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.