Profile by BCB reader San Diego Smooth Jazz Man
The Wrigley Field organist would crank out "Wild Thing" by the 60s garage band "The Troggs" nearly every time closer Mitch Williams took the mound in 1989 for the Cubs, inspired by the film of the same year, the original Major League. And more often than not, Williams would successfully close out the game in that division winning season. But along the way, he'd induce stress, worry, and nervousness in both his teammates, his mangers - and, of course, all of us fans who wished winning a close game could be just a bit easier. For this roller-coaster ride that Mitch Williams took us on - and the success he had, at least for that one magical year - Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams has earned a spot on the list of the 100 Greatest Cubs Of All Time.
Cubs fans have argued about whether or not the acquisition of Williams on December 5, 1988 might rank as one of the worst trades the team ever made. Well, it's possible. In the short term, Williams' work in 1989 was crucial to the team winning the divisional title, and playing in the NLCS against the San Francisco Giants. Mitch went with a 2.76 ERA, with 67 strikeouts and 36 saves. That year, Williams made the All-Star team for the only time in his career. Williams came to the Cubs in a massive 10 player deal with the Texas Rangers in which the Cubs also obtained pitchers Paul Kilgus, Steve Wilson, and a pair of minor leaguers. However, the Cubs gave up (then) outfielder Rafael Palmeiro, and pitchers Jamie Moyer and Drew Hall.
Obviously, Kilgus and Wilson fizzled. Palmeiro and Moyer...well, not so much. At the time, the Cubs were frustrated by the young Palmeiro because he didn't show much in the way of power. Well, Palmeiro did start to hit for power, after leaving the Wrigley Field for the wide-open spaces of Arlington Stadium.(But, now, I guess you could now say we are not quite sure how his power-hitting ability blossomed. But that's another story.) And that Moyer guy - at last report, he's still pitching. So, in the long term - this trade didn't pan out well for the Cubs.
Anyway, Don Zimmer's 1989 Cubs were a fun bunch to watch. The young Mark Grace was just beginning to establish himself - and, the Chicago media learned that Grace was always ready with a quote. After one of Williams' many tightrope walks to finish a game - more than once, Williams would come in, walk a couple of batters, even walk the bases loaded - and would then proceed to strike out the side. This began on Opening Day that year, the very first game he pitched in a Cub uniform. In the ninth inning, he loaded the bases on three dinky singles, and then struck out the side, including Mike Schmidt, Cub tormentor, to end the game.
Not only that, Williams' usual mechanics found him falling off the mound after every pitch, sometimes winding up with his back to the hitter. Grace, after witnessing these performances said "Mitch pitches like his hair's on fire." Writer Roger Angell of the New Yorker described Williams' antics as "scary...and hilarious." In his own defense, Williams said his erratic pitching was because he had poor control and "because I didn't know where the ball was going." Well, give him style points for honesty.
Anyway, the rollicking season with Williams as the closer ended with the Cubs losing the NLCS to the Giants 4-1. I was in attendance at Candlestick Park for games 3 and 4, both lost by the Cubs, obviously. Thankfully, I wasn't able to be in San Francisco for the deciding Game 5 - lost by Williams. (Note from Al: I WAS at that fifth game, played in torrid 90-degree temperatures, one of the warmest SF days I have ever experienced). He entered the game in the 8th inning, with a runner on second and the score tied at 1. Will Clark lined a single right back through the box to give the Giants a 3-1 lead. What isn't remembered much, is that the Cubs fought back, singling three straight times to make the score 3-2, and had the tying run in scoring position, when Ryne Sandberg grounded out to give the Giants the NL Pennant. (And, of course, the next week, the World Series was interupted by the Loma Prieta Earthquake.) That's not exactly a career highlight for Williams - but it got worse - really, really worse for him a few years in the future.
Williams' antics were a bit more than the Cubs could swallow, and he was dealt to the Phillies in 1991. His career took a bit of an upswing for Philadelphia, as he established himself as the Phillies closer and saved 30 games that season. In 1993 - he saved 43 games for the Phillies, in his usual nerve-racking fashion, and the Phils won the NL Pennant. Now, here's where it gets really, really worse for Mitch.
The Phils entered Game 6 of the 1993 World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays down 3 games to 2. On the road at Skydome, the Phillies scored five runs in the seventh inning to take a 6-5 lead, and it was up to Williams to preserve the victory and force a Game 7.
It wasn't meant to be - instead, Mitch became a part of World Series lore.
With one out and two on base in the bottom of the ninth - the Jays' Joe Carter got hold of a 2-2 pitch from Williams and slammed it for a home run, giving the Blue Jays an 8-6 walk-off World Series victory. It was the first time a World Series had been won in such dramatic fashion in 33 years. (Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates, in 1960 was the last individual to hit a walk-off homer to win a World Series, beating the Yankees.)
Williams, apparently wasn't as popular with his Phillies teammates as he was with the Cubs. Whenever Williams was on the mound, his nervous teammate Curt Schilling was usually burying his face in a towel. To this day, Williams is very bitter towards Schilling.
Afterwards, Williams was philosophical about his place in baseball history."I'm not going to go home and commit suicide...I wish I hadn't thrown it down and in to Carter. I was trying to keep the ball away from him. It was a mistake...It ain't comin' back...I can't replay it and win it...I can't change this one, much as I'd like to, if only because my teammates busted their butts. I let 'em down...But don't expect me to curl up and hide from people because I gave up a home run in the World Series. Life's a bitch. I could be digging ditches. I'm not."
Nor would he be pitching in the majors much after Carter's blast. Williams was promptly traded to the Astros, then closed out his career with the California Angels and the Kansas City Royals in 1997.
After he left baseball, Williams opened a bowling emporium outside Philadelphia and toward the end of Carter's career, ESPN staged a bowling match between Carter and Williams at Williams' alley. Carter won that matchup, too.
Sources: Wikipedia; Baseballlibrary.com; Baseball-fever.com