Phillies say phooey to ’93 Series Game Six

2020-04-10 MitchWilliams

Mitch Williams didn’t run and hide after surrendering the 1993 World Series-losing home run. The Phillies threw him under the proverbial bus anyway.

One of the devices by which baseball’s keeping itself alive during the coronavirus shutdown is assorted networks, YouTube, and Twitter linking to classic games. Allowing that “classic” is in the eye of the beholder a little more often than in the eye of history, you were probably right if you thought at least a few such games might anger more than amuse.

The Phillies aren’t amused that Major League Baseball itself tweeted Game Six of the 1993 World Series. Nobody likes to remember their World Series ending with the humiliation of the other guys’ home run sending those guys to the Promised Land, of course. But there’s a little more to that story than just the Blue Jays’s Joe Carter ruining closer Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams and the Phillies that night.

“Oh, not to be Mitch Williams, now that winter’s here,” Thomas Boswell wrote 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?”

Actually, Williams didn’t want to plead any such thing.

The Wild Thing had to deal with death threats over his blown save in Game Four (the Jays won the game 15-14) reaching him as he arrived home from Veterans Stadium. First he admitted he was terrified enough to spend a sleepless night holding his shotgun. Then he he rejected thoughts of handing the closing role to someone else: “No one’s going to scare me that much,” he answered when asked. “No one will make me hide.”

Nobody did, in fact. Not even after he walked Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson to open the bottom of the ninth with the Phillies up a run and three outs from forcing a seventh game. Not even when pitching coach Johnny Podres visited him on the mound and urged him to use a slide step delivery, instead of his normal, right knee bent to his shoulder leg kick, in a bid to keep the Man of Steal from grand theft second base.

Not even after getting Devon White out on a fly to left, a base hit from Hall of Famer Paul Molitor sending Henderson to third, and Carter checking in at the plate—with yet another Hall of Famer, Roberto Alomar, on deck. Not even when Williams stayed with his pitching coach’s suggestion despite its alteration of his delivery and threw Carter a 2-1 fastball when he had Carter, a low-ball hitter, thinking breaking ball.

“The only reason I hit it fair,” Carter eventually said, “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.” He swung instead into Toronto lore, his three-run homer nailing the Blue Jays’ second straight Series win and hammering Williams into Philadelphia infamy.

Not even facing the press gamely and answering every last question sent to him, however stupid or careless, saved the Wild Thing. “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.”

In due course, Williams gave the real breakdown. “I knew I made a mistake,” he’d 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.”

2020-04-10 JoeCarterMitchWilliams

Williams walks off the field after Carter (29) begins his romp around the bases. The pair have since become friends and often autograph this photo together.

Williams’s teammates had his back—at first. “We wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for Mitch,” said 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, who might have had the 1993 World Series MVP to put on his mantel (or, all future things considered, put up for sale on eBay) if it hadn’t been for Carter.

Phillies historian William C. Kashatus wrote Macho Row about the ’93 Philthy Phillies, particularly a contingency within the team who lived by their own Code (the upper-case C is Kashatus’s) of solidarity inside and insularity from the outside. Clockwise the cover showed Kruk, Dave Hollins, Darren Daulton, Williams, and Dykstra. It took the figurative equivalent of five minutes after the Phillies finally left Toronto after the Series loss for someone to throw Williams under the proverbial bus.

Actually two someones. Both Dykstra and pitching star Curt Schilling—whose gutsy Game Five shutout got the Phillies as far as to Game Six in the first place—talked to the press showing “concern that Mitch Williams not return to the Phillies” after the Carter bomb, Kashatus wrote. “I love the guy,” said Dykstra. “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.”

That was mild compared to Schilling, who’d made a few World Series waves by sitting on the bench with a towel over his head whenever Williams came into a game and now suggested trading the Wild Thing would be a positive.

“What if we win and go to the postseason again next year?” Schilling asked, then answered. “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.”

