The former Philadelphia reliever talks with NJ Pen about bringing his baseball analysis to a Collingswood-based podcasting group.
By Matt Skoufalos
Philadelphia Phillies reliever Mitch Williams casts a long shadow in team folklore.
Everything about Williams feels magnified, from his unique mechanics—a 99-mile-per-hour fastball, the delivery of which could pull him entirely off the mound—to the size of the spotlight in which he was thrust during the team’s 1993 World Series run.
But despite the “Wild Thing” persona of his playing days, Williams insists that his life after baseball is nothing like people might imagine.
Currently on a leave of absence from MLB Network pending the outcome of a contract lawsuit, Williams is rebuilding his digital brand with a weekly podcast produced by the Collingswood-based Wildfire Group.
He spoke with NJPen about the future of his broadcasting career, why the Phillies should use the 1993 team as a model to retool for 2015, and his take on fictional pitcher Kenny Powers of the HBO comedy series Eastbound and Down.
NJ PEN: How did you get into podcasting?
MITCH WILLIAMS: I didn’t have a job at the time. It was something to keep my voice out there, and [the Wildfire Group] were excited about doing it. I knew nothing about podcasts.
Obviously, I do enjoy talking sports and I do love being here in the Philly area because people are so passionate about them. Anything you say is going to get scrutinized.
In broadcasting, if you can’t generate an opinion, good, bad, or indifferent, about what you have to say, then you’re not very useful. People either love me or hate me, but they’re not in the middle
NJ PEN: Is it difficult to have people think of you in such a polarizing fashion?
WILLIAMS: I love it. I don’t form my opinions based on anything other than my personal knowledge. When I got into broadcasting, the one promise I made myself was to never forget how hard the game is. The broadcasters I’ve always liked are the ones who are talking about the game [and]every mistake they point out, they’ve made 100 times themselves.
I never want to get personal. All I can analyze is what should have happened, what didn’t happened, but I can’t analyze the insides of a human being. I can sit out there and go, ‘How can he make that pitch in that situation?’, and then it comes to the forefront of my mind [that]I threw a lot of pitches right down the middle that ended up in the popcorn stands.
I might question a thought process, but I’ll never question whether he meant to throw that pitch there. Nine of 10 pitches hit out of the ballpark are pitches that are not where they’re meant to be.
NJ PEN: And a hitter can drive a really good pitch, too. I always think of that shot that [Hideki] Matsui hit against the Phillies in the 2009 World Series that was basically off his toes.
WILLIAMS: I never played against Matsui, but I know [from]watching him hit, there’s one spot you want to stay out of, and that’s down and in. Right-handed hitters for the most part are not good down and in. That’s why so many people said the pitch to Joe Carter was a good pitch. It was not a good pitch. I know Joe Carter was a rare, right-handed, down-and-in hitter. I got him out by throwing fastballs up. I would love to see the number of opposite-field home runs he hit in his career.
NJ PEN: Do you get tired of answering questions about that pitch?
WILLIAMS: I understand the significance of it. Truth be told, had I got him out, nobody’d even know my name today. People aren’t in a hurry to talk about things they are ashamed of. That is one thing I’m not ashamed of. I made a mistake with a pitch. I wish it hadn’t happened.
NJ PEN: When the Phillies finally won in ’08, did you feel relieved? Like it was an opportunity to change the conversation?
WILLIAMS: A lot of people ask me that question. Honestly, it wasn’t a feeling of relief.
I was working for Comcast at the time. I was on the field when they won it. I was standing there, and I actually got tears in my eyes. I knew the guys on the team. I knew they deserved it. I knew the fans deserved it. But I never felt a sense of relief, ‘Oh, they’ll get off me now.’
But then a big white sheet dropped over the wall, something like, ‘You’re off the hook, Mitch,’ and I actually started laughing. That somebody took the time to make that sheet, to bring it to the game, and drop it over the wall.
I have that sheet today. My daughter ran out on that field and grabbed that sheet to keep it.
NJ PEN: What did it feel like to be on the field when they won?
WILLIAMS: I was filled with tears of joy because I knew Ryan, Jimmy, Chase, Jayson. I knew what kind of guys they were, how hard they worked. I covered them in 2007, 2008, and then I got to see the Philly crowd. To me, it was worth everything I went through to see what the Philly fans were getting to go through.
NJ PEN: People will always remember the 1993 Phillies as one of the most beloved teams in history. What was it like, the chemistry of the guys in that locker room?
WILLIAMS: It was Lee Thomas and Jim Fregosi. Lee Thomas, his nickname was Mad Dog. That’s just the kind of guy he was.
Fregosi was all about winning. He was a hard-nosed player. I remember him coming to me one day and telling me I needed to cut my mullet. I brought in a baseball card of him when he was with the Angels and he had the pork chops, long hair, and I said, ‘Seriously?’
