Just before a 24-year-old former New York Mets farmhand named John Mangieri took the mound in relief for the Atlantic City ( N.J.) Surf, his pitching coach gave him a pep talk. "You never want the hitter to know what's in your mind," the coach told the kid. "That's how I pitched."
When word got around in February that the Surf, one of eight teams in the independent Atlantic League, had hired Mitch Williams—yes, that Mitch Williams—as its pitching coach, the jokes began. Yeah, one went, and Mario Mendoza will be the hitting coach. So improbable was the idea of Wild Thing teaching the finer points of pitching that media outlets had trouble discerning fact from fiction. The Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News ran stories that Mendoza, whose .215 career batting average is the measure of offensive futility, was the new Surf hitting coach. Not even in a league in which publicity stunts sometimes pass for news was the Surf bold enough to try that one.
Williams is only 36, but he's four years removed from an 11-year, six-team major league career. In 1986, while with the Texas Rangers during his rookie season, he hit 11 men in 98 relief innings. After Williams plunked three Baltimore batters in one inning, Orioles manager Earl Weaver said, "He's more hazardous than cigarettes."
During his delivery Williams whipped his left arm so violently across his chest that the momentum propelled his body off the mound, toward the third base line. "I thought it was a joke when I heard [about Williams's hiring]," says Surf pitcher Andy High, 27, a five-year veteran of independent baseball. "I thought, All he can teach me is how to fall off the mound and scuff my shoes with my glove."
Whether Williams, who walked an astounding 544 batters in 691? major league innings, knew where the ball was going was always an open question. Folks remember him for the three-run homer he gave up to the Toronto Blue Jays' Joe Carter that ended the 1993 World Series. Fewer seem to recall that Williams saved 43 games in 49 chances that year.
"People have a misconception that I was an idiot," Williams says. "They thought I just reared back and threw. I knew how to pitch. I knew every hitter in the National League. I stayed in the clubhouse and watched the first six innings of every game on television. I had two pitches [a fastball and a hard slider], so I had to learn every hitter's strength and weakness."
High, a 6'4" lefthander, has been a project for Williams from the start of spring training, when Williams noticed that High's mechanics were worse than his own. "My back leg was breaking down, and it felt like I was throwing uphill," says High, who through Sunday was 7-1 with a 2.55 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 53 innings. "Mitch had the same problem. He said I was making myself seven inches shorter. Now I'm standing straight up and just falling toward the plate. The ball has more pop, the approach has been easier and my recovery is quicker."
Those changes were clearly beneficial against the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish on May 29-Mixing a fastball in the low 90s with a changeup and a slider that breaks in on the hands of righthanded hitters, High pitched seven innings, allowing three runs on seven hits in a 10-3 win. "All these pitchers come in with problems in their delivery," Williams says. "They want to jerk their head around instead of driving it toward the plate. They don't stay behind the ball. Every problem they've got, I've had."
Williams left baseball in 1994 when he suddenly lost his desire for the game. He retreated to his 600-acre ranch in Hico, Texas, reappearing to attempt comebacks with the California Angels in 1995 and the Kansas City Royals in 1997. A torn left biceps tendon ended his career in August '97. It was former Philadelphia Phillies reliever Tug McGraw who recommended Williams to Surf general manager Mario Perrucci. "You can't sit around when you're 36 and do nothing," says Williams, who hopes to return to the majors as a coach.
At week's end the Surf had lowered its staff ERA from 4.85 last year to 3.87, though the true gauge of Williams's success will be how many of his students are plugged into big league farm systems after the season. "If a guy pitches well and stays here," he says, "I'm not doing my job."