Since 1993, all is forgiven for Phillies' 'Wild Thing'

Posted: October 17, 2008

PHILADELPHIA HAS a reputation for vilifying its athletes. We'd much rather argue than cheer, outsiders say. Recently, we were called "Hatedelphia."

It's a tiresome argument and one that is mostly from the uninformed. Yes, we are tough on our athletes. But we only expect them to give as much to their jobs as we are required to give to ours. It's that simple.

Perhaps that explains the remarkable resurrection of Mitch Williams, the former Phillies closer who blew the mother of all saves in 1993. Not only has he returned to the scene of the meltdown, Williams has flourished here as a businessman and baseball analyst. You should try his "Wild Thing Southpaw Salsa."

Williams has transformed himself from the goat who received death threats following Joe Carter's historic home run to an omnipresent media star and he has only become more visible as the Phillies have advanced. He is, after all, the last Phillie to throw a pitch in a World Series. Until now.

He's not necessarily beloved like Bobby Clarke or Richie Ashburn, but certainly appreciated as a guy who tried his best. Ron Jaworski, who quarterbacked the Eagles team that lost Super Bowl XV, is viewed similarly.

"It's shocking," Williams said. "These people couldn't be nicer. Honestly, it's kind of overwhelming. It's gone so far away from 'the pitch.' Now, I hear 'We really appreciate your honesty. What you say on [Comcast SportsNet's] Phillies postgame. What you say on the radio.' It's all about what I'm doing now and that's the great thing about these people."

"I think the fans always loved Mitch," said CSN anchor Michael Barkann. "I think they hated that the pitch he threw [to Carter] went over the fence, but he did, too. I think his honesty, folksiness and warmth just overwhelm people."

That honesty is something that comes across on the air and a quality that Williams knows he must have, especially to impress Philadelphia fans.

"They know the game," he said. "They know football. They know hockey. They know their sports. And that's intimidating to [opposing] players when the fans know the game as well as they do."

Williams has mentioned recently, even if it was half-jokingly, that a World Series title would finally "take me off the hook."

"They want to cheer," Williams said. "These people are dying to cheer. If you don't give them anything to cheer about, you're going to hear the other side of it. Scott Rolen was way too thin-skinned to play in this town. If you have thin skin, you don't want to stop and play in Philly because they are going to let you know when you stink. Mike Schmidt hit 548 home runs here and got booed unmercifully if he didn't hit a home run. That's the nature of the beast."

Williams picked up the nickname "Wild Thing" after the Charlie Sheen character in the 1989 film, "Major League." A typical save for Williams generally included a few walks and maybe a hit batsman, followed by three strikeouts.

Remember Brad Lidge's save that clinched the NL East for the Phillies a few weeks ago? Lidge gave up a run and loaded the bases before inducing a scintillating doubleplay that preserved a 4-3 Phillies win. It was a performance reminiscent of how Williams pitched throughout that 1993 season. And he hated it.

"I was five rows behind home plate and an absolute wreck," Williams said of Lidge's tightrope act. "I was telling Michael Barkann how much easier it is to be out there [playing] than to be here [in the stands]. It isn't even close."

The pitch

Williams had a career year in 1993 with 43 saves in 51 chances during the regular season. He added two more saves in the LCS, including the clincher when he blew away pinch-hitter Bill Pecota and famously leaped into the air in celebration.

Unfortunately, that would be the climax to the Phillies season.

Toronto took Game 1 of the World Series and from there on the Phillies were in chase mode. The series turned in Game 4 when the Phils, already down two games to one, blew a 14-9 eighth-inning lead and lost, 15-14. Williams came on with two on and one out in the fateful eighth inning. He allowed the two runners he inherited from Larry Andersen to score and was responsible for three more. Still, his steely resolve was not shaken.

"I'll forget it as soon as I walk out that door," he said afterward. "I leave my job at the field."

In Game 6, the Phillies headed to the bottom of the ninth holding a one-run lead. They were three outs from forcing a Game 7.

Car-accident victims often speak of how things seem to slow down just before impact. Maybe there's some instinctive mechanism that allows the body to slow down before impact. For many Phillies fans, that's precisely the feeling they got after watching Blue Jays outfielder Rickey Henderson lead off the ninth with a walk.

Williams' high-wire act was on again and the stakes were never higher. One out and a Paul Molitor single later, Carter stepped to the plate not only representing the winning run, but also history. Pittsburgh's Bill Mazeroski was the only player to end a World Series with a home run. Carter joined him by drilling a 2-2 pitch down the leftfield line to give the Blue Jays their second consecutive championship.

"I was kind of hoping it would keep hooking," Phillies first baseman John Kruk said. "He had some topspin on it. I was kind of hoping it would keep turning . . . What can you say? He beat us. That's the bottom line."

In the 1986 ALCS, the California Angels held a 3-1 series lead and were one strike away from advancing to their first World Series when reliever Donnie Moore gave up a two-run homer in the ninth inning to Boston's Dave Henderson. Moore surrendered the game-winning run in the 11th on a Henderson sacrifice fly and was never the same. Three years later, he committed suicide.

"People have to understand that I have a life outside of baseball, and I enjoy it," Williams said a few days after allowing Carter's home run. "That doesn't mean baseball isn't important to me. It is. But I'm not going to let myself be miserable for the rest of my life. In fact, I think if there's somebody in the clubhouse who can deal with something like this, I'm one who can."

The aftermath

Williams was traded to Houston 6 weeks later and would never regain the magic of 1993. Ditto for many of his teammates and the franchise itself. The Phils were shut out of the postseason for the next 14 seasons and only this year have made it as far as the World Series.

"I was done. When I left here, mentally I was done," Williams said. "I knew it would never, ever get that good again teamwise. I just had the best year of my career and got traded."

Williams pitched in just 52 more games with Houston, California and Kansas City before retiring in 1997.

There were death threats following the Carter homer and his New Jersey home was pelted with eggs. But what stands out to Williams was the reception he got when the Astros came to town in late May 1994.

"I knew the first time I came back here with Houston, it was a Memorial Day weekend," he said. "There was [41,013] the first day I came back. Every time I walked out of the dugout, they gave me a standing ovation."

The rebound

Williams got back into baseball in 2001 pitching for the Atlantic City Surf, an independent league club. He even skippered the Surf in '02 and '03 and was asked what it would be like to manage Mitch Williams the player.

"I'd have yanked me," he joked. "It would have been tough. But players get a lot of their confidence from their manager. When I left here and went to Houston, before I got to the mound [manager Terry Collins] already had two guys up in the bullpen. I was like, 'Well, however he wants to do it. But if he expects three up, three down, he traded for the wrong guy. [Former Phils manager Jim] Fregosi was the best I ever had. He handed me the ball and went and smoked. 'Let me know when it's over.' "

After moving back to the area from Texas, Williams started appearing regularly on local radio and TV last year and he figures to have an even higher profile with the World Series.

"I never worried about coming back here, because the one thing I think these fans always knew was that every night I went out there, they got every single thing I had," Williams said.

"I wasn't going to make excuses for anything. If I sucked, I sucked. If I didn't, I didn't. I think they appreciate that here. Are they going to boo when you are sucking? Of course. And they should. I wouldn't expect anything less. They couldn't say anything about me that I wasn't saying to myself walking to the dugout. That's why I like it up here. The honesty of the people." *

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