Jimmy was a master at letting us be what we were and a master about how to put every player in a position to succeed. That team had three platoons. Milt [Thompson] and Inky [Pete Incaviglia] in left, [Jim] Eisenreich and [Wes] Chamberlain in right, and [Mickey] Morandini and [Mariano] Duncan at second.
Eisenreich and Chamberlain drove in 99 runs. Mickey and Duncan drove in 106 at second base, and Inky and Milt drove in 133 in left. Put any two of those guys together and that’s a $25-million-a-year outfielder.
NJ PEN: It’s funny you say that because the Phillies have had problems with their corner outfielders since they lost Hunter Pence and Jayson Werth.
WILLIAMS: They miss Werth. You sign Ryan Howard to a $100-million contract and then you don’t bring anyone in to hit behind him. Howard can hit the ball out of the park. You’re still gonna take your chances with [Marlon] Byrd. But Ryan had a horrible year and still drove in 94 runs.
NJ PEN: Do you think there’s any chance Howard is able to regain his form? It’s got to be disheartening to see the shift put on you every time and it keeps working. Is that in his head at this point?
WILLIAMS: I think Ryan lets it play with him a little bit. Every hitter stands to protect their weakness. Why do you think Chase Utley stands on the plate? Because he can’t hit the ball away.
Ryan Howard stands backwards. He can hit the ball in, but he can’t hit the ball away. If he was to just move three inches closer to the plate, it changes the pitcher’s entire perception on how to attack him. Now those balls that he’s not sure are outside, he will be sure they’re outside, and he’ll still be quick enough to react in.
I’ve talked to Ryan about it forever. I said, ‘I don’t know why you start with your front foot open. You don’t stride. You might as well start with your front foot planted.’ If Ryan’s foot isn’t moving, it in turn means his head isn’t moving. He does not stride. All he does is close. Why not start closed? It’s just something guys are used to.
NJ PEN: Is it that hard for a player to make adjustments? I mean, this has been happening for years. Do guys just not want to tweak what got them to the bigs?
WILLIAMS: It’s hard to go away from what’s always worked. But I think [Howard] struck out 199 times last year. In 2006 when he won the MVP he struck out 199 times*. So I never want to hear about his strikeouts.
What I want to see, and what I’ve always wanted to see, is [the Phillies]replace the five-hole hitter with a guy that has a legitimate chance to hit a ball out of the ballpark every time.
NJ PEN: How many of those guys are out there? Is there a way to land a hitter like that with this team looking as bad as it does?
WILLIAMS: They’ve got to clear their books. Philly fans don’t have to look at this season as it’s lost already. It all depends on how the front office approaches it.
NJ PEN: How should they approach it?
WILLIAMS: If I was the front office of the Phillies, I would trust my scouts to find me as many guys as they can find that don’t have guaranteed contracts. I would have 90 guys in my big league camp this year, and have guys like [Larry] Bowa, [Ryne] Sandberg, scouts like Dave Hollins, that know what it takes to win on the inside in Philadelphia, and just make it a competition.
[In 1993] we signed a bunch of guys that were a bunch of castoffs. When a player’s playing for his life, it’s a whole different kind of player than a guy who knows he’s getting $18 million this year whether he hits four home runs or 50.
NJ PEN: But haven’t they tried to plug in guys and do that? Wasn’t Delmon Young supposed to be a guy like that?
WILLIAMS: There’s a book on Delmon. There’s years that he has great years. But you can throw the resin bag to him first pitch; if it’s a fastball he’s swinging on it. Delmon did great last year for Baltimore.
I look at guys like Baltimore had like Nolan Reimold, who’s been hurt a lot, he’s got big power, had a hard time staying healthy. Do a comparison between Reimold and Jayson Werth. Their numbers are basically the same.
Jayson was injured a lot in the beginning of his career. Nolan’s 31 years old; supposedly, he’s healthy. Those are the guys I would go out and take a flier on. That’s how they’re forced to play it right now until they can get themselves free of these big contracts.
NJ PEN: Some people are advocating for GM Ruben Amaro to be let go. Some believe the entire Phillies scouting system needs to be overhauled. Is it fair to lay this all in Amaro’s lap?
WILLIAMS: Anyone that wants to point a finger at one person is not being honest. There isn’t a decision made by an organization that’s made by one guy. It’s a collective decision.
Ruben has the title of GM, he’s gonna take the heat, but everything Ruben does is approved or disapproved. If Ruben wants to sign someone, he has to get approval from ownership.
That’s that way it is with most general managers. I don’t know of a general manager in baseball that can go out and sign someone without the approval of ownership. I know if I’m an owner, you ain’t spending my money if I don’t okay it.
[The Phillies] sold their soul to the devil a few years ago when they emptied out their farm system to win two or three World Series in a row. They just haven’t been able to replenish it yet. They’ve got one really big chip in Cole Hamels.
NJ PEN: You don’t think it adds to their mounting list of problems to deal their staff ace? It’s just another piece to have to replace.
