The photos are iconic. Curt Schilling sitting in the Phillies dugout with a towel over his head while Mitch Williams toiled on the mound. It wasn’t exactly a scene that inspired great team chemistry. Some fans were upset at Schilling and others upset with Williams because of his penchant for wildness. Let’s face it, at times, Williams was hard to watch. He was Houdini, seemingly locking himself in a box only to escape before the air ran out. Nervous fans may have turned away, but a teammate and the ace of the pitching staff? It’s almost part of the job description to sit there and watch with a poker face even when it starts to hit the fan.
What did it do to Williams while he was on the mound? Nothing.
“I never thought about it. I didn’t even know it was happening until after I saw it on a replay,” said Williams on a recent visit to Coca-Cola Park for an autograph session. When Williams expanded his feelings to include what went on behind the scenes, the topic became much more interesting. “I offered to kick his ass, but he didn’t want to come over to the house, so that never got to happen. I made my feelings about it… I made Curt aware of my feelings, but I really didn’t have to, the majority of the team did. If you don’t want to watch, that’s no problem, go into the clubhouse. He was just a guy that was all about Curt.”
Williams is as unabashed as he was during his playing days. He’s never been the type to run his words through any sort of filter and he still doesn’t. Even when he knows he is being recorded and his words are to appear in print, online or on a broadcast (if they’re allowed to be used in certain settings.) He apologized for his choice of words, but then went on to repeat the mistake in front of a gaggle of area media. That lack of a filter cost him a job with the MLB Network and is at the top of his list of reasons why he wouldn’t be able to return to broadcasting or even potentially be employed by a major league team.
“Believe me when I tell you, no one wants to hear my opinion, because it’s unvarnished. I’m not very good at playing politics,” said Williams. When asked if whether the game needs more straight talk from former players in front offices, Williams again did not hold back. “It would be great for the game to have people that understand the game in the front office, but they’re going to hire people who they think are good at business. Put a good team on the field and the business will take care of itself.”
If his thoughts make sense for a front office, they make even more sense for the MLB commissioner’s office. With all of the changes and proposed changes to the game, not to mention a new collective bargaining agreement to be negotiated, some straight talk about the state of the game would make some sense.
“They’ve gotten completely away from hiring ex-ballplayers because they find out that if they hire ex-big leaders, they’ve got to pay them. If you hire a guy with no big league experience, they work a lot cheaper,” said Williams.
When Larry Bowa visited the Lehigh Valley recently, he noted that with baseball’s changes in how they evaluate young players, he might never have gotten a shot at playing in the majors. And if he had been given a shot, he might have been sent back to the minors. If that was true for him, it was especially true for Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, who put up terrible numbers in his first MLB season. Mitch Williams felt much the same about how he would be viewed in these days of analytics and crunching numbers.
“I don’t know that they would have even looked at me,” said Williams. “The walks bothered my teammates and my manager, but they didn’t bother me and that’s all that really matters. As long as the guy on the mound wasn’t worried about it, I wouldn’t have worried about it.”
Williams is negative – extremely negative – about many of the changes that come to baseball. His first rant was about starting extra innings with a runner on second, noting that a pitcher who allows that guy to score doesn’t have an earned run added to his record, but he does have a run added. The pitcher also picks up a loss if he allows that runner to score the winning run. He points out that the pitcher shouldn’t be given a run allowed or a loss because he never allowed that runner to reach base. He’s right.
Williams is also pessimistic about the future of the game that he loves and played for 11 seasons. His main concern is that his son, who is a senior in high school and hoping to be drafted next Summer, won’t be playing the same type of game that he loved playing.
“I hope that the game that I love and the game that he grew up loving is still there when he’s ready,” said Williams. “I’m not real optimistic about it. Look at the attendance. Attendance tells you everything you need to know about the game. If you can’t get people to come out to the game, you don’t have a product; it’s pretty simple math.
“This game has survived for over 100 years with the rules that are in place. Now, they’re changing the rules, they took out the most exciting play in the game where you’re allowed to run over the catcher, which to me was absurd. No catcher was ever told to block the plate and no runner was ever told to hurt a catcher. Those are in-game decisions that players have to make and it was hands down the most exciting play in the game. I just don’t see why you mess with something like baseball.”
So, is Williams against any and every proposed change to the game? No. He believes that baseball has it within its hands to speed up the game. If they want to.
“Believe me when I tell you that they don’t want the game to go faster. When the game goes slow, just think about all of the ads that they get to run on TV,” pointed out Schilling about the length of time between innings. “If you want to speed up the game, put a pitch clock on it. No one will even know it’s happening except for the players. They’re holding off on it because it will speed the game up and they don’t really want to do that.”
One thing that’s lacking in Williams is his memory of the Lehigh Valley. He had been at Coca-Cola Park twice in the past, once to throw out a first pitch and sign autographs in 2008 and the other in 2010 when he did color for the Triple-A All-Star Game on the MLB Network in 2010. When reminded of the 2010 visit, he insisted that he had never been to the ballpark, but did have memories of broadcasting an All-Star Game, although he couldn’t remember where the game was played.