Nobody, of course, thought even once to question Podres’s judgment in urging Williams to the slide step delivery even with Henderson on the bases ready to commit high crime at the first known opening. Once a Brooklyn hero for beating the Yankees twice to win the only World Series the Dodgers ever won as the Brooklyn Dodgers, Podres served three more seasons as the Phillies’ pitching coach.

If Podres couldn’t make a second mound visit, the rule being a second visit by either coach or manager meaning the incumbent pitcher having to leave, why couldn’t he send Williams a sign to take the slide step off? Even with Henderson on second?

What’s the worst that could happen from there with the slide step taken off—Carter not missing, not fouling, but maybe hitting a soft fly ball on which even Henderson might not score, maybe even whacking into a game-ending double play that forces Game Seven?

Dykstra and Schilling may have insisted as Kashatus wrote, that Williams not take it personally, but then Williams did indeed get traded, to the Astros early that December. He fumed particularly over Schilling’s remarks at first, the two trading insults for a spell until Williams’s career hit the pit in Houston, Anaheim, and Arlington to follow before he retired.

Come 2008, Dykstra gave a radio interview in which he called Williams a barrel-finding joke. It prompted Williams to talk to the same station the following morning and call Dykstra “the most common sense-void person I’ve ever met in my life. He’s a savant with a bat in his hand. You could have a better conversation with a tree.”

Williams even predicted Dykstra’s long-infamous Players Club venture, giving financial advice to professional athletes, would collapse. Which is exactly what happened, along with enough other financial improprieties including bankruptcy fraud to send Dykstra to the calaboose in disgrace.

Not that it taped Dykstra’s mouth shut when it came to Williams. At a 2015 comedy roast, Dykstra told Williams, “Prison was a [fornicating] fantasy camp compared to playing behind you.” Williams wasn’t exactly caught unprepared, retorting that the only real reason Dykstra still burned over the Carter home run was because it cost Dykstra that ’93 Series MVP.

Schilling ended up going from Philadelphia to become a postseason legend in Arizona and Boston, a qualified Hall of Famer who throve when the games were the biggest, until a combination of his 38 Studios’s collapse and his tendency toward political opinions delivered with threatening tones sank his public image.

The harshest part of that isn’t just that Schilling hasn’t been elected to Cooperstown but that he also caused his parallel reputation for philanthropy to become ignored or at least bypassed. He was fired as an ESPN baseball analyst at a time when he needed the income badly enough after the 38 Studios debacle for which he never shirked responsibility.

Compared to all that, Williams’s life became something of a rose garden for a long enough time. His first marriage collapsed but he’d remarried in 1993. He became a Philadelphia baseball broadcaster who attracted MLB Network into hiring him as an analyst.

Then came an incident while he was coaching one of his son’s youth baseball team’s games. A dispute with an umpire, an accusation that he’d ordered a pitcher to throw at a batter, and another claiming he called an opposing player a feline euphemism for a certain part of the female anatomy. MLB Network fired him when he refused to sign a deal barring him from those games.

Williams sued MLB Network over the firing and Deadspin‘s parent Gawker Media for defamation, and eventually won a $1.5 million settlement in 2017. The Wild Thing couldn’t resist a tweet: “To all of the people that have wondered where I have been for 3 years.today that answer was provided by a court of law#justice.”

He never bought the Phillies saying they traded him to the Astros because they “thought the fans would crucify me the next year. But they underestimated me. They didn’t understand that the fans appreciated that I didn’t run and hide after the World Series or during the off-season. The fans knew I was a guy who fit into their city. They knew that every day I walked out there I gave everything I had.”

That standing ovation with which the Veterans Stadium crowd hit Williams when he returned as an Astro in an interleague game proved it.

A decade before Williams won that settlement, the Mitchell Report and other documents named Dykstra, fellow Macho Rowers Pete Incaviglia, Hollins, and reserve catcher Todd Pratt as using or being connected to actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. “If someone was using steroids on that team,” Kruk insisted, “they were awfully quiet about it. And we talked about everything on that club.”

