— As a closer, Mitch Williams took a loss from time to time, including Game 7 of the 1993 World Series. Rarely, however, was the Wild Thing ever at a loss for words.
"Oh jeez," Williams says.
This is in response to a simple question:
Can Williams name five colorful characters currently playing Major League Baseball, which he now covers for MLB Network?
"Nick Swisher is a character," Williams says.
Guillen's no longer playing, though. He's regularly making controversial statements while managing the Chicago White Sox.
"(Tim) Hudson. Manny (Ramirez) would be a character.... Jiminy Christmas."
Jiminy isn't on a roster anywhere.
"Yeah, it isn't like it used to be."
So there aren't as many characters? As many goofballs? As many strong or strange personalities?
So the game that gave us Lawrence "Yogi" Berra, Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, Mickey "the Quick" Rivers and Rickey Henderson (who might speak of himself in the third person during his entire upcoming Hall of Fame induction speech) ... that game has grown up too much?
“Yeah, I would agree with that," Williams says. "Larry Andersen had a perfect saying back then: ‘You're only young once, but you can be immature forever.’ ”
Andersen was a member of one of the teams that got the last laughs, the 1993 Phillies. Characters were welcome in that clubhouse.
That club had Williams, who wore No. 99 and pitched, according to close friend Mark Grace, like "his hair's on fire." It had Andersen, a Steven Wright type who would muse about such subjects as why sour cream had an expiration date and whether a person could ever run out of invisible ink.
It had the hard-playing, hard-living Lenny "Nails" Dykstra, with his cheek full of chew. It had the chubby, comedic John Kruk, a quality hitter best known for faking a heart attack while dodging Randy Johnson's All-Star fastball. And it had Darren "Dutch" Daulton, a hard-driving leader who later revealed his strong belief in time travel.
It had fun.
"What I see as the biggest difference in today's game is they don't look like they have as much fun," Williams says. "That's the thing that's missing. You see very little laughter on the field anymore. You play 162 games, you need to be able to laugh at yourself and other people."
Listen to this story. Try to imagine a current player repeating it:
"We were in Montreal in 1993, and we were leading the division," Williams says. "And I blew two games in a row in Montreal and we were going home. I knew the next night in Philadelphia, I was going to get killed. So I put on Larry Andersen's jersey when I went in the bullpen that night, in the sixth inning, when I always went down there. For some reason, they still recognized me ... I thought it was funny as hell, but the people of Philadelphia hated it."
Yet Williams, Andersen and Kruk are all working in television now, so their personalities paid off.
"What are the chances of that happening?" Williams says of Kruk. "That shows you how far TV has fallen. I always said, 'Krukkie, he's not going to build you a rocket, but he will tell you what he thinks.'"
And their Phillies are remembered, even though they didn't win a World Series.
Baseball fans will long remember the teams for which Jim Bouton pitched in the 1960s. That is partly due to Bouton's controversial and influential book "Ball Four," which was a diary of his 1969 season as a Seattle Pilot and a no-holds barred account of his tenure with Mickey Mantle and the Yankees. The book delved deep into the players' off-the-field antics, disputes and transgressions, whether related to teammates or women or drugs.
If Bouton wrote a book about today's players, he thinks it would be far less interesting.
His list of modern characters?
"Manny Ramirez, to begin with," Bouton says. "Jonathan Papelbon. But yeah, I think there are a lot fewer. A guy today acquires some of the attributes of a 'character' if he gets his uniform dirty three games in a row. That almost makes him a character."
Bouton cites a reason. Many players today have had one or more years of college, which "tends to be a very homogenizing experience." When Bouton played, most guys arrived in spring training as "partially-formed people" who were "big stars in their hometown" and thus "centers of their own universe." Huge training camps, many times larger than those today, would create tension, and tension (oddly enough) often created comedy.
"They combined an ignorance of the world with arrogance and confidence and talent," Bouton says. "One of the things I found fascinating, here I was playing D ball, my first year of pro baseball, you got a guy from Brooklyn, you got a guy from Alabama. You got Brooklyn, you got Alabama. You got extremes from those locales. Then you throw them together in the same locker room and have them compete for jobs. It was combustible, it was fun."
Bouton recalls telling his parents about all of the characters. Like Joe Pepitone.
"Here comes Pepitone, two days late, in a brand new Pontiac Bonneville," Bouton says of the first baseman, who later would pose frontally nude for Foxy Lady magazine. "It's not something a junior in college would do."
Whenever Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez does something odd these days — whether on the field or in an interview — people say it's just "Manny being Manny." But while some of Ramirez's behavior has been characterized as naïve or carefree, such as keeping a water bottle in his back pocket or disappearing into the Green Monster at Fenway Park during pitching changes, many have found his antics childish and destructive. This came to a head last season, when the Boston Red Sox traded him to Los Angeles after he repeatedly claimed injury and (coincidentally or not) avoided some of baseball's better pitchers.
