Is Mitch Williams Getting Screwed?
Mitch Williams was, until recently, known for two things — throwing a baseball and talking baseball. He’s doing the latter here in a cramped studio in Collingswood, New Jersey. It’s home to Wildfire Radio, an online station that’s hoping to attract attention with Unleashed, a baseball chat show hosted by former Phillies reliever Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams. On a cold night in January, Mitch is flanked by two co-hosts and a special guest — his son, Declan. “I want people at home to know the depth of the knowledge of kids that are watching our game today,” Mitch explains, in case listeners are wondering why his 10-year-old is sitting in tonight. “It’s amazing. He amazes me on a daily basis.”
It’s strange seeing Mitch here. In another life, not long ago, he was a rising star at Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, on the air as the Phillies were ascending to a championship. In less than two years, he was recruited by MLB Network, where he became a regular on MLB Tonight. Mitch has an Emmy from that show in his house in Medford, where he lives with his wife and kids. I ask if he’s being paid modestly for the Wildfire Radio gig. “Uh, nil,” he says. “If you consider that modest, yes.”
Mitch’s career — his life — was transformed over the course of one weekend last May. He was coaching Declan’s youth baseball team, a travel squad Mitch founded called the Jersey Wild (of course), at a tournament in Aberdeen, Maryland. On Saturday, Mitch and an umpire got into a heated nose-to-nose exchange, and he was ejected. The next day, in the title game, coaches and parents of the opposing team accused Mitch of ordering his pitcher to intentionally hit a batter. Worst of all, he was said to have called a child on the other team a “pussy.”
We know all of this because Deadspin, the sports news and gossip site, said so in two stories that made Mitch out to be the Bob Knight of Little League. The headlines practically wrote themselves: Wild Thing has lost control. MLB Network announced he would be taking a leave of absence, and soon after, Mitch was fired.
He’d expected to stay in broadcasting indefinitely. And why wouldn’t he? Mitch can talk baseball, and while his act inspires either love or loathing, that’s entirely common in sportscasting. Coincidentally, this past off-season, CSN Philly launched a talent search to replace Jamie Moyer in its booth. Who better than Mitch to revive that flatlined broadcast, in a year when the Phillies could be the worst team in baseball?
But Mitch’s phone isn’t ringing. He’s got the Internet show, which he plans to host weekly when the season begins this month, and an appearance at comedian Joe Conklin’s Sports Roast at the Electric Factory. I ask the 50-year-old which was tougher — his collapse in the 1993 World Series (you know, the one that inspired death threats), or his life now as an unemployed ex-jock and youth sports Scumbag of the Year. “It’s not even close,” he says. “This is way worse.”
A COUPLE OF WEEKS after the radio show, it’s almost one in the afternoon, and Mitch is tucked into a recliner in his living room, wearing sweatpants and a Nike workout shirt. He doesn’t seem to have done much so far today.
Hard to blame Mitch if he’s feeling like he looks — a little depressed, a little pissed-off. Consider how far he’s fallen. His ’93 Phils were arguably the most “Philly” of any team that’s ever played in this city. Underdogs, grunts, hard-charging, hard-partying, grass-and-dirt-stained head-first sliders and stop-sign blowers: They were characters. But for Mitch, it was always more complicated. Along with Joe Carter’s heartbreaking home run in the World Series came those threats on his life and a sleepless night in his truck, clutching a handgun. (Imagine if Twitter had existed then.)
Mitch got his broadcasting break in 2007, sitting in on an episode of Comcast SportsNet’s Daily News Live. As Mitch tells it, he walked off the set and a CSN suit offered him a job with the Phillies’ pre- and post-game shows. The next year, he left for MLB Network and the national stage.
Then came that explosive two-day tournament in Maryland, which left Mitch radioactive. As Deadspin told it, Mitch was ejected from coaching a Jersey Wild game on Saturday “after a profanity-laced tirade in which he called an umpire a ‘motherfucker’ in front of the children.” Three photos showed Mitch and the ump in each other’s grills, and anonymous witnesses ripped Mitch for his behavior. (For proof of a pattern, the piece links to a Philadelphia Daily News clip about Mitch getting tossed from his then-10-year-old daughter Nikola’s Catholic League basketball game in 2008.)
