams was the one most frequently mentioned. Of the 90 responses we received, Williams got 26 votes, followed by Cincinnati's Rob Dibble with 22 and Seattle's Randy Johnson (page 46) with 13. "I love it that hitters don't want to face me," says Williams. "When a hitter is up there thinking about nothing but hitting, there's a good chance he's going to get a hit."
Because of Williams's wild-ness, his 90-plus-mph fastball, his no-look, stumble-off-the-mound delivery and his love of pitching inside, hitters "pretty much think safety-first against him," says Cub first baseman Mark Grace, a former teammate. Says Mariners outfielder Henry Cotto, "He can kill you, man. You never dig in against him unless you're a fool." And a National League hitter, who requests anonymity, says, "He's as liable to hit the Phillie Phanatic as he is to hit you."
Adds Seattle first baseman Pete O'Brien, another former teammate, "I remember when Mitch came in to pitch against the Orioles in 1986, and he hit three of the first five batters he faced. It was a procession from the dugout to the plate to the training room."
Says Braves first baseman Sid Bream, "He has no problem knocking you down." When Williams hit Pittsburgh's Barry Bonds on April 18, Bonds yelled at him and then blasted Williams in the press for having thrown at him. "The thing that annoys me is when I hit a guy, he wants to charge the mound or talk garbage," says Williams. "Getting hit is part of the game. It has been for a hundred years. Some hitters act like it's illegal to pitch inside."
Our poll also unearthed some interesting sidelights. The Rangers' Nolan Ryan was named quite a few times. He's the best-liked, most-revered player in the game, but he has a reputation among hitters for brushing back anyone he thinks has shown him up. "The more you dig in, the more ticked off he gets," says Giants second baseman Robby Thompson.
Former Royals second baseman Terry Shumpert, who was sent to the minors last week, says of Ryan, "He's the kind of guy who, if you get a good swing off him or you do something he doesn't like, wants to throw at you. Instead of being the great pitcher he's supposed to be and challenging you and trying to get you out, he wants to brush you back as some sort of intimidation factor. It puts you in a position where you don't know what to do. He's Nolan Ryan. Do you know of anybody who ever charged the mound on him?"
The most surprising name to surface in the poll was Gibson Alba, a longtime minor league lefthander who's now out of baseball. Baltimore's Sam Horn, Brady Anderson and Randy Milligan all spoke in almost reverential tones about Alba, whom they faced in the minors in the mid-1980s. "He was probably the scariest guy ever." Horn says. "He threw about 100 miles per hour, he threw sidearm, and he never looked at the plate."
Says Milligan, "He was the hardest-, wildest-throwing lefty ever to live on the planet. He's the only lefty I've ever feared. When I used to get in there, I wouldn't put my spikes in the dirt."