With Phillies, Williams' path was paved

Two-time All-Star began transition to relief role before finding success with Bucs

With Phillies, Williams' path was paved

At age 23, Mike Williams made his second big league appearance at Dodger Stadium on July 5, 1992. He pitched a complete game, giving up just one earned run on three hits. Three years later, Williams struck out 10 in a game against the Reds.

It turned out, though, that pitching every fifth day wasn't how Williams would go on to make two All-Star teams. He moved between the rotation and the bullpen for the Phillies and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons for five seasons. Williams didn't have quite enough success in either role, and after the 1996 season, he became a free agent.

Williams was signed by the Red Sox and released in Spring Training. He then hooked on with the Royals, but he had just 10 games with Kansas City and was back on the market at the end of the season. And that's when everything started to come together for Williams.

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Williams signed with the Pirates. Except for one emergency start, which he won, he was a reliever. He finished the season with a 1.94 ERA. For the next 3 1/2 years, Williams was the Bucs' closer. He was traded to the Astros at the Deadline in 2001, but he returned to Pittsburgh the following season and had his best year: 46 saves, a 2.93 ERA and the first of his consecutive All-Star selections.

"It actually worked out really good for me," Williams said. "I ended up being a closer and having a lot of success in Pittsburgh."

Now 46, Williams lives in Newport, Va., with wife Melissa and two daughters, 16-year-old Morgan and 14-year-old Madison. It's about 10 miles from where he grew up. He coaches high school baseball and girls basketball. He plays golf.

"I enjoy retired life," Williams said. "Play a little golf. Normal family stuff. Give some private lessons that kids ask me to do. A kid will call me from around here or wherever and say, 'Hey, will you work with me?' Sure, I will. Just like a normal retired baseball player thing. I'm very fortunate, very lucky to have played. So I feel like I kind of owe it back to the community a little bit."

And even though Williams had most of his success on the other side of the state, he has fond memories of his time in Philadelphia. He actually pitched his last big league game in a Phillies uniform on Sept. 28, 2003, after being traded to his original organization for Frank Brooks two months earlier.

Williams pitched in 17 games (four starts) for the 1993 World Series team. Overall, he was 13-39 with a 4.94 ERA with the Phils.

There was no way of knowing at the time, of course, but a case could be made that the Phillies' decision to start using Williams in relief set the stage for the success he had later in his career.

"In my opinion, this is why it worked out. I don't think my stuff was good enough to be a starter, to face guys three times through the order. Being a closer, hopefully you're not going to face guys three times," Williams said with a laugh. "I really believe that was why I had success. I was primarily a slider pitcher. A Larry Andersen-type pitcher. I could get by with it for an inning every day, not facing the same guys two or three times, or four times over the course of nine innings."

As momentous as that transition turned out to be, the way it came about was casual.

"I really didn't have much of a choice," Williams said. "They said, 'You're not going to start.' So I started relieving and had some success there. I went to Pittsburgh and started pitching the sixth and seventh inning. Then I was the setup guy for a year and then I moved into closing. And it really worked out.

"I was fine with it. I didn't have a lot of success starting. I wouldn't say I was a failure. But it wasn't where I had my success, by no means. So I didn't have a problem with it."

When looking back on his career, Williams' memories are more general than specific.

"Once you're out of baseball, you realize that every day in the big leagues was something special," Williams said. "I don't think you realize that when you're playing. Maybe your first few days or your first year you do. When you're through with baseball, it's more special. At least it is for me."

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.