Williams began in the minors as a starting pitcher, and the wait between games almost did him in. "The biggest misconception in baseball is that you come in at 18 and you gotta get in as many innings as possible," says Williams. "But it's not the innings that affected me, it's how many times I got into the game, how many times I got to deal with the adrenaline. I'd be going 90 miles a minute, and it's better to deal with that 80 times a year than 26."
After spending four years in the minors as a starter, with a 28-36 record and a career 5.19 ERA, Williams was rescued by Texas pitching coach Tom House, who realized that the youngster was a 45-rpm record being played at 33⅓ and sent him to the bullpen. In his three years with Texas, Williams made 232 appearances, including a major league rookie record of 80 in 1986, going 8-6 with a 3.58 ERA and eight saves. This year he's on schedule to appear in almost 80 games, which should keep him under control until the playoffs. "I live to pitch," Williams says, in case anyone has any doubts.
Williams's father, Geoff, a machinist, and his mother, Larrie, divorced when Mitch was 12. Mitch and his older brother, Bruce, who pitched for a time in the minors, lived with their dad, while the youngest son, Scott, resided with both parents. All the male Williamses have tattoos and are, according to Mitch, fun-loving guys. "Our family has never been accused of being all there," Williams has said. Indeed, there are those who would say that Mitch the Pitch was basically separated from his brain during the early part of his career.
Williams acknowledges that he's not the smartest guy in the world. When he snapped his elbow in American Legion ball before his senior year in high school, he kept on throwing because he knew baseball was his only hope for a shot at the good life. "They said it was only a strain, so I figured I could pitch through it," he says. "I knew I wasn't gonna get an academic scholarship anywhere. I wasn't gonna end up a brain surgeon." But the bones in his elbow were separated and it took an operation and a six-inch screw to put his left arm back together. "I had the surgery on October 5, 1981, had the screw taken out on January 5 and pitched the first game of the season on March 13," he says proudly.
Mitch is tough. Cub TV announcer Steve Stone says that "his greatest attribute is that he is absolutely fearless." But at Texas, Williams wasn't much loved for his me-first attitude. "He gives off a personality, that tees you off," said Ranger pitcher Charlie Hough. "When you first see him, you have a tendency to hate him."
Williams's inclination to pout turned off the rest of the Rangers' pitching staff. "I think maturity was the thing he needed," said Texas reliever Jeff Russell, whom Williams once accused of having no guts. "I don't think he had a right to do that, no matter what he accomplished on the field. The one time that sticks out was when Craig McMurtry pitched unbelievable [to earn a save] and Mitch didn't say a word to him because Mitch was upset about not getting into the game. He showered real quick and stormed out. When you see a guy moping around when you are ready to go in, it takes a lot of confidence away."
"A lot of pitchers have been emotional, but there's a difference between being emotional and being a jerk," said Texas manager Bobby Valentine. "The hang-up in dealing with Mitch is not whether or not he can get the batter out. It's whether it's worth the problem."
Time to move on, Wild Thing.
Williams has since patched things up with Russell and has worked hard at trying to mature generally. Zimmer has helped by giving him lots of work. "I understand he needs to pitch," says Zimmer. "And if I haven't used him for a while, it dawns on me to put him in. But I can't get all wrapped around Mitch Williams. I don't care if he's happy, but if using him makes him more successful, then I'll do it."
Thanks to his and the Cubs' success, Williams is reasonably happy these days. "I love his humor," says Dee, who met the pitcher at a party in Arlington, Texas, and tried to fix him up with younger women before falling for him herself. "He's great with the kids. He'll say, 'Look over there,' and steal your food, or 'Smell this,' and do something funny to your nose."