What you should really think about the Wild Thing

With Joe Carter (29) leaping around the bases, Mitch Williams walked dejected off the mound but never flinched talking to the press after Carter’s ’93 Series-winning home run off him.

One thing baseball fans of longstanding can tell you from experience alone (so they think, often as not properly) and sabermetrics can tell you from deep analysis is this: Things are never as they seem to be. Today’s anniversary of only the second World Series-ending-and-winning home run is a classic case.

To this day the only thing anyone sees or remembers about that 1993 Series is the Philadelphia Phillies’ half-crazed closer Mitch Williams serving the slippery fastball the Toronto Blue Jays’s Joe Carter jolted for a three-run homer. They see the careless goat even before they see the heroic bombardier.

They see Williams being reckless and Carter hopping, skipping, and jumping around the bases, losing his hat somewhere between first and second and barely caring. They don’t see the actualities that made Carter’s bomb happen in the first place.

Maybe they were too influenced by Williams’s pre-93 Series reputation as a wild oat. Maybe they read the late Jay Johnstone’s third and final book, Some of My Best Friends are Crazy, and noticed Williams was the first such friend Johnstone discussed.

And maybe, especially, they noticed a crack from Williams’s former Chicago Cubs pitching staff mate Rick Sutcliffe, who’s made a nice second career as a television baseball analyst. “I pitch like I’m sitting in an easy chair,” Sutcliffe said, “and [Williams] pitches like his hair is on fire.”

Wrote Johnstone of the mulleted Wild Thing—who once claimed he heard his father order him off the roof of their house and obeyed by diving off with Dad catching him—“Mitch comes off the mound with the same reckless abandon and, so far, has suffered no crashes worse than Will Clark’s base hit to win the [1989] National League Championship Series.”

Those words were written and published in 1990. Three years later, Williams crashed like a 747 with its engines ablaze. And Dad wasn’t there to catch him. Hell, this time Dad might have set him up for it, if you consider pitching coaches to be their charges’ father figures.

You’d get why then-Phillies pitching coach Johnny Podres might urge Williams to try a slide-step delivery with the Phillies leading by a run and Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson aboard with a leadoff walk. The better to try keeping the Man of Steal from his usual grand theft.

Except that the slide step altered Williams’s deliveries, particularly his fastballs, causing them to rise where he didn’t want them and keeping them from going down when he wanted them down. Since Podres couldn’t make a second mound visit without forcing Williams out of the game, neither he nor Phillies manager Jim Fregosi thought of sending Williams a sign to shenk the slide step.

After a fly out by Devon White and a base hit up the middle by Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, setting up first and second, Carter checked in at the plate and Williams had him thinking breaking ball on 2-2. “The only reason I hit it fair,” Carter said in due course, “was because I was looking for a breaking ball the whole time. I wasn’t way out in front of the ball. I guarantee you, if I was looking fastball, I would’ve swung and missed or hit a foul ball.”

You know what happened next. Williams slide-stepped forward as he threw, pulling himself rightward, breaking his tumble with his glove hand. The fastball arrived above Carter’s knees and departed over the left field fence. Sending Carter into Toronto and World Series lore and Williams even further into Philadelphia and World Series infamy than the fun-loving reliever was already.

“I knew I made a mistake,” the Wild Thing would say in due course. “That fastball was down and in, right in Carter’s nitro zone. I wanted to throw it up and away, which I could’ve done if I’d gone with my full leg kick. But the slide step altered my delivery and I ended up rushing the pitch.”

Williams would say plenty more after the bomb detonated. He faced the postgame press and answered every last question thrown his way, even the dumb ones. “Ain’t nobody on the face of this earth who feels worse than I do about what happened,” he said straight, no chaser. “But there are no excuses. I just didn’t get the job done. I threw a fastball down and in. It was a bad pitch. I’ll have to deal with it.”

He turned out to be a better man than the Phillies teammates who stood by their man in the immediate wake but threw him under the proverbial bus as soon as the uproar stopped roaring. For one thing, it turned out that Williams was hit with death threats after his blown save in Game Four . . . and spent a sleepless night with his shotgun cradled in his lap just in case.

““We wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for Mitch,” said Phillies first baseman John Kruk. “He’s not afraid to take the ball and I like a guy like that on my team,” said center fielder Lenny Dykstra, the likely ’93 Series MVP until Williams’s ill-fated slide-step fastball. Seemingly within minutes of offering those got-your-back comments, some Phillies offered knives into his back instead.

“I love the guy,” said Dykstra, according to William C. Kashatus’s study of those ’93 Phillies, Macho Row. “He’s a great competitor and I’m sure he wants to pitch here again, but for his sake I hope he doesn’t have to . . . he’ll probably never be able to pitch in Philly again.”

