Oh!" cries Mitch (the pitch) Williams. "A bowling ball!" The young man with the ragged beard, wild hair, Speedy Gonzales tattoo on his leg and flaming, 97-mph, hit-the-deck-or-die fastball is excited. He tears open the box that was delivered to his locker at Wrigley Field before a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. "Hope it's a Rhino," he whispers.
Joy, joy! It is—a shiny, 16-pound black ball with orange lettering and no holes. Williams, the lefthanded reliever for the Chicago Cubs who now leads the National League with 31 saves, gives out a yip. Christmas in June! He lifts the sphere and studies it, explaining where he'll have the holes drilled for his thumb and the tips of his middle and ring fingers. He'll make it just like his other ball, the purple one he takes on road trips to work off his postadolescent energy on something other than terrified batters.
Williams pulls out the purple bowling ball from his locker and offers it to a visitor. The holes are so shallow it's hard to grip the ball, let alone swing it through the air. Somebody rolling this ball down an alley—a lefthander, for God's sake—would be like an ape working the pedals on a delivery truck. Awesome and wild—which Mitch the Pitch is. When he bowls, Williams hurls a whirling speedball that hangs on the left edge of the lane like a yo-yo at the end of its string, then spins madly toward the center of the alley and crashes into the pins. It's the same thing when he pitches.
Mitch says that he throws "like a man with his hair on fire." And it's true. He lifts his right knee up toward his head as if trying to douse the flames with his leg, curls his 6'4", 205-pound body ostrichlike around his glove and unleashes the ball in one of the most out-of-control-looking explosions of vector forces ever seen in the world of high-level sport. After every pitch he careens off to the right of the mound, catching himself with his glove hand before staggering back to an upright position somewhere near the third base line. Throwing hard is one thing, but Williams looks as though he's trying to destroy his rotator cuff with each fling. The whole wild process scares batters half to death. After narrowly avoiding a Williams scorcher in his ear, Pirate centerfielder Andy Van Slyke said, "If everyone were like him, I wouldn't play."
Williams, with his 1.71 ERA and .775 save percentage (31 saves in 40 chances), is a large part of the reason why the Cubs are in first place in the National League East and 18 games over .500 for the first time in five years. Those, of course, are scary enough statistics—step right up, all you Cubbie lovers who need your hearts broken one more time—but, who knows, maybe this really is the year Chicago wins the big one. Forget the near-misses of 1984, 1969, 1945, 1938, 1935, 1932, 1929, 1918, and 1910. Every 81 years a team ought to get lucky, right?
Certainly manager Don Zimmer's boys have been riding a crest of good fortune. Without much of a spark from outfielder Andre Dawson (.245, 14 homers) or a quality fourth starter, the Cubs have been getting just as much as they need from veteran second baseman Ryne Sandberg (.279, 24 homers, 60 RBIs); Rookie of the Year favorite Jerome Walton (.309, 40 RBIs, a 30-game hitting streak); stars-in-the-making Mark Grace (.311, 60 RBIs), Dwight Smith (.299, 40 RBIs) and Lloyd McClendon (.298); and an overachieving pitching staff. With a team ERA of 3.33 and the second-most saves in the majors (45), the Cubs' staff hardly resembles last year's motley crew, which gave up 625 earned runs and finished last in the majors with a .518 save percentage—thanks in part to designated closer Goose Gossage, who blew 10 of his 23 save opportunities. Williams alone already has more saves than the '88 staff, and the Cubs' righthanded closer, Les Lancaster, has three wins, five saves and a 0.96 ERA in the 37⅔ innings he has pitched since getting called up in late June.
Acquired from the Texas Rangers last December in a nine-player deal involving outfielder Rafael Palmeiro, Williams has already shattered the club record for saves in a season by a lefthander (15, set by Darold Knowles in 1975) and is on a pace to beat Bruce Sutter's alltime team record of 37. Palmeiro is doing well for Texas, but, as Zimmer says, "I don't care if Palmeiro is batting .350. With last year's pitching staff we'd be 10 games under .500."
The 24-year-old Williams, whose hero is flame-throwing, scatter-armed pitcher Ricky (Wild Thing) Vaughn played in the movie Major League by Charlie Sheen, has been a nearly perfect mop-up man for the traditionally docile Cubs. Nobody—not the catcher, the batter or Williams himself—knows exactly where the ball is going to go once it leaves his hand. "He's unique," says Zimmer. "You don't read about closers who are wild." And for good reason. They send managers into early retirement.
Consider Williams's debut as a Cub, on Opening Day at Wrigley against the Phillies. Entering the eighth inning with Chicago leading 5-4, Williams walked his first two batters but didn't allow any runs. In the ninth he gave up three hits to load the bases, then whiffed the next three batters.
"I'm 57, and you're hard on my heart," Cub general manager Jim Frey told the pitcher after the game.