By Scott A. Rowan
Long before Charlie Sheen became known for his “tiger blood,” he was “winning” as the lead actor in the No. 1 movie in the nation, in which he played a role he seemed born to portray. It was also a role one Cubs reliever seemed born to copy.
Sheen’s character was Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, a fastball-throwing, mullet-wearing relief pitcher for the Cleveland Indians in the movie Major League. The film debuted during the first week of April 1989 and immediately took the lead in the box office rankings. Meanwhile, real-life player Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams—a fastball-throwing, mullet-wearing reliever who debuted with the Chicago Cubs during the first week of April 1989—immediately took the team to first place in the standings. Williams started the season saving his first five opportunities, giving the Cubs their best start in 14 years, as well as first place in the National League East. The year 1989 would be the apex of both Williams’ playing career (a career-high 36 saves earned him his only All-Star selection) and Sheen’s lead-acting career in films.
Williams was an erratic pitcher whose aim was unpredictable—as with Sheen’s film character. Despite Vaughn playing for the Indians in the movie, the connection between the two pitchers was obvious. Author Rob Neyer described Williams as “The living embodiment of Charlie Sheen’s character in Major League. Problem was, Mitch wasn’t acting.”
Prior to joining the Cubs, Williams pitched for three years with the Texas Rangers, issuing 220 walks, 18 intentional walks, and 14 wild pitches in 274.2 combined innings, as well as hitting 24 batters and balking 13 times. In Williams’ autobiography, Straight Talk from Wild Thing, former teammate John Kruk told a story about how the young pitcher admitted he couldn’t pitch to lefties. Williams also said he felt sorry for some batters, particularly Larry Walker, saying, “His head is like a magnet for my fastball. I feel sorry for the guy.” One of the best scenes in Major League involves Vaughn knocking the head off a wooden cutout of a batter. It would be understandable if Walker didn’t find the scene very funny.
On May 10, 1989, life imitated art when Williams took the field during the eighth inning with The Troggs’ song “Wild Thing” blaring over the Wrigley Field speakers. It was the same song that had played when the fictional character of Vaughn came on the field. Williams adopted the nickname “Wild Thing” from that point forward in his career—which only lasted two seasons in Chicago. In 1990, Williams’ saves dropped from 36 to 16, while his ER A went up from 2.76 to 3.93. The Cubs traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies at the start of the 1991 season; there he changed his jersey number from 28 to 99, Vaughn’s jersey number in Major League.
“Mitch Williams, that f—– guy never gave me credit,” Sheen told Sports Illustrated [which edited out the actor’s choice of adjective]. “Come on, dude; you’re coming out to the Wild Thing song. . . . You changed your number. . . . Can I get a little nod?”
Sheen may be happy to know that more than two decades after appropriating his character’s moniker, appearance, and jersey number, Williams finally came clean. “Yes, I got my nickname from the pitcher that Charlie Sheen played,” Williams confessed in his autobiography. “He didn’t get the nickname from me.”
Rob Neyer, Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups (New York: Touchstone, 2003), 179.
Mitch Williams and Darrell Berger, Straight Talk from Wild Thing (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2010), vi.
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