Speculation abounded, too, about regular catcher Daulton, who eventually admitted during his battle with brain cancer, “Anything I did in the past is my fault. Not my ex-wives’ fault, nor any of my kids’ faults, not baseball, not the media—me, my fault—I did the damage.”

There are indeed reasons why the Phillies today might not be amused to be reminded of Game Six of that ’93 Series. Reasons having almost nothing to do with the standup pitcher who shook off a sleepless, death-threatened night, listened to his pitching coach once too often, and didn’t look for the nearest hideout after one pitch meant disaster.

The guy who’s since forged a pleasant friendship with the man who destroyed his 2-1  fastball and the hope of a Game Seven. The guy to whom Phillies fans gave that standing O his first time back to Philadelphia because he was maybe the only stand-up man in the crowd.

Who’d have thought, when all was said and done, that the Wild Thing was the ’93 Phillie who had the least amount of splainin’ to do?

Suffer Merkle’s children no more

2019-05-28 FredMerkle

Fred Merkle, the patron saint of unwarranted baseball goats.

“Sports, especially pro sports,” Thomas Boswell wrote in 1989, “is not a morality play, much as it suits our national appetite to act as if it were. Even some athletes, perhaps including [Donnie] Moore, seem to crush themselves under a burden of self-imposed guilt in areas of life where no cause for guilt exists.”

Moore, the former Angels relief pitcher, surrendered a shocking home run to Dave Henderson of the Red Sox when the Angels were a strike away from nailing the 1986 American League pennant. Three seasons later, he shocked baseball and the world by shooting his wife before turning the gun on himself and killing himself.

A haunted man as it was before the pitch, Moore apparently couldn’t bear the weight of that pitch. It wasn’t a mistake pitch, either. He threw Henderson a forkball that snapped down and away and was as shocked as anyone else in old Anaheim Stadium when Henderson sent it over the left field fence. The game went to extra innings and the Angels lost the game and, two games later, the pennant.

To the Red Sox. Who suffered even worse miseries when they were a strike away from winning that World Series. Their bullpen melted down in the bottom of the tenth against those tenacious Mets, right down to allowing the tying run home on a wild pitch that should have been ruled a passed ball.

Then Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson shot a ground ball that skipped impossibly between the feet of stout but ailing Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, allowing the winning run home to Buckner’s and his team’s horror. A Red Sox Nation that already suffered from too many decades of surrealistic calamity on the threshold of triumph could bear no more.

Buckner, who died on Memorial Day, turned out to be made of stronger stuff than Donnie Moore, and Buckner endured far worse than Moore did. And just as Moore’s Angels had two more chances to win that American League Championship Series but failed, Buckner’s Red Sox had a Game Seven yet to play in that World Series—and were defeated.

Boswell was hardly the only one to say after Moore’s suicide that the goat business wasn’t funny anymore. And it didn’t stop those inclined to look for goats wherever they could be found, and try making their lives a nightmare forever after.

A well-syndicated Washington Post sports columnist for eons now, author of several best-selling anthologies of his work especially about baseball, Boswell was probably roundly ignored when he pleaded to put the goat business out of business by addressing the “goats” with forgiveness they shouldn’t have had to beg in the first place:

Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not. 

Boswell opened the essay with a small roll of “goats,” but—perhaps unwittingly—he omitted their equally unwitting progenitor. Baseball’s goats have long since been Fred Merkle’s children.

That hapless New York Giants rookie was blamed for costing his team a pennant, after he ran toward the clubhouse before touching second after a key game-winning run scored down the stretch of that contentious pennant race. When Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers called for the ball, got it, and touched second. When Merkle was thus ruled out, and the run was ruled null, forcing a single-game playoff if the Giants and the Cubs tied for the pennant, which they ultimately did.

