As the role of the reliever has become more specialized (I remember when LOOGY stood for something I hacked up after a night of being in smoky bars until 7a.m.), their place in the game has become more scrutinized and discussed. Of course, this had to lead to books about the position. I had the opportunity to talk to two former relievers about their book projects this year. Former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams wrote a book about his career and his thoughts on how the game has evolved in Straight Talk From Wild Thing (Triumph). Former all-time saves leader Lee Smith wrote the forward to (and was a primary source for) Fireman: The Evolution of the Closer in Baseball by Fran Zimniuch. In speaking with them both, I couldn’t help but think how their personalities came across in the media during their career were almost exactly how they seemed over the phone. Williams came off as a no-nonsense, get right to the point kind of guy, while Smith was more reserved and a bit more thoughtful about the game.
Nicknames Can Hurt: The Mitch Williams Interview
(I spoke with Williams the day after opening day, which he had covered as an analyst for the MLB Network.—SR)
Zisk: Do you still get excited on opening day, even though you’re a part of the media now?
Williams: Absolutely. I get just as wound up every year on opening day now as I did when I was a player. It’s just something— when you played the game, you don’t ever lose that. I was absolutely excited yesterday when it all kicked off.
Zisk: Does the adrenaline kick in when you know it’s here, even though you won’t be taking the field? Do you wake up earlier on that day?
Williams: Well I get up early pretty much every day, so it’s not like when you were a player you don’t get the adrenaline rush. But you get that excited feeling obviously because it’s a sport we love.
Zisk: In the book you talk how you got your nickname “Wild Thing.” Do you think that having a nickname based upon what someone thought of your pitching style hurt you when you tried to get major league coaching jobs after you retired? I know you did work as a coach for an independent league team for a while. Did the image that nickname portrayed become a negative in the eyes of major league organizations?
Williams: Absolutely. You have the nickname “Wild Thing” they’re not going to be beating your door down to teach their young pitchers the mechanics of the position. And the one thing I know—and I know for sure—is the mechanics of the position. I know how to throw a baseball. I know how to throw a baseball correctly. I know how to teach how to throw a baseball correctly to keep kids from hurting their arms. But with that nickname, there’s not going to be a lot of people wanting you to teach their kids. And until you have the opportunity to sit down and talk with somebody to explain the mechanics of the position and that you do know them, they won’t know what you can do. I spent 11 years in the big leagues and never got stiff or sore. I know how to throw the ball correctly. But the nickname absolutely hurt me in that aspect.
Zisk: If you were offered a job as a pitching coach for a major league team, would you do that now? Would you give up the media career you’ve built up right now?
Williams: You know…I don’t know. I honestly couldn’t answer that question. It would all depend on the job and where it would be, because I love what I’m doing now and it would have to be somewhere pretty special for me to leave what I’m doing.
Zisk: In Straight Talk you dive into how pitch counts have had a dramatic impact on today’s game. When did it really start? Did they become a factor when you were playing?
Williams: When I first got to the minor leagues it wasn’t so low. They didn’t want you going out there and throwing forever. I remember getting taken out of a no hitter in the 5th inning with 155 pitches in the minors.
Zisk: Holy crap.
Williams: I just never believed in the pitch count. If you throw mechanically right you can throw all day. And it just teaches kids now—it’s a mental thing. It’s a mental block for them. A manger will go to the mound and say, ‘How do you feel?’ And they don’t say, ‘Fine. I feel good. How many pitches have I thrown?’ It doesn’t matter how many pitches you have thrown. It’s how do you feel. I’ve always believed that the other team will let you know when you’re tired because they’ll start beating your brains in. It’s that simple.
Zisk: What was it like making the transition to the other side of the microphone? When you first started on air in Philadelphia and now on the MLB Network, did you ever feel like you had to restrain what you said? When I watch you on MLB Tonight, it seems like you don’t hold back and shoot from the hip much of the time. It doesn’t seem like you’re holding anything back.
