May 09, 1994 12:00 PM

IT WAS A COOL, CRISP DAY IN KISSIMMEE, FLA., AND THE HOUSTON Astros were limbering up before a preseason game against Detroit. Milch “Wild Thing” Williams, 29, the Astros relief pitcher newly acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies, was strolling to the bullpen when a fan caught his eye. She was waving a poster that said Welcome to the South, Mitch. We Love You.

“That was nice,” Williams said later, after giving the fan his autograph. “Beats being called a bum.”

It is still too early to tell for sure. But the love affair between Williams—whose name begets voluminous applause during the pregame introductions—and the city of Houston appears to be growing apace. You would never guess that Wild Thing was given the bum’s rush—right out of Philadelphia.

Many Phillies fans believe that Williams—who blew leads in two games—cost them last year’s World Series. The lunatic fringe began making death threats against Mitch even before he threw the Series’ final pitch in the sixth game, which the Toronto Blue Jays’ Joe Carter creamed for a home run. After the game 30 youngsters armed with eggs assaulted the Williams’ home. Six weeks later the Phillies shipped Mitch and his reported $2.5 million salary to Houston.

Meanwhile, Wild Thing has remained unruffled. “A lot of people look for excuses,” says Williams with a shrug. “There’s no excuse. I was put in a situation I’ve dreamt of my whole life, and I failed.”

Williams—who came of age near Portland, Ore., where his father, Jeff, was a machinist and his mother, Larrie, worked for the sheriff’s department—grew up playing baseball. He was even wild back then.

For his part, Astros manager Terry Collins likes the fact that opposing batters, fearful of being hit, seldom gel comfortable in the batter’s box. Houston general manager Bob Watson also likes the way Williams handled his moment of shame. “He didn’t hide,” says Watson. “Not too much fazes him.”

Indeed, just ask Williams’s wife, Irene, who met Mitch at Philadelphia’s Veterans Memorial Stadium and married him last December, shortly after the Series debacle. “I felt so sorry for him,” says Irene. “I could hardly even look at him. But he kept saying, ‘When we get home, everything will be better.’ ‘

Home for Mitch, Irene and Irene’s son, Damon, 3, is the 600-acre 3 & 2 Ranch in Hico, Texas, 90 miles southwest of Dallas. Williams—who had a rocky opening day with lie Astros, allowed no runs in six subsequent outings, then was yanked in the next game—says he would like to play ball three more years before exchanging his spikes for cowboy boots. “What’s important to me,” says Williams, “is my family. Irene and I both love kids, and we want four more. We figure, down on the ranch, the more the merrier.”

But what about his twilight years? Will Mitch Williams look back someday and wish he could block out that notorious World Series game? Mitch laughs at the notion. “There’s a hundred games I’d have to block out,” he says. “Somebody’s got to win, and somebody’s got to lose. Life’s not one big victory.”


MEG GRANT in Kissimmee

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