Five days later, Deadspin followed up with a story from Sunday’s championship game against the South Jersey Titans, headlined “Witnesses: Mitch Williams Called Child ‘A Pussy,’ Ordered Beanball.” Along with more anonymous quotes labeling Mitch an “unbelievable douchebag” and an “arrogant classless foul-mouthed tool bag,” there was a video that showed Mitch talking to the catcher — Declan — before the beanball pitch.
As the Internet and Twitter roared, MLB Network responded swiftly, announcing that Mitch was taking a leave of absence. He’d never come back. That’s the way controversies play out in the age of digital outrage — there’s an incident, followed by an intense and furious but fact-deficient reaction on social media. To douse those flames and avoid further scandal, a sacrifice must be made. Twitter and Facebook and the Internet nod in approval and move on to the next story, with little thought to the human wreckage left behind. Wild Thing had become persona non grata, in broadcasting and in his own backyard in South Jersey. When Mitch visited a local hardware store, he says, a clerk told him to go shop somewhere else — that he and his family weren’t welcome.
Mitch is suing MLB Network for wrongful termination, and Deadspin’s parent company, Gawker Media, for defamation. You might expect as much. The man’s trying to salvage his reputation — to get his career back, to earn a living. What’s surprising is that despite the damning headlines, he may not actually have been so wild that weekend. Mitch may have gotten screwed.
WITH TWO LAWSUITS pending, Mitch can’t say much beyond what his lawyers are already arguing: The stories from the Maryland tournament aren’t true, and MLB Network wanted to amend his contract to ban him from amateur sporting events, including those of his own children. He refused to sign, and they fired him, costing Mitch roughly $2 million left on his deal. Judging by those one-sided Deadspin stories, you’d think the only people defending Mitch would be his family and his attorneys.
But that’s not the case. Laura Romond is a security supervisor with the Phillies and was the Wild’s “team mom.” During that championship game, Romond, who knows her baseball, noticed that the Titans made an illegal substitution. She told Mitch, they told the officials, and the Titans’ best hitter was taken out of the game. This did not sit well with the Titans coaches and parents.
Shortly after came the accusations that Mitch had ordered a beanball and cursed at the Titans player. Romond stood next to a tournament official, as close as any parent to the spot on the field where Mitch was alleged to have called the kid a pussy. She didn’t hear anything like that. Romond and another parent I spoke with, Rhodina Williams (no relation to Mitch), say that while he was vocal at the game, he was never vulgar or aggressive. “Mitch was always very low-key with the kids,” Romond says. “He didn’t yell.”
Rhodina is an evangelical minister from Moorestown — the kind of mom, she says, who sizes up both coaches and parents, wary of any bad influences on her son. She was in the stands for both games that weekend, and insists it’s the umpire, not Mitch, who started the confrontation Saturday night. Word of the Deadspin reports spread far beyond youth baseball. “People would come up to me and say, ‘Rhodina, what’s up with that maniac?’” she tells me. “It really wasn’t like that. I was right there. If I saw inklings in practice or elsewhere, I’m conscious of that. I’d take my kids out of that environment.”
The parent I find most convincing is Angel Martinez. He admits he’s an ultra-competitive sports dad: He drove his son two-plus hours from their home in Stony Point, New York, to play in the more competitive South Jersey region, and he took his son off Mitch’s team to join a team he thought gave his kid a better chance to win. That team was the Titans, Mitch’s opponents in the championship game that Sunday. Martinez’s son was the power hitter who was benched after the illegal substitution. “I was a little angry,” Martinez admits, “but Mitch was right about the rule.” Martinez tells the same story as the other Wild parents — Mitch would never order a pitcher to plunk a batter or call a child a cruel name; the Titans coaches and parents “went crazy” after Martinez’s son was pulled; and Mitch is getting a raw deal. Martinez says Mitch is a talker, sure — always instructing the kids or contesting a bad call — but not obscene. Even after the accusations against Mitch — and the Titans’ victory that day — Martinez regrets removing his son from the Wild.