WILLIAMS: I think Cole gives you the best chance to get the most back, and I think you have to use that to your advantage. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to have a Rolls Royce hood ornament on a Pinto. In order for the Phillies to improve, they have to be willing to part with a guy like Cole Hamels to get back younger pieces that are going to fit into your mold in the next two or three years.
I would like to see the Phillies hold onto Cole until the trade deadline. Teams that are on the verge of winning a World Series would give up some can’t-miss, superstar prospects to get a guy like Cole.
NJ PEN: Is there anyone you wouldn’t deal?
WILLIAMS: I don’ t think there’s anybody in this roster that the Phillies should say is untouchable, Utley included, if Chase can bring them back something younger. In 2017, Chase is going to be gone anyway; all these guys are going to be gone in 2017 anyway. I think they just need to go out.
You’re looking at ’92 all over again; that’s how I think they have to approach it. We’ve got some big contracts, let’s get some players for those contracts, dump as much of the contracts as we can, and find guys that are younger that ain’t guaranteed nothin’.
Philly is a town that’s made up of fighters. Go out and find as many baseball players that are fighters as you can find, and set them out there with the message that every day, you’re playing for your life. Sometimes it brings out the best in a player, sometimes it shows you exactly what they’re made of. But you can find out all that in competitions in spring training.
NJ PEN: Is [Phillies manager] Ryne Sandberg the right guy for a clubhouse with that type of atmosphere?
WILLIAMS: I played with Ryno. I know he’s a fierce competitor. I know he has expectations of work ethic. I couldn’t believe he became a manager, because Ryno didn’t say six words in the two years I played with him.
One of the best players I ever played with in my life. He was a closet prankster. Went about his business quietly; wanted to stay out of the spotlight.
NJ PEN: [Former Phillies manager] Charlie Manuel was known as a guy who had his finger on the pulse of the team, but it’s been said that maybe the Phillies could have won another World Series or two if he had been a better tactician.
WILLIAMS: I talked to Charlie every day for two years. People don’t give him enough credit for his baseball acumen. One of the smartest baseball men I’ve ever talked to. Charlie was very laid-back.
I’ve got at 10-year-old that can strategically manage a baseball team, but the successful managers in the game are the ones who know every player on that roster and every button to push on that player.
One guy’s gotta be kicked in the ass. One guy’s gotta be coddled. One guy’s gotta be talked to every day. One guy’s gotta be left alone. If you don’t take the time to learn your employees, you’re—pardon my French—pissin’ in the wind.
NJ PEN: You got the nickname ‘Wild Thing’ after Charlie Sheen’s character in Major League. Is there any truth to the rumor that Danny McBride’s character, Kenny Powers, on Eastbound and Down, was modeled after you?
WILLIAMS: People who’ve been close to it have told me that it’s been patterned after me and one other guy. It’s a funny show, but a lot of the stuff they did on there, I didn’t want my name associated with it. It’s not something that I would want kids to watch, and think that that’s what Mitch Williams was like.
I did the premiere for them for HBO in Philadelphia, and I didn’t know what the show was about. He was talking about cocaine use, and I distanced myself as far as I could from it. I did not want to be associated with it in any way.
NJ PEN: That’s understandable. Is it at least flattering to think that people found your baseball persona so entertaining?
WILLIAMS: I’ve never gotten an ego boost from anyone that was trying to associate what my personality was like and add it to a fictional character. I’ve got enough humility with my kids not knowing who I am. I never craved that kind of attention or needed that kind of ego boost. I’ve always been very comfortable with who I am and what I stand for.
NJ PEN: With your kids *not* knowing who you are?
WILLIAMS: My kids aren’t the least bit impressed that I played baseball, and I’m perfectly happy with that. I’ve got a daughter who’s a D1-caliber basketball player graduating high school. I’m raising two kids with autism; five kids total. My oldest with autism is in college. Another graduated high school and has a very nice job.
If people saw how I live and who I am, it wouldn’t come close to what they think. They think Wild Thing is my personality. I’m all about family and kids. That’s all that’s ever meant anything to me.
NJ PEN: And I understand, especially from your issues with MLB Network, that the difference between your private and public life is something that’s important to preserve.
WILLIAMS: The stuff is tied up in court and I can’t speak on it until that’s cleared up. I have to deal with people having a certain perception of me that’s false. I’m sure once everything is cleared up legally, people will get the truth, and understand that I’m the person I always thought I was.
NJ PEN: Once that’s done, you’re hoping to get back into TV broadcasting?
WILLIAMS: I would love to get back into being an analyst or being a color guy. I enjoyed it. I’ve made no secrets about the fact that I’d love to do it with the Phillies, but with the situation the way it is right now, I understand anybody that has any hesitancy with talking with me.
I think my work at MLB network spoke for itself. The show that I was on for five straight years won three straight Emmys. Now I have to wait and let the legal system sort this stuff out before my career can move forward. It’s frustrating, but that’s the way things work in our country, and I’m no different than anybody else.
*(Howard struck out 181 times in 2006, his MVP year, and 190 times in 2014—ed.)