Wild Thing Williams, a combination of Dizzy Dean and Daffy Duck, hopscotched through the Wrigley Field dugout Tuesday and then sprang up the steps--shaggy hair protruding from his cap, Cap'n Ahab beard fuzzing up his chin--until he whooshed right by the Chicago Cubs' last Hall of Famer, Billy Williams, whose specialties as a player were reliability and restraint. Cub careers are all these Williamses have ever had in common, trust us.
"All right, everybody watch your lips! I'm getting loose!" Mitch Williams cried out, to nobody in particular, for no particular reason, and then off he went to chuck some baseballs.
Billy Williams watched him come and go, shaking his head.
"Wiiiiild thing," he said.
Keep an eye on this deliverer of comic relief, this designated mad hatter, as the Cubs go after their first National League pennant in 44 years, starting tonight.
This is the character who, in his first season with the team, came within one save of Bruce Sutter's club record, but simultaneously became the relief pitcher Cub fans could and couldn't trust. Maybe he'd throw it over the plate, or maybe he'd hit Harry Caray in the head. They never knew.
Wild Thing. He makes their hearts sing. He makes everything, well, groovy.
Cub pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, on Mitch Williams: "I pitch like I'm sitting in an easy chair, and he pitches like his hair's on fire."
Pittsburgh outfielder Andy Van Slyke, on Mitch Williams: "If everybody pitched like him, I'd quit."
He is the guy who makes Chicago heartbeats flutter like a knuckleball. Not only do the Cubs have Ryne Sandberg, they also have the second coming of Ryne Duren. One Mitch pitch goes down the pipe. Next Mitch pitch goes up the screen. Third Mitch pitch goes across the corner. Fourth Mitch pitch goes around the corner, out a side exit and into Yum-Yum Donuts, next door to Wrigley.
Wild Thing. They think they love him, but want to know for sure.
Cub fans could hardly believe their eyes when the man who cost them sweet-swinging Rafael Palmeiro in a nine-player trade toed the rubber on opening day, proceeded to walk the bases loaded, then proceeded to strike out the side. That, some will tell you, was his most consistent performance of the season. That was Mitch Williams on a good day.
Sometimes it's hard to tell a Mitch Williams pitch from a pickoff attempt.
"I'm not even invited to pitcher-catcher meetings before games anymore," Wild Thing said Tuesday, on the eve of the Cub playoff series against the San Francisco Giants. "They don't want to say anything to me, because they don't want me thinking."
When he isn't pitching without thinking, Wild Thing is speaking without thinking. Or else it just comes out funny. Williams might get into hot water with some of his teammates if some of his quotes are taken out of context, condensed into one or two sentences, with all the true meaning and flavor sacrificed.
For example, while discussing Manager Don Zimmer's occasionally unorthodox strategy Tuesday, Wild Thing said: "He makes certain moves and a lot of people look at him like he's got spinach in his teeth."
What you have to understand is the amount of admiration and affection Williams has for Zimmer, and that he wouldn't for all the world want to sound unkind to him.
This is the same way he feels toward shortstop Shawon Dunston, so when Williams says "some of the things he does on the basepaths are almost ignorant," the truth of the matter is that he is flattering Dunston, talking about how his teammate is so unbelievably aggressive that opponents can't believe how crazy his baserunning is.
They feel much the same way about Williams' pitching. Everybody does. They call him Wild Thing because he is definitely a wildman, and because actor Charlie Sheen played a character with that nickname in a baseball comedy. But they also call for him whenever the Cubs need a couple of outs in the ninth inning.
"I don't particularly care what I'm called, as long as they keep calling," Williams said. "As long as they're calling me something other than 'bum.' "
What makes Mitch pitch? What can be expected of him from one day to the next? Almost anything. One day in Pittsburgh, he took a Jeff King line drive in the temple. Next day, he pitched. Teammates kidded him that the ball hit him in the one place no damage could be done. This is a franchise that at various times has had its hands on Sutter, Lee Smith, Guillermo (Willie) Hernandez, Goose Gossage, Bill Caudill, the late Donnie Moore, even the ace of the Giant bullpen that opposes them in this series, Craig Lefferts, and often was left agonizing as these relievers carried other franchises into the playoffs. Last time the Cubs won a World Series, in 1908, was there even such a thing as a "relief pitcher?"
Now, here's this goofball with a fastball, Wild Thing Williams, who spends his spare time at bowling alleys, and gets his lower torso tattooed, and avoids the barber the way some people avoid the dentist, and today it might be up to him whether Chicago goes most of the 20th Century without a baseball championship, North Side or South.
Babe Ruth once pointed toward center field here before swinging. Perhaps Mitch Williams will point toward the press box before throwing. Anytime he doesn't kill anybody this series, they ought to give him a save.
It's the unknown Cubs against the unhealthy Giants in this series. Bill Plaschke's story, Page 7.