All three parents suggest that Mitch’s predicament is largely about the way this particular ex-jock is perceived in the real world, outside of the game. For all the folks enamored with having a former Phillies pitcher as their child’s coach, there are plenty who think — or maybe simply assume — that Mitch is a jerk. “That’s the dynamic he faced every day,” Romond tells me. “Either kids were coming up to him and asking for an autograph, or you’d see the look on a coach or an umpire, and they just wanted to beat you.”
Romond is one of a number of parents who contacted Deadspin and some Philadelphia-area news outlets to defend their coach. Their side of the story was never told. Tim Burke, the Deadspin writer who authored the articles, defended his reporting to me as “extremely well-sourced,” adding that other tips he received about Mitch’s past behavior were “far more extreme” than what he published. Burke said he couldn’t answer questions about how many people contacted him to defend Mitch. None were quoted in his posts. The writer also dismissed the possibility that Mitch was the victim of a mob of angry parents and coaches who spun a trumped-up story based on hearsay, or an umpire trying to show up the retired big leaguer. (Deadspin did note that officials said the ump, not Mitch, acted unprofessionally.)
But when I run the same theory past Martinez, he agrees vigorously. “If you didn’t know Mitch Williams was at the tournament, when you walk in, you’d know in minutes,” Martinez tells me. “It’s the talk of everyone — the kids, the coaches, the parents. He pitched in the World Series, so he’s a target. But if he ordered an intentional hit, I wouldn’t have my kid around him.”
IS IT POSSIBLE Martinez is just trying to stay in the ex-pitcher’s good graces, in hopes his son may one day need help getting to the pro level? Could Mitch’s supporters all be a little naive, or, like fallen news anchor Brian Williams, be “misremembering” certain events? Is it conceivable that the other parents — the ones Deadspin quoted anonymously — heard something Mitch’s defenders didn’t? Sure.
And what about that incident at his daughter Nikola’s basketball game back in ’08? Mitch has an explanation for that, too. She took a hard foul, and Mitch says someone must have tried reading his lips when he said the non-call was “fucking horrible.” He admits he cursed, but insists he didn’t call the female ref a “whore,” as was reported. Mitch was standing off by himself in a raucous gym, he says. No way anyone heard him.
What’s more compelling than any of this is what he tells me, legs curled beneath him on the recliner in his living room, about two of his other sons — Dallas, 12, and Mitch Jr., the handsome 19-year-old who met me at the door and invited me in. They’re both autistic, he says, on the Asperger’s end of the spectrum. “I’ve watched what they’ve gone through. To think that I would ever try and make a 10-year-old feel that way? People think I’m this big bad monster — that Wild Thing has anything to do with who I am. It’s so far from the truth, it’s not even funny.” The character he helped cultivate is now biting him in the ass.
Could Mitch himself be misremembering, or lying? Could his love of youth sports be less about the angelic smiles of children and more about a guy who needs competition like Kanye West needs mirrors? Maybe. But if Mitch Williams is using a story about his special-needs children to sway public opinion so he can crawl back into sports broadcasting, then calling a 10-year-old a pussy is only the tip of his sociopathic iceberg.
Mitch has no idea when his lawsuits will be resolved. So he’s “looking for opportunities,” like the Wildfire Radio Internet show that pays nothing but, he hopes, will keep his name out there in a positive light. Or this month’s Philly Sports Roast, where he’ll try to sit through a barrage of bad-parenting jokes and focus on the paycheck he’s getting for the appearance.
I asked Comcast SportsNet if, as Mitch told me, no one returned his agent’s phone call about reuniting with the network that launched his media career. They gave me a no-comment, via email, then hired Malvern Prep alum and former big-league catcher Ben Davis to replace Moyer. So for now, if you want to listen to Mitch, download his podcast, or buy a ticket to the roast. Me? I’d rather let the courts determine who’s telling the truth about Coach Mitch and, in the meantime, see Wild Thing on the Phillies’ post-game show, or breathing life into their moribund broadcast booth. Love him or hate him, his return might be the only reason to watch this season at all.
Originally published as “A Wild Tale” in the April 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.