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Photo Credit: Sportsnet/Rogers Media

Talking great moments from Blue Jays and Jays Talk history with Mike Wilner

Back when Broken Social Scene’s ‘You Forgot It In People’ was the cool CD to own and the Nokia Flip Phone wasn’t a thing yet, I graduated from Brock University with a degree in English Literature. I dreamed about being a cool screenwriter slash novelist. I was going to type up something great like Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. I was going to pen the next ‘Breakfast of Champions’. My future prospects looked great. They just weren’t looking at me.

As many of you know, I grew up in St. Catharines, a city that was once home to a thriving General Motors, which is now just a red-bricked tombstone from those golden years. After bouncing between poor paying jobs in Niagara, I hit the QEW and headed towards Toronto with big dreams, no cash, all the time in world and miles of road ahead.

I ended up renting a small basement apartment near Eglinton and Laird. The house was located in the affluent neighbourhood of Leaside – the ol’ stomping ground of Stephen Harper. The place where he probably dreamed of being the Prime Minister of Canada.

The first part-time job I got in Toronto was washing dishes at some restaurant on Eglinton. I knew that wasn’t going to put enough cash in my pocket, so I picked up some hours stocking shelves at Pet Smart on Laird and then got a third gig selling clothes at The Gap on Yonge and Dundas.

I worked all three of these jobs at the same time for a couple weeks. I quit washing dishes, then I quit Pet Smart, a few months later I quit The Gap, and got a job serving tables at the Hard Rock Café. I was finally able to save a little money. I was so busy working, I had no time to write anything.

I haven’t written a cool novel yet and Hollywood hasn’t picked up any of my screenplays, but I couldn’t have imagined that I’d end up getting paid to type up Jays articles. I couldn’t have imagined that I’d interview Mark Shapiro face-to-face, or Ross Atkins over the phone. I’ve been able to turn this baseball writing into a side hustle, which is pretty cool. And I’m juts going to keep on hustling.

One person who knows all about staying on the road to a dream is Mike Wilner. He has come a long way from his days at U of T where he did sportscasts on the radio. He has a great story to tell, and I’m sure that one day he will tell it all. But, until then, we will continue to listen to him call games as the voice of the Jays on Sportsnet. I had the opportunity to talk to Mike about some Blue Jays history, his past and I asked him to share a few stories.

***

I have to ask: What’s your favourite Jays moment?

Wow, that’s a loaded question. There have been so many over the decades of watching this team. I would say it was Roy Howell’s walk-off homer in the bottom of the 9th at the Ex in 1978 to beat the Twins, which I clearly remember being there to watch, but Baseball Reference says that never happened, so that can’t be it.

The Carter homer was magnificent, of course. I was watching in my living room after high-tailing it home from a waitering shift at the Pickle Barrel that night since I remembered being nearly crushed to death in the crowd at Yonge and Dundas the year before after watching the Game 6 win on the Jumbotron at the Dome.

I don’t remember reacting to the Alomar home run off Eckersley in the ’92 ALCS with a “this shows that we can beat them now!”, but it was absolutely a huge, huge hit both at the time and, quite obviously, in retrospect.

The batflip was amazing (though I was watching the ball, not Jose, so I didn’t see it in real time), and it’s the only one of the all-time great Blue Jays’ moments that I’ve actually witnessed in person. I was there for both cycles, Gruber’s and Frye’s, but those don’t stand up in the pantheon.

It has to be the Carter homer, doesn’t it? I know it wasn’t Game 7 and the series wasn’t on the line at that moment, but a walk off home run to win a World Series had only happened once before in history, and hasn’t happened since, and it was at the height of Blue Jays mania across the country. It was an incredible, incredible thing.

Yeah, I mean, I think it has to be ‘touch ‘em all’ for any fan who was lucky enough to witness that moment. I remember going bonkers in my uncle’s basement. But, Alomar off the Eck was something special for me. I quit on that Jays game – sort of. I remember turning off the TV; a broken hearted 12-year-old boy. I went in my room, put the game on the radio – thinking that would change the Jays’ luck around – and I played Mortal Kombat on my Sega Genesis. When Alomar went yard off the Eck, I ran around my apartment like a kid who just drank 2 litres of Jolt Cola or Tahitian Treat. 