Dykstra was the epitome of subtlety compared to pitcher Curt Schilling—who’d gained national attention for both his bold Series pitching and for being caught on camera in the Phillies dugout with a towel covering his head whenever Williams took the mound.

“What if we win and go to the postseason again next year?” Schilling asked. Heaven help us, he answered his own question right then and there. “We’d still be going in with the mentality of ‘Can he do it?’ Mitch was tired at the end of the season. It was a question of whether he was able to. Mitch gave his all every time out there, but, in the big leagues, it’s not a matter of giving everything and wanting the ball. It’s a matter of success.”

You guessed it. Nobody bothered asking why Podres and Fregosi didn’t even think to take the slide-step off when they had all the evidence in front of them that it wasn’t working. As if you just couldn’t get three outs after Henderson might have stolen second. As if you couldn’t get even Molitor to hit into a game-ending, Game Seven-forcing double play.

The Phillies ended up trading Williams to the Houston Astros. Williams might have gotten a standing O the first time he returned to Philadelphia—maybe his refusal to look for the nearest rug under which to crawl after the fateful pitch had something to do with that—but he was still coming to the end of the line. After three sad seasons with the Astros, the California Angels, and (very briefly) the Kansas City Royals, Williams retired.

The bad news is that he’d trade barbs with the like of Dykstra for years to follow. Dykstra once told a radio interviewer Williams was a barrel-finding joke; Williams shot back that you could have better conversations with trees than with Dykstra.

Last spring, after baseball shut down and postponed itself over the coronavirus, assorted broadcast networks plus YouTube elected to show particular classic games. Game Six of the ’93 Series was one of them. The Phillies were not amused when MLB Network itself showed it.

“Oh, not to be Mitch Williams, now that winter’s here,” Thomas Boswell wrote after Williams and Carter ran into each other so dramatically, in a Washington Post column republished in Cracking the Show.

For the rest of us, it’s still autumn. But winter came early for Wild Thing . . . does baseball have eighteen goats to match Williams? . . . When the bullpen phone rang with the Phils leading, 6-5, when Williams saw the top of the gaudiest lineup in baseball awaiting him to begin the ninth, did he want to plead nolo contendere?

Williams pled no such thing. Turned out he was the Philthy Phillie with the least splainin’ to do. Dykstra and fellow Macho Row-ers Dave Hollins, Pete Incaviglia, and Todd Pratt were named eventually in the Mitchell Report and other documents as using or being tied otherwise to actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances.

Dykstra’s post-baseball legal issues and temporary life in the calaboose—he once jabbed Williams at a joint comedy roast with a crack about prison being “a fantasy camp” compared to playing behind the Wild Thing—are documented to a fare-thee-well. When Dykstra’s libel suit against former Mets teammate Ron Darling was thrown out of court, the judge’s ruling included observing formally that Dykstra had a long-time reputation as a creep.

Meanwhile, like the late Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson, who converged so fatefully in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, Williams has since forged a friendship with Joe Carter. “Really, since the home run, we’ve been tied at the hip,” Carter told the Toronto Star in 2012, when he and Williams joined for Carter’s golf tournament to raise money for at-risk Canadian children.

I’ve always known what type of guy Mitch is. He’s a great guy and the great thing about baseball is not just the sport itself, but the people you meet. Lives are going to be crossed, paths are going to be crossed a lot. It just so happens we’re kind of intertwined now and I thought it would be a great gesture to bring him back here because he is a fun guy to have around … he really is.

“Geez, the night it happened I said, ‘If I’ve got to give it up to somebody, I’d have preferred to give it up to a class guy like Joe Carter’,” Williams told the Star that 2012 day.

Beware the rush to plant and keep the ridiculous goat horns aboard whichever poor soul turns out to commit the mistake that costs either the Tampa Bay Rays or the Los Angeles Dodgers the World Series now playing out of Texas. The goat business is nebulous enough and has long deserved to be put out of business. You get the impression far too often that Joe and Jane Fan are thirstier for goat’s milk than hungry for a hero sandwich.

Try to remember, instead, Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s favourite recollection of Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully—Scully’s habit before any World Series he’d broadcast was to slip into church and pray, “not for a win,” Koufax said, “but there would be only heroes in the World Series, no goats. He didn’t want anybody in the future to be tarnished with the fact that they lost the World Series for their team.”

While you’re at it, think of all the so-called goats who proved better people than those preferring they spend eternity in boiling oil. Players such as Johnny Pesky, Ralph Branca, Tom Niedenfuer, Bill Buckner, and Yu Darvish. Managers such as Gene Mauch, Tommy Lasorda, John McNamara, Grady Little, and Terry Collins.

Men like Williams, who never thought once of running and hiding when there wasn’t a jury on earth that would rule him unjustified, who proved a stronger man than the teammates who proved his fair weather friends. When you replay ’93 Series Game Six today, remember that, especially.

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