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The Philadelphia Phillies were not about to hind out if closer Mitch Williams could get out of his next jam, not even with a season's supply of towels at the ready. The only thing worse than blowing two World Series games, including the deciding one on a last-pitch home run, would be living it down. In Philadelphia.
That prospect, however, didn't shake Williams, a man who has earned himself a nice living, a thick hide and a fitting nickname (Wild Thing) by getting into trouble and often getting out of it. After serving up the historic home run to Toronto Blue Jay Joe Carter that ended this year's Series, he went home to his 3 & 2 Ranch in Hico, Texas, unchanged and unscarred. One of his agents, Alan Hendricks, telephoned him there one day later and asked, "Are you all right?" Williams responded, "I'm line. I'm home. Game's over. That's it, bro." The answer was the same for each of the TV and newspaper reporters who ventured over the hardscrabble land of central Texas to check Williams's pulse. His only worry, he said, was that "the Phillies will take it upon themselves to do something that they think is in my best interest."
Sure enough, his days as a Phillie were numbered. Last Thursday, 40 days after Carter's home run, Williams, 29, was traded to the Houston Astros in what amounted to an act of mercy. Yes, Astro general manager Bob Watson initiated the trade talks. He had been impressed with how Williams had unflinchingly fielded reporters' questions moments after the home run. "That showed me a lot of character," Watson said. It was to the Phillies' relief, though, that they could trade Williams and get pitchers Doug Jones and Jeff Juden in return. It was a most unusual trade. Only one other pitcher since 1969, when saves became an official statistic, has been traded immediately after leading a pennant winner in saves. (The other, Dick Drago of the 1975 Boston Red Sox, had only 15 saves, 28 fewer than Williams.) What's more, Philadelphia general manager Lee Thomas admitted he now must turn up "somebody else who's not here" to help close games. No matter. That would be easier than asking Williams to return.
"They'll never forgive him," said Phillie centerfielder Lenny Dykstra in reference to Philadelphia's fans. "The Phillies did the best thing for the organization, the city of Philadelphia, the fans and, most of all, Mitch Williams. The pressure of playing here after the magnitude of what happened would have been uncontrollable."
What happened was that, quicker than an eye blink, Williams lost leads of 14-10 in Game 4 and 6-4 in the Series-ending Game 6. Teammates hid under towels as eight runs scored in the time that Williams faced nine batters in the two games. The failures prompted at least two death threats against him. Eggs were hurled at his Moorestown, N.J., home. Still, Williams wanted to come back. Stung by the trade, he took questions from only one pool reporter. Said Hendricks, "The stand-up guy got tired of standing up."
"The part that makes me a little upset," Williams said, "is that the Phillies are trying to tell me what's best for me. They don't know what's best for me as far as the fans being on me and not being able to handle that kind of pressure."
"Mitch," Dykstra said, "is a gamer. But I don't give a damn if you're King Kong. He could not have made it through it."
Ralph Branca was welcomed back to the Brooklyn Dodgers after throwing the home run pitch to Bobby Thomson that decided the 1951 pennant. Ralph Terry went 63-41 for the New York Yankees in the four years after giving up Bill Mazeroski's homer that ended the 1960 World Series. How times have changed.
The Astros' first trip to Philadelphia next year is scheduled for Memorial Day weekend, but Williams will return there before then for his Dec. 26 wedding. "I'll be wearing a flak jacket," he said, "and we're going to borrow the Pope's bulletproof limousine."