What everyone denouncing Merkle as a bonehead from the moment the game ended didn’t know and wouldn’t have cared about was Evers—whose Cubs were burned on a similar play earlier in the season, a play on which the out then was almost never called—taking the ball first taken by a fan, who threw it to Cubs pitcher Rube Kroh, who threw it to Evers. A ball touched by a fan is supposed to be ruled dead.

Not even Merkle’s own manager John McGraw absolving him mattered to those who saw only what they wanted to see. Never let the facts get in the way of outraged fans and outraged writers looking for one man to blame for blowing a game the team absolutely, without question, should have won. Including, as McGraw himself pointed out, there may have been at least twelve other losses the Giants could and should have won that could and would have made the difference.

Never tell people like that that two laws are inviolable: No game can be won by both sides, and Berra’s Law (It ain’t over until it’s over) has yet to be ruled inoperative or unconstitutional.

Merkle’s children were made to suffer under the ridiculous belief Boswell outlined, that losing a game or making a mistake in a game isn’t just a question of a mistake or a defeat but, rather, a question of sin. “The unspoken assumption,” Boswell wrote, “is that those who lose must do so because of some moral flaw.”

Babe Ruth wasn’t exactly the epitome of morality off the field, but in Game Seven of the 1926 World Series—with Bob Meusel at the plate, Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig on deck, and two out in the ninth—Ruth bolted for second. Everyone on earth knew a one-armed man could throw him out stealing. Amoral? Not a chance. Self-involved? Surely. But . . . he was The Babe.

Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi didn’t have Ruth’s kind of cred in Game Four of the 1939 World Series. The gentle giant was clearly morally flawed when Yankee outfielder Charlie (King Kong) Keller blasted into him at the plate, knocking him out cold, as Keller and Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio behind him scored the game and Series-winning runs in the tenth.

It couldn’t possibly have been Keller being built like a tank and nailing the otherwise likewise-built Lombardi’s cupless groin in the crash—to finish a World Series sweep.  “Lombardi,” Bill James wrote in The New Historical Baseball Abstract,” was now the Bill Buckner of the 1930s, even more innocent than Buckner, and Buckner has plenty of people who should be holding up their hands to share his disgrace.”

So should have had Johnny Pesky, the Red Sox shortstop who held the ball while Enos Slaughter made his fabled mad dash in Game Seven of the 1946 World Series. The fact that Pesky had to take a too-high throw in from late-game center field insertion Leon Culberson before turning to try throwing home proved entirely beside the point, to those who insisted that Pesky was obviously the devil’s spawn.

Too many Brooklyn fans thought Ralph Branca was on the wrong side of morality when he surrendered the maybe-it-is-/maybe-it-isn’t tainted Shot Heard Round the World ending the 1951 National League pennant playoff. Branca’s own priest thought otherwise and got to him fast enough.

The priest told Branca God chose him because He knew he’d be strong enough to bear the burden. Branca proved stronger than those who wanted him drawn, quartered, and hung in the public square.

Was it moral lacking that caught 1964 Phillies pitcher Art Mahaffey by as much surprise as it caught anyone else in late September, in Connie Mack Stadium, when Red rookie Chico Ruiz stole home for the game’s only run—starting the infamous Phillie Phlop?

Was Willie Davis prosecutable for terpitude when he lost a pair of fly balls in a too bright sun, and committed a third error off one of them, in Game Two of the 1966 World Series? (Which just so happened to be Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s final major league game as things turned out.) Did sunblindness mean its victim required an exorcism?

When B.F. Dent hit the three-run homer over the Green Monster to overthrow a Red Sox lead for what turned out keeps in the 1978 American League East playoff game, did it expose Red Sox pitcher Mike Torrez as a moral idiot? (Come to think of it, was Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski morally suspect when, with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth, he popped out to end the game?)

