The pounding in Jimmy Williams' heart began in early spring. He knew it would. And as the postal sorted through piles of mail, he knew there was only one cure. Williams had to give baseball another try.
After 12 years of playing at every level in the minor leagues and on teams in Japan and Mexico, the 32-year-old Washington native could not stand the thought of giving up a last shot at the major leagues.
He had been out of baseball for a year.
Williams contacted the Alexandria Dukes of the Class A Carolina League early last week. The Dukes gave him a tryout and signed him Monday. Their investment already has paid off.
In his first place, outfilder Williams collected three hits and two RBI in an 8-6 victory over Peninsula. The foll-wong night, against Kinston, he singled twice and drove in both Alexandria runs in a 2-1 triumph.
"Maybe I can do it," said Williams. "I don't want to fool myself. But I love baseball and I've had a lot of experience. You never know what might happen."
For weeks, Williams debated whether to ask for a leave of absence at work. But one Sunday morning, as he combed through the major league batting averages, it hit him. He had played with or against almost half of the men listed in front of him.
"I knew right then that I had to give it another try," Said Williams, who is now on special vacation leave. "I couldn't help thinking that aI could have made it, too."
It always looked like he would. In 1964, the Baltimore Orioles signed Williams out of Eastern HIgh School.
That began what was indeed an impressive minor league career, one that included three league batting titles and an award as player of the year (1971) for the San Francisco Giants' AAA team in Phoenix.
Why, then, was Williams never promoted to the majors?
"I'll never really be sure," he reflected. "When I finally reached my potential in the Orioles' farm system, the Birds were ripping up the American League. The head office just wasn't moving anybody up the ladder. Same thing happened when I was with the Dodgers' Texas League team and Giants' team in Arizona."
The frustration depressed Williams, as teammates - Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Gary Maddox, Dave Kingman - went to the majors.
But he was never deterred. Released in 1969 by Miami in the Florida State League with a nagging shoulder injury, Williams began the long drive home to a desk job in Washington.
As he reached the Daytona Beach city limits on 1-95, he recalled that the minor league team there needed an outfielder. He pulled off the road and called the team's manager. Williams finished out the year with t he Dodger farm club in Daytona, batting .320 and earning the club's most valuable player award.
The long- awaited shot at the top finally came in 1973. The San Francisco Giants called up Williams for spring training. He arrived only to find the camp embroiled in a major league players strike. No one was playing baseball.
While he was waiting, Williams was approached by a representative of a team that was playing baseball - the Chunichi Dragon in Japan.
"Maybe I rushed into the decision," said Williams. "But the thought of more money and a chance to play to the big crowds - play at the top - was too hard to resist."
So, on the brink of cracking the American big leagues, Williams went to Japan. He helped the Dragons win their pennant in 10 years in 1974. His team finished just one percentage point ahead of the Tokyo Giants and the legendary home-run king Sadaharu Oh.
"It was thrill, playing against Oh," said Williams. "But I needed to come home after that season. I wanted to play here."
Williams returned to the Phoenix Giants in 1975. But after a disappointing year with a .250 batting average, he was released . The next year he tried Mexican ball but was sent home when the league ordered a cutback on imported players.
"You know, I think I'm doing the right thing," said Williams, as he sat for the first time in front of his peg-board locker, looking at the converted classroom the Alexandria Dukes use as a clubhouse.
"I don't really have any bitterness," he said. "I've done things and been places that lotsof people won't ever have a chance to."