Since I’m talking about Alomar, I’d have to say that he is my favourite Jay of all time. Maybe it’s a nostalgia thing. Who’s that player for you?

You’ve reminded me of a time that I ran around my basement pounding the walls in celebration of a Blue Jays’ moment, and it was the George Bell catch off Ron Hassey’s shallow fly to left that clinched the division in the penultimate game of 1985.

Alomar being anyone’s favourite Blue Jay shouldn’t necessarily be a nostalgia thing. He was an incredibly exciting player who hit for a high average, played phenomenal defence, stole bases, hit big home runs – he did so many things that got us up out of our seats on a seemingly regular basis. I think he’s a lot of people’s favourite Jay of all time.

For me it’s often difficult to separate the person from the player, since I’ve been covering the team in some fashion or another since 1988, which is why John McDonald keeps creeping into my head whenever someone asks me who my favourite Blue Jay is or was. He was the best defensive shortstop I’ve ever had a chance to see on a regular basis, the Fathers’ Day home run is something few people who were paying attention to the Blue Jays at the time will ever forget, and more than all of that, he is a really terrific human being.

Which is not to say that there haven’t been, or continue to be, many Blue Jays who are terrific human beings. Johnny Mac just stands out for me.

Johnny Mac is a proper legend.

So, I’m from St. Catharines, which is only a stretch of pavement away from Welland. I know you got your first real gig with the Welland Pirates, who played in the New York–Penn League from 1989 to 1994, and were affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Do you have a cool story to share from those days?

I have to say that it was pretty cool to go to my first game and meet U.L. Washington, who managed that team. He was the Kansas City Royals’ shortstop through their great run in the early ‘80s, though he had given way to Buddy Biancalana for the heartbreaking 1985 ALCS. And yes, he still had the toothpick.

I think the coolest story from that year – other than having to bail in the middle of the second game of a doubleheader at Bernie Arbor Stadium against the Hamilton Cardinals due to, ummm, gastrointestinal distress – was in a game in July or August when the light-hitting third baseman came out to the mound to pitch and started flipping up knuckleballs. We didn’t even know he was working on the pitch or that they were thinking of pitching him in a game. At the beginning, we didn’t even know what was going on. And two years later, Tim Wakefield was a Sid Bream slide away from being the NLCS MVP.

Also, I left my headlights on for a game against the Blue Jays at Community Park in St. Catharines and had to call the CAA. So I got to spend a couple of extra hours in a parking lot in your town.

Community Park was about as nice as my first apartment in Toronto, but it had its character. I remember the bleachers were shiny, tawdry metal benches that stretched from behind home plate to first and third base. It was empty most summer nights. A great ballpark to chase down foul balls.

I think Tim Wakefield is the most notable player to come out of the place where ‘the rails and water meet’. Would you have been able to predict back then that he would go on and pitch close to a hundred years in the MLB?

Never

I was wondering if you could share a wild Jays Talk story. Is there a specific caller you still remember, or do they all feel like one long call?

There have been a few. I mean, the greatest moments in BlueJaysTalk history were probably those two episodes of “Wednesdays With J.P.”, when then-GM J.P. Ricciardi said “it’s not a lie if we know the truth” and “did you know that Adam Dunn doesn’t really like baseball?” The first one was in response to a fan asking him why the Jays had said B.J. Ryan was held out of spring training games for a back issue and then had to have Tommy John surgery, the second was to a criticism of the Jays for not trying to trade for Dunn at the deadline, I think.

As far as the non-J.P. shows, a couple of them stand out to me. There was a caller who referred to himself as “The Baseball Genius” and then went on to say that the Jays should try to trade for “that Gino Gonzalez in Washington” and “the righty Mark Buehrle with the Cubs”. There was another pitcher he mentioned whose name or team or pitching arm he messed up, too. I’m pretty sure he was pulling my leg, but if nothing else he was funny, and definitely