Friday, October 24, 2014

Phillies Biography Series: Mitch Williams

Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams, Phillies 1991-1993
It's hard to believe, but Mitch Williams only pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies for 3 seasons, from 1991-1993.

But in those three short years, particularly for his final game in red pinstripes, he is forever remembered by most as a Fightin' Phil.

That final game was, of course, Game 6 of the 1993 World Series. Williams was the Phils' closer, and was called on by manager Jim Fregosi to protect a 6-5 lead in the 9th inning. The Phillies were now just 3 outs away from tying the series with the Blue Jays and sending it to a decisive Game 7 at Toronto.

Baseball Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson led off with a walk against the "Wild Thing", but Williams got Devon White to fly out to left field. The Phils were now just two outs away from Game 7. But the Jays had yet another Hall of Famer next. Paul Molitor smacked a line single to center, with Henderson stopping at 2nd base.

Up to the plate stepped Jays' cleanup hitter Joe Carter. He was the type of slugger who could easily end it with one swing, and was also veteran enough to not shrink from the moment, and sling a base hit to score Henderson with the game-tier. However, he also had little speed, and could end the game with a doubleplay ball. And he was also a strikeout candidate.

Williams battled with Carter, and the count went to 2-2. One more strike, and the Phils would be just an out away from Game 7. Williams delivered. Carter swung. Every baseball fan alive at the time knows what happened next, and every Jays and Phillies fan will never forget it.

But that next moment should never be the moment for which Williams is remembered exclusively in Philly, or in general baseball circles. The man had an 11-year MLB career, the first 10 of which were fairly successful.


For the Phillies, Mitch saved 102 games across his 3 seasons, striking out 218 in 231.1 innings pitched, while allowing just 181 hits. But in the 200 games that he appeared in that time he fully earned his "Wild Thing" nickname. While he could strikeout a hitter, he was also prone to wildness. He walked 170 batters here, and finished those three seasons with a 1.517 WHIP mark.

In 1993, Williams had his best season ever as the Phillies won the NL East in a wire-to-wire, worst-to-first magical season that was, by far, the most fun full season that this writer and fan ever experienced. Mitch save 43 games that season, then won 2 and saved 2 more in the NLCS vs the Braves. His joyous leap after striking out Bill Pecota to put the Phillies into the World Series for the first time in a decade sent the Veteran's Stadium crowd and the entire city into delirium.

Mitch leaps into Darren Daulton's arms on clinching 1993 NL Pennant

The road to that 1993 World Series had begun for Mitch Williams on the opposite coast. Born in Santa Ana, California, Williams came to the attention of scouts while playing at West Linn High School in Oregon. He was selected by the San Diego Padres in the 8th round of the 1982 MLB Draft, and began his career at age 17 with the Padres low-A affiliate at Walla Walla, Washington.

In those early years with the San Diego organization, Mitch was a starting pitcher, and despite his wildness he rose to the A-ball level at Reno. In 3 seasons across 3 stops in the Padres system, Williams went 20-25 and struck out 362 hitters in 372.2 innings. However, he also walked 314 batters.

Tired of his wildness, the Padres left him unprotected, and he was taken by the Texas Rangers in December of 1984 in the rule 5 draft. The following April, the Rangers worked out a trade to keep Williams, and that season kept him as a starting pitcher where he rose to the AA level.

In 1986, Mitch finally made the big leagues out of spring training, but as a reliever. Still he was with the Texas Rangers, pitching in the Majors. Over his first three Big League seasons with Texas, Williams was a bullpen workhorse. He pitched in 232 games, striking out 280 hitters in 274.2 innings. He remained wild, walking 220. But his ERA was a respectable 3.70, and in his final Rangers season, Williams saved 18 games.

Following the 1988 season, Williams was the key part of an 8-player trade between the Rangers and the Chicago Cubs in which Texas would receive a young pitcher named Jamie Moyer and a young 1st baseman named Rafael Palmeiro.

After 1988 trade involving Jamie Moyer, Mitch became an all-star with Cubs

With the Cubbies, Mitch became an NL All-Star for the first time in 1989. As their full-time closer he would save 36 games and had just a 2.76 ERA. He would finish 9th in the NL Cy Young and 10th in the NL MVP Awards voting. In 1990, however, his ERA ballooned to 3.93, his saves dropped to 16, and his K/BB ratio was just 55/50 in 66.1 innings.

