PHILADELPHIA — When it’s love, it’s love. Mitch Williams knows that. The girl of his dreams has come along, and he knows, as sure as the hair that dangles down the back of his neck, that she’s the one. He knows this because, among other things, her dad owns a bowling alley.
“You know how hard it is to find a girl whose dad has a bowling alley?” he said before Game 3 of the World Series.
He spit. “It’s hard. I looked.”
Mitch likes to bowl. He bowls sometimes after he pitches. Actually, he bowls sometimes while he pitches. Someone asked Mitch about his pitching style Tuesday, before Game 3, and this is what he said:
“I try and make the ball go forward.”
You can’t argue with that. Of course, forward is not a given with Mitch Williams. Sideways is a possibility. And I wouldn’t rule out backwards. You are not sure when this lefty pitches if the ball is going to come your way, the mascot’s way, the dugout’s way, or maybe just stay in Mitch’s hand as he stumbles off the mound. As Kevin Costner once said in the movie “Bull Durham,” where he played a catcher, “Hey, I don’t know where it’s going.”
All of which helps make Mitch Williams, 28, the most important player in baseball. Right now.
Let me explain. Cruise was OK, but the role . . .
Regular readers of this column know I have a soft spot for Williams — also known as “Wild Thing” — because he is one of the few men in the world doing anything for the name “Mitch.” There was Mitch Miller — we’re still trying to get over him — and Mitch Ryder, who needs to make a new record besides “Devil With The Blue Dress/Good Golly Miss Molly,” which has been played so many times, the radio gets scratchy when it comes on.
Recently, in the movie “The Firm,” Tom Cruise played a character named Mitch. That was good. Unfortunately, the character was a lawyer.
But here is Williams, who does us proud, all us Mitches and sons-of-Mitches. Not because he saved 43 games this season. Not because he saved the Phils’ Game 2 victory in this Series.
No. It’s because he says things like “I’m no different in the early innings than I am in the late ones. Except for the first seven innings, I wear a skirt.”
It’s because he says — when someone asks why he falls off the mound after he pitches, like a drunk stumbling toward his car — “I do it because I lack coordination.”
He said all this Tuesday, before the game, while he was waiting for batting practice in Veterans Stadium. He jumped around, swinging his bat, like a man whose shoes were on fire. He pointed at a network TV reporter.
“Don’t go anywhere,” Williams said. “I’m about to put on a hitting exhibition.”
He yelled at his teammates, who were stretching in the infield. “Hey! Someone wanna pitch to me here, or what!” Then he motioned to the rightfield wall. “You see that out there?” The reporter nodded. “I put six in the seats right there in batting practice.”
He paused, then added, “in the last three years.” Youth is served by Williams
People laugh when he talks. Now and then, he laughs himself, a smile breaking through the thick whiskers and the headband and the hair that looks like it came off someone’s scalp at Woodstock.
This is important for baseball. Not the hair. The attitude. Williams is fascinating, because even his teammates can’t bear to watch him pitch. He is unpredictable, because sometimes you can’t touch his fastball and sometimes you can’t find it with radar.
He is the most important player in baseball right now because he is in the World Series, he is having fun, he is charismatic, and he attracts a young audience. Baseball needs all these things desperately, more than it needs another home run hitter, more than it needs a say-nothing Cy Young pitcher, more than it needs statistics and trading cards and fantasy league nerds. The national pastime has a big-league image problem these days. People — particularly young people — are not embracing it. The best thing that can happen is a lightning bolt on the mound who simply demands that you watch him.
“If everyone were like Mitch,” Andy Van Slyke once said, “I wouldn’t play.” But everyone isn’t. No one is. And Mitch has a chance, in this Series, to be more than a cult hero. If the Phillies win, he could be a national hit.
If I were baseball, I would hope it happens. And I would hope for no more games like Tuesday night’s, because in blowout losses, Mitch doesn’t pitch. And that’s not good. Williams may be wild, but his wildness comes back positive — like the time in high school when he threw several pitches over the catcher’s head, but they were thrown so hard they smacked off a concrete wall behind home plate and ricocheted onto the field, where Williams fielded them and kept the runners from scoring.
Baseball should ride the Wild Thing. Heroes are those to whom people can relate. And everyone can relate to Williams. His philosophy of life reminds me of the late author Norman Maclean, whose book was recently turned into a movie starring Robert Redford.
Eventually all things merge into one . . .
And a bowling alley runs through it.