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."