Williams: No, definitely not. The only thing I concerned myself with is that I don’t ever want to forget that I played the game. And it’s a difficult game. I will never attack a player personally. I’ll never question his integrity, what he tried to get done or anything like that. I’m going to analyze what is in front of me. And I’m gonna tell the truth. If I see something that happened that shouldn’t have happened, I will say it should not have happened. I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘Oh, he tried to do it this way on purpose and it wrong and his whole thought process was wrong.’ You can’t do that. All you can do is analyze is what’s in front of you and give an honest analysis of the game.
Zisk: One final question—we’re doing a special issue marking a decade of Ichiro and Albert Pujols playing in the major leagues. How you would pitch to each of them if you were playing today?
Williams: Well Ichiro I would go at him like I would any other lefthander. Albert Pujols, he’s either going to swing at balls or he’s going to walk, period. I’m not going to give him anything that he could possibly hit a home run. That’s how I would approach him. I would try to get ahead of him in the count and then expand the strike zone. And then he either swings at balls or he walks.
Zisk: Do you ever shake your head watching some pitchers approach Pujols? Like you think yourself, “What are they doing?”
Williams: (Laughs) Oh yeah, absolutely. There really is no one way to go at him. So you have to continually change up how you’re going to go at him. And if you do have to pitch to him, you better know where his nitro zone is—and where he can do the least amount of damage.
Biding My Time: The Lee Smith Interview
Zisk: One of the things I didn’t know about your career before I read the book is that you didn’t want to become a reliever, and that you actually quit baseball because of it.
Smith: Yeah, I did and was going to play college basketball. But Billy Williams visited me and talked me into coming back. The Cubbies wanted me to be relief pitcher and they wanted me to throw sidearm. And the one thing that bothered me was that I didn’t know if my arm would snap back day in and day out. Luckily it did, and the rest is history.
Zisk: The transition from being a starter to a reliever, is it more on the mental side of things? Or is it the physical toll, like you talked about worrying about your arm day after day.
Smith: It’s definitely more on the mental side of things. You have to go out there day in and day out and think about getting major league hitters out. As a starter you’ve got three or four days to prepare for a full lineup. And after a while, I finally got to a point where I knew how much to throw to be ready each day. Because as a reliever, as you well know, you can throw three or four days in a row and not even pitch in a game. Some mangers might think, ‘Man, you had three days off.” And I’m like, ‘No, I’ve been warming up in the bullpen every time you call down there.’ So you’ve got to learn how much warming up you need to do before you go into the game.
Zisk: Was there a certain point in your career where you thought, ‘Okay, I am a reliever and I’ve got the right mental approach down.’
Smith: I think in 1987 at the All-Star Game in Oakland that happened. I struck out Mark McGwire, and I guess that’s where the recognition started that I was one of their premiere closers in the game. And it was around that time that I really embraced being a closer. I thought, ‘Man, I like this job.’ That’s because up until that point, I was always thinking about trying to get back into the rotation. But thank God I never did. I had always dreamed of following in the footsteps of great pitchers like Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins. I always wanted to be that because in that era, the only way to get recognition was to be a starting pitcher.
Zisk: You mention Fergie Jenkins in your forward and in you interview in the book. What kind of impact did he have on you as a baseball player?
Smith: He was my mentor on and off the field. I loved the way he pitched. As a matter of fact, Fergie Jenkins taught me a curveball because I was going to be a starting pitcher. And once I started closing our manager Jim Frey said, ‘Hey, you don’t need a curveball. You don’t need two breaking balls, you just need one.’ So I ended up throwing a slider, a two seam fastball and a four seam fastball, and then I ended up throwing a forkball towards the end of my career. But back to Fergie, wow, he taught me so much. He even talked me into wearing cowboy boots. Now what does a Canadian dude know about wearing cowboy boots? (Laughs) I really liked rooming with him because he would talk to me about looking at hitters in key situations and how to pitch to them in a game. But it was so different for him, being a starter. He could throw some of his secondary pitches in the fourth inning and it wouldn’t hurt him. But if I tried to go out their and throw a get-me-over slider I with the first pitch of 9th inning, it might not be a good idea. I took what he told me and applied it to my role. I used it for on the job training. I prided myself on my control, and that’s what Fergie was great in helping me with against hitters.