On the whole, Bouton says, "Manny is more like the guys in my day. He would fit right in. Today, he stands out as bizarre and annoying. In my day, so many were bizarre and annoying, it was hard to stand out. Weirdness is punished today. It is punished, it is disparaged, and it is considered a cancer in the clubhouse. In my day, cancer was a virus and, in terms of guys not fitting in, everybody was sick with it."
In his day, something else was different. Players roomed together. They didn't wear headphones at their lockers.
And that meant ...
"Everybody had a nickname," Bouton says. "It had to do with how they looked or where they were from, or some quirk or mental or physical disability. And there were no agents to guide guys. Today, a ballplayer walks into a clubhouse, even a minor-league clubhouse, and he has an agent and a briefcase. You can't give a guy with a briefcase a nickname, unless he is the only guy with a briefcase. Then he's Briefcase. If a modern player showed up in 1960s, his nickname would probably be Laptop. Today, everybody's got a laptop, so it's not a good nickname anymore."
Bouton says modern nicknames are "logos. They are thought up by a marketing guy. They are not going to call any of today's players No-Neck Williams. It just won't happen. Or a guy with bad complexion Pizzaface."
Don't think things have changed?
In late January, you could have seen for yourself at the Joe DiMaggio Legends Game in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where semi-retired characters Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, Bill "Spaceman" Lee and Al "Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky were among the participants.
Boyd is attempting a comeback at age 49. He was 78-77 from 1982 to 1991, and he once remarked, after a game in Cleveland was suspended due to fog, that the team shouldn't have built its stadium on the ocean.
What made him a character?
"Striking out a guy and pacing around the whole infield after the pitch," Boyd says. "Shaking everybody's hand in the infield in New York one night. That's about the craziest thing I ever did."
He doesn't see much of that anymore.
"The game today is too conservative," Boyd says. "There are a lot of good ballplayers, and the guys are smooth and they play relaxed and everything, but there's not a lot of personality in the game. There's not really any hot-dogging or flamboyance in the game. It comes from your upbringing. If you're not a character in little league, you're not going to be a character in the major leagues. I've always been like that my whole life. It's not something you can teach."
Some do believe that of the modern environmental factors play a part. Many teams, including the Yankees and Florida Marlins, have strict grooming rules, forcing players to shave their beards or cut their hair.
Then there's the money ... and the risk that may come with it.
"Too much money," Lee says. "We actually had to work for a living. These guys don't work for a living. We had second jobs, you know we were kindergarten teachers, I was a locksmith. You know I locked Bob Dylan out of his house. I locked Neil Diamond out of his house. We actually worked for a living. I built houses, I hauled wood, took care of my three brats, changed diapers. Did all that stuff that the modern ballplayer has some nanny from Yucatan (for)."
Williams quips that if the players "literally take a look at what they're making for playing a game, they should be laughing all the time. I don't know if money changes people and makes them act more serious. It didn't for me."
As an intimidating Fu Manchu'd reliever in the 1970s, Hrabosky would turn his back from the batter, rub the ball feverishly as he stormed toward second base, and then stare down the batter before throwing a pitch. He says he did not do this to make a mockery of the game, but simply to get the mental edge he needed stay in the majors. Now a St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster, Hrabosky says that many modern players are afraid to put the focus on themselves — because if they fail, they have nowhere to hide. He also believes that the lucrative salaries "absolutely" caused some players to curtail non-conformist behavior. "But it separated me from other people," Hrabosky says. "So there can be a (positive) money factor there, too."
He notes that when he was traded from St. Louis to Kansas City, the Cardinals lost attendance and the Royals gained. While he isn't claiming to be responsible for the total difference, "even if I was responsible for one-fourth of it, I paid my salary. But I didn't do it for that reason. I did it to get people out."
Hrabosky, Boyd and Lee all got enough people out to stick around for at least a decade each.
"The guys that do have personality and get into the flow of things and have fun out there, those are the guys the fan love," Boyd says. "You are still going to pay me for getting the job done, so it don't matter how I get it done. If I have some fun doing it, that's what it's about. If you're sure about yourself, don't worry about how anybody else plays the game."
No one today plays it — or talks it — quite like the ex-Boston lefty Lee. He had a 119-90 record, but he was better known for speaking openly about politics and even his marijuana use. Warren Zevon named a song after him. After retirement, he ran unsuccessfully for president on the Canadian Political Rhinoceros Party ticket, and he has written four books. Last summer, at age 61, he pitched six innings in the annual "Midnight Sun" game in Alaska.
He still has a strong BoSox bias, one he cannot hide even at a Joe DiMaggio Legends Game for charity.
"I hate pinstripes," Lee says. "They really make me want to puke. Let's say A-Rod and Jeter fall out of an airplane. Which one hits the ground first?"
"Who gives a .... "