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George Mitrovich

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Dick Williams: The San Diego Connection

Posted: 07/09/11 09:52 AM ET

Dick Williams, the Baseball Hall of Fame manager (he won two World Championships for the Oakland Athletics), died Thursday. He was 82.

He managed six major league teams, including the Boston Red Sox, Seattle Mariners, and the San Diego Padres, in addition to the Athletics. In '84 he took the Padres to their first World Series (they lost in five to Detroit).

There were more than a few baseball people who didn't like Dick Williams. He could be, and often was, difficult and irascible. (Nick Canepa in the San Diego Union-Tribune called him, "Baseball's Patton.") But almost everyone respected him.

I can't say I really knew Dick Williams, but I had two experiences with him that will live long in my memory.

The first was when I was invited by the Padres to throw the first pitch at Qualcomm (then Jack Murphy Stadium). The occasion was my 50th birthday, and I was a member of the San Diego Stadium Authority. I have since had two other first pitch experiences, one at Fenway Park in Boston and the other at Petco Park in San Diego. I do not take the honor lightly. If you love America's Game, and I do, first pitch is as good as it gets.

My 50th birthday was a Saturday and a big crowd was on hand that night at the Q. Of course, the size of the crowd had nothing to do with me. It was a Padres' give-away night in a town that's crazy about give-aways.

I brought my family, including my dad, and some close friends to the game. I had dutifully prepped for the occasion, and I was ready. I had my glove and I wore my spikes (not the norm for most first pitch invitees). Stadium announcer John DeMott introduced me. I walked to the mound, went right to the rubber, made like the great Jim Palmer, and threw a mid-80s fastball (the family's genetic pool includes strong throwing arms).

The ball was a tad outside and low and skipped past Padres catcher Terry Kennedy's glove, and caromed off the backstop. Someone handed Kennedy another ball, which he presented to me as I walked off the field. He did not look pleased. DeMott couldn't resist, and told the 50,000 plus crowd, "Nice try, Mitrovich!" As I walked into the Padres dugout, Dick Williams came over and said, "I think we can use you."

The errant first pitch was embarrassing. No, really, embarrassing. I fancy myself a ballplayer, after all. But Williams; comment brought a smile to my face and helped ease my humiliation. That moment, however, is still with me. Almost every birthday, Maurice Altshuler or some other friend, will say, "Remember that night at the Q, on your 50th birthday, the night you bounced the ball to the backstop?" Yes I do. But I can't change it. It was what it was. Damn.

The second story took place at Fenway Park in Boston.

In the summer of 87 our son Tim had interned for Senator Joe Biden in Washington, DC, and following his internship drove to Cape Cod to meet Larry White, a friend and classmate from San Diego State. On a Friday night La Verle and I took the red-eye and flew to Logan. The three of us were going to drive back to San Diego in Tim's red VW GTI, but first we were going to fabled Fenway, the oldest ballpark in the country, having opened in 1912.

La Verle, Tim, and I, along with Larry, had tickets to the Red Sox/Mainers game that Saturday afternoon.

We arrived early at America's most beloved ballpark (as the Red Sox public address announcer intones before every game). It was summer and it was hot, maybe as hot as Boston ever gets. The game time temperature was 102. But we're not talking dry heat, here. Oh no, we are talking your worst imaginings of an east coast summer day -- muggy, humid, clammy, steamy, sticky, wilting, heat that will beat you down to your knees. And, at 102, unbearable. Before the game, in fact, in the souvenir store across Yawkey Way from Fenway, La Verle momentarily passed out. It was that oppressive.

As soon as the gates at Fenway opened we were in the ballpark. To take it all in we walked down to the railing between the box seats and field, along the third base line.

While we were standing there watching batting practice I saw Dick Williams walking toward the visitors' dugout. I called out to him. He looked over, slightly puzzled, but then recognized me, and said, in that commanding way of his, "Stay there. I'll be over in a moment."

When Williams came over I was standing at the box seat railing, with La Verle, Tim and Larry, a few rows back. Williams immediately began to shout and curse, "F" this and "F" that; it was shocking, a rant for the ages. I've been around politics a long time, and I've seen some people in the business lose it, just flat out lose it, but not like Williams that Saturday at Fenway.

So, what had I done to provoke Williams?

Nothing, except seeing me reminded him of San Diego and being reminded of San Diego reminded him of how unceremoniously he left San Diego in the spring of '86, of how he had been treated and fired and humiliated by Padres president Ballard Smith and general manager Jack McKeon, who wanted Williams gone and finally persuaded Smith's mother-in-law, team owner Joan Kroc, to get rid of him - despite a winning record on a team that pre-Williams had been perennial losers.

Striding behind me, La Verle and Tim, were quite stunned by the scene that unfolded in front of them, but Larry White, oh my, poor Larry, a Padres fan who thought Dick Williams was great, he was in shock, his eyeballs hugely enlarged. (Later, La Verle, Tim and I would laugh about this, but we're not sure Larry ever thought it was funny.)

Williams finally calmed down, apologized for losing it, said he was sorry, that I was not the cause of his anger, but seeing me and my connection to San Diego had unleashed unpleasant memories.

He said he remembered my 50th birthday first pitch. And, yes, he still thought I could help his team.

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader.