The KC Royals took a chance on a former National League closer in 1997. The hurler known as ‘Wild Thing’ didn’t work out and his stay in KC was short.
The 1997 KC Royals were a blend of aging players nearing the ends of the Kansas City stages of their careers and youngsters showing signs of promise. The mix evoked thoughts of a return to happier times the club hadn’t enjoyed since its last full winning season in 1993 and a 64-51 performance in the strike-shortened ’94 campaign.
At 33 and in his next-to-last season with KC, catcher Mike Macfarlane busied himself helping up-and-coming backstop Mike Sweeney. Chili Davis, 37 and playing his only season with the Royals and Bip Roberts, 33, who started the season but wouldn’t finish it with KC, were available to tutor young Johnny Damon. Starter Tim Belcher, also 35, was in his last Royals campaign; Jeff Montgomery, still the closer at 35, was approaching the end of his big league career and would retire two seasons later;
A horrible 20-game stretch from June 28 to July 22 dashed any hopes of a winning season. The Royals lost 18 of 20 to fall 18 games below .500; on July 6, after losing their eighth in a row, the club fired manager Bob Boone and replaced him with Tony Muser, a move that probably inspired in fans about as much confidence as the hiring of Boone to replace popular Hal McRae during the 1994-95 strike. Muser didn’t make any difference–the KC Royals finished dead last in the AL Central at 67-94.
It was the kind of season when almost nothing went right, including the bullpen experiment that brought “The Wild Thing” to Kauffman Stadium. Looking for ways to bolster a nondescript (except for Montgomery) relief corps, and in a fashion perhaps prescient of the club’s future willingness to take on pitching reclamation projects, KC signed free agent and former Philadelphia closer Mitch Williams in January. His stay would be short.
It’s unclear why the club gambled on Williams. It certainly didn’t need a closer: although the end of Montgomery’s career was peeking over the horizon, the future Royals Hall of Famer could still get the job done–he’d saved 24 games in 1996 and his 14 saves in the only 20 save situations the club put him in led the team in ’97. Perhaps it wanted another left-hander or another veteran presence.
Or maybe the Royals just hoped Williams could recapture his lost form.
Williams broke in with Texas in 1986 but didn’t blossom until the eight-player trade that brought Rafael Palmeiro to Texas landed Williams in Wrigley Field for the ’89 campaign–he led the majors in appearances and saved 36 games for the Cubs. His unorthodox pitching motion and delivery caused him to fall away from the front of the mound on almost every pitch and accounted, at least in part, for the “Wild Thing” moniker he earned that season.
Unfortunately, his new handle fit more than Williams’ mechanics and mound gesticulations–it aptly applied to his inability to find the strike zone, a malady that plagued his entire career. Even in his All-Star 1989 season, he walked too many hitters: 52 batters benefited from Williams’ generosity in 82.1 innings. Oddly enough, his 5.7 BB9 rate was the best of his career–it was the only time in his 11 big league campaigns that he didn’t walk at least 6.2 per nine innings.
Williams’ best seasons were the three he spent in Philadelphia, where he averaged 34 saves a year from 1991-93, including 43 in the Phillies’ ’93 World Series campaign. But the genesis of the ‘ downward spiral that overtook Williams’ career coincided with his collapse in that Series.
He saved Game 2 against Toronto but, after relieving Larry Andersen in the top of the eighth of Game 4, blew a save by giving up five runs (two of which were charged to Andersen) on three hits. The Blue Jays won the game; Williams took the loss and Toronto had a 3-1 Series lead.
The worst for Wild Thing and the Phillies came two games later when Williams gave up a walk-off home run to Joe Carter. The blast ended the Series and Williams’ stay in Philadelphia–the Phils traded him to Houston less than two months later.
Williams was never the same. He went 1-4 with a 7.65 ERA, 10.8 BB9 and six saves–the last of his career–for the Astros, then 1-2 with a 6.75 ERA and 21 walks in 10.2 innings for the Angels in 1995. The Phillies tried him in the minors in ’96; his control issues remained and he never made it back to Philly.
Although retirement to his Texas ranch and team roping might have been tempting, Williams still wanted to pitch and the KC Royals brought him aboard for 1997. He didn’t last through May. The Angels battered him for four runs on six hits in two innings in his first appearance in a Royals uniform; he was released May 12, two days after giving up two runs on two hits in an inning against the Yankees.
Williams pitched just seven times for the Royals and finished 0-1 with a 10.80 ERA. Control doomed him as much as anything–he walked seven in 6.2 innings, a 9.5 BB9 that was at least as unsightly as his 2.700 WHIP.
Wild Thing tried again four seasons later when he began a two-year stint with the Atlantic City Surf, a franchise in the independent Atlantic League. He was a serviceable 5-3 over those two campaigns and posted BB9s of only 2.23 and 2.70. The Wild Thing wasn’t wild anymore, but his major league days were long gone.
Today, thoughts of Mitch Williams land first on his nickname and how dominating a closer he once was. Minds then turn to Carter’s home run and what followed, the unfortunate decline of The Wild Thing. Whether Carter’s round-tripper caused Williams’ downfall is debatable, but the argument can be made.
The KC Royals rolled the dice on Mitch Williams in 1997. Unfortunately for the Wild Thing, his Kansas City stay didn’t last long.