Due to become a free agent the following off-season, Mitch was dealt by the Cubs to the Philadelphia Phillies just before the 1991 season got underway in exchange for pitchers Chuck McElroy and Bob Scanlan. He bounced back with perhaps his best-ever statistical season. In 1991, Williams went 12-5 and saved 30 games for the Phils, registering a career-low 2.34 ERA with 84 strikeouts in the 88.1 innings that he pitched across 69 games.

The off-season came, and Williams became a free agent. But the Phillies and general manager Lee Thomas liked what they had seen of him in 1991, and signed the 26-year old just entering his prime to a multi-year free agent contract that would ultimately earn him over $10 million total.

His Philly history is well known, and was documented here earlier. What I failed to mention was the immediate, short term aftermath of that 1993 finish. Williams received numerous death threats for his personal role in the losses of not only the decisive Game 6, but also the pivotal Game 4 of the World Series. His final two games in a Phillies uniform were a disaster, and a certain vocal, crazed segment of the local fan base was unwilling to forgive.

Believing that the break with Phils fans was untenable, Thomas looked to deal Williams, and in December of 1993 would send him to Houston in exchange for pitchers Doug Jones and Jeff Juden. His brief 2-month stint with the Astros in 1994 would prove to be the beginning of the end. A 7.65 ERA and 2.250 WHIP ended his stay at the end of May. His poor performance and the August work stoppage put an end to his season.

For the 1995 season, Mitch caught on back on the west coast again, this time with the California Angels. As baseball finally got back to business, he got back to pitching and he started well. In a dozen games through May 25th, Mitch had a 3.00 ERA and had yielded just 5 hits in 6 innings. It didn't last, however. He was bombed on back-to-back outings by the Red Sox on May 26th and 27th, his ERA ballooned to 9.82, and he was on his way out of California, gone by the middle of June.

Out of the game for over a year, Mitch was signed as a free agent in July of 1996 with, of all places, the Phillies. Still the GM, Lee Thomas gave him another shot. Williams pitched in the Phils minors with High-A Clearwater and then at AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre. In AAA, Mitch proved a shell of his former self, and he got shelled, allowing 25 hits and 11 walks in 15 innings. On August 19th, the Phillies released him for the final time.

Still, Mitch wasn't done. Keep in mind that he was that most sought-after commodity, a power-armed and experienced lefty. And he wasn't old. At age 32 in 1997, Mitch signed with the Kansas City Royals. He began by pitching well in 3 games with AAA Omaha, earning his final Big League promotion. With the Royals, Mitch got into the final 7 games of his career. They proved to be unsuccessful. He allowed 11 hits and 7 walks in 6.2 innings, and was released for the final time on May 12th of 1997.

In the years following the 1993 World Series debacle and subsequent harsh feelings from many Phillies fans, Mitch Williams' cold relationship with them slowly began to thaw. The biggest single factor was that Mitch never ran. He fully embraced his responsibility in the defeat, and combated it with both honesty and self-deprecating humor.

Phillies fans learned to embrace Mitch's responsibility, honesty, and humor

Philly fans, notorious for ganging up on perceived whiners, babies, and "losers" began to feel both sympathy and respect for the way in which Williams handled himself. Within a decade, Mitch Williams became not only a tolerated, forgiven player, but a beloved personality again here in the City of Brotherly Love.

He caught on with an independent league team at the nearby Jersey Shore as both a pitcher and pitching coach with the Atlantic City Surf for the 2001-02 seasons. In 2007, Mitch became a regular with local Philly talk radio and cable TV stations. And then in 2009, with the launch of the new MLB Network, Mitch was hired there as a baseball analyst.

Firmly re-established both in Philadelphia and in the game at large, the married family man with 5 children became a countrified voice of the common man to many. Then came May of 2014. While coaching his 10-year old son's Little League team, Mitch was ejected from a tournament game for yelling profanities at an umpire. He also faced accusations that he had ordered one of the pitchers on his team to throw a beanball at an opposing child.

While the details of the controversial incidents this past spring were disputed and being fought out, Mitch was first suspended and then released from his appearances on the MLB Network. He has since resurfaced in recent weeks, both at his Twitter handle and as host of a Wildfire Radio program which begins broadcasting at 6pm tonight.

For the past three decades, Mitch Williams has been a unique, controversial, colorful character within the game of professional baseball. With his often outstanding, and just as often frustrating, three seasons of baseball played here, Mitch has also proven to be an unforgettable Phillies character.

Follow Mitch: @Mitch99Williams on Twitter
his new radio show "Unleashed" is @99Unleashed 


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