I guess Tom Niedenfeuer was morally suspect when his manager Tommy Lasorda, that devilish apostate, decided it was safe for him to pitch to Jack Clark with two on, first base open and the Dodgers one little out from going to the 1985 World Series. Guess that made Jack the Ripper the epitome of morality when he hit a home run that may have traveled to Pasadena, and those Dodgers couldn’t score a lick in the bottom of the ninth.

Maybe Don Denkinger was really degenerate when—in the bottom of the ninth, with Clark’s Cardinals themselves three outs from a World Series championship—he mistakenly called Jorge Orta leading off safe at first when every camera angle showed him out by a step and a half.

Never mind that the Cardinals still had the chance to keep the Royals from overthrowing their lead. And, that nobody put a gun to their heads and told them to implode entirely in Game Seven, with or without Denkinger himself rotated behind the plate. In St. Louis and elsewhere, Denkinger became Beelzebub incarnate.

Time healed a few of Merkle’s children, of course. Sometimes it was a short volume of time; other times, it took a generation or two. Sometimes one or two of Merkle’s children shook it off almost immediately.

Maybe it was easy for Babe Ruth to go on with his Hall of Fame career because, well, he was The Babe, the Big Fella, and could get away with blunders that harry mere mortals to the rack of their regrets. Maybe it was easy for Tommy Lasorda to shake off one mistake because he’d already won three pennants and a World Series.

Maybe Tim Wakefield being to four previous postseasons built up a survival mechanism to work after he saw his first pitch to Aaron Boone in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series sail into the left field seats with the pennant attached.

From whence the perennially star-crossed, snake-bitten Red Sox picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, started all over again in 2004, and delivered four straight wins against their eternal tormentors from the south Bronx after being down to the final three outs of what would have been a sweep . . . and swept the Cardinals—Enos Slaughter’s descendants—in the World Series.

Every so often those who get ruined as spectacularly as the ’03 Red Sox get a chance at immediate redemption and pounce on it. But maybe we don’t really know what goes through the minds of human men playing human games who come up short in the worst possible moments of such games.

Sometimes they heal in unexpected ways. Branca and Bobby Thomson forged a sweet friendship in the years that followed, soiled only by the revelation and final proof that the 1951 Giants made their staggering pennant comeback the (then) high-tech cheating way. Buckner and Wilson forged a comparable friendship in the years following their rendezvous with baseball’s often cruel destiny.

So have Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams and Joe Carter. Already having a blown save in Game Four of the 1993 World Series, Williams pitched into infamy in the bottom of the ninth, Game Six, when Carter hit a Series-ending three-run homer that turned what was still called the SkyDome into bedlam.

Known now to have taken the ball after a sleepless night following death threats, Williams never flinched post-game, answering even the most ridiculous questions without once trying to pass responsibility on. In the worst defeat in the Phillies’ own tortured history to that point, Williams proved a better man than his critics including a teammate or two who wanted him run out of town. He also accepted a near-immediate reaching-out from Carter himself.

“Really, since the home run, we’ve been tied at the hip,” Carter once told the Toronto Star, when he and Williams hooked up for an event to help Canadian at-risk children. “Over the years I’ve seen him at MLB Network, but 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.”

What pounds the minds of fans who can’t resist smoking out goats when their heroes lose, or doing their level best to make life miserable for those poor souls? Ask cautiously. You might be afraid of the answers.

“The right to a raspberry comes with the price of a ticket,” Boswell wrote, “and the right to an opinion goes with the First Amendment. Still, before we boo or use words like ‘choke’ and ‘goat,’ perhaps we should think sometimes of Donnie Moore.” Don’t be afraid to say it’s well past time to stop letting single failures define entire careers. Game failure isn’t crime.

Joe and Jane Fan would both give their left ventricles to have the chance those players had in those moments. And they’d be lying through their teeth if they say they’d have done no questions asked what Merkle’s children couldn’t do in those moments.

Suffer Merkle’s children no more.