Zisk: When Jim Frey told you to ditch the curveball, were you pretty confident in it at that point?
Smith: Oh yeah. Heck, Fergie even told me he thought I had a better curveball than a slider. But it was the right move. If you’re at Wrigley Field early in the season and its 30 degrees and the wind’s whipping, you want to go with what you can control best. The slider was that pitch that I could control the best at that time. If I missed with a one curveball on a day like that because I couldn’t grip the ball, you knew that the game was over. But Fergie always thought I had a better curveball than a slider.
Zisk: Do you remember your first official save?
Smith: Yes I do. I got one save in 1981 against the Dodgers. And you know what, I didn’t keep the ball. I probably had at least 150 saves that I never kept the balls for. I used to always throw them in the stands to the kids after the game. Kids are going to remember that more than adults would. There was this one kid I threw a ball to that now works at a restaurant outside Danbury, Connecticut. We crossed paths again recently and he brought the ball for me to sign—and he’s 45 years old now! And the ball was all yellow!
Zisk: Your career kind of bridges the gap between when closers would go for multiple innings to the way it is today where its one inning and they’re done. Did you like that transition? Did it extend your career?
Smith: When I first started I always wanted to pitch more than an inning. I wanted to pitch those last three innings with the game on the line. The closer back then got more of an opportunity than the closer of today get because we would go in with the scored tied and if we held them, we could get a win. I went in in probably about 100 games for the Cubs where we were down by a couple of runs in the 7th or 8th inning. But when you’re playing at Wrigley Field, a couple of runs mean nothing. (Laughs.) That was what I liked when I first started, getting the chance to win the game for your team when it was close, even if you were losing.
Zisk: The cover of the book features a picture of Mariano Rivera, who has been the dominant closer for the past 13 years or so. Is there anyone else that you would pick out as a reliever that stands above the rest during that time period?
Smith: Well, Rivera is the perfect guy to be on the cover. He’s unbelievable. But I can’t go without giving my buddy Trevor Hoffman a lot of credit. His changeup has been devastating for so long and he’s such a class act. If I had to pick someone that could last as long as the two of them, I’d say Jonathan Papelbon of the Red Sox has a chance to do that if he stays healthy.
Zisk: You’re currently working as a roving pitcher instructor for the Giants, and I’ve always wondered, what exactly does that job entail? Do they say, ‘We have these pitchers we’d like you to work with,” or do you just pick a different minor league affiliate to go to for a while? Explain to me how your job works.
Smith: Basically my job is that I go out through the entire organization, look at all the young pitchers and examine their mechanics and try to determine if they’re better suited as a starter or as a reliever. There’s so many guys now drafted as a closer out of college, but you can’t have a closer throwing 84 miles per hour. He might have been a closer for Southwest Missouri State, but he’s not going to close for San Francisco. So my job is to identify the strengths, teach them how to pitch out of certain situations and put them in them in a position—and the right league—to succeed.
Zisk: There’s been a lot of talk over the past five years about what it will take to get closers into the Hall of Fame. Your votes have gone up every year since you were first eligible. Are you in the mindset of, ‘What’s taking so long,’ or do you think it will happen eventually? It seems like the writers haven’t respected the impact closers have had on the game the past three decades.
Smith: I think you’ve summed it up right there. (Laughs) I don’t know how the writers think when they vote each year. It seems to me they only want one or two guys in each year. I mean, the NFL has seven per year. But to be honest, I’m okay biding my time. I mean, just to have your name on the ballot with all these great players is a great honor. It gives me goosebumps thinking about it. When you go there and look at all the greats, many of whom I never got to see play, and just look at their accomplishments. And to even be considered for that place, wow man. I mean, I came from a hometown that had a high school graduating class of 26 at one point. It was small. And to now be thought of as having a chance to go into the Hall of Fame, it’s a good feeling, you know? I do have to say that I don’t understand how the voting works. I mean, look at Bert Blyleven. I think he must have done something so bad that it’s kept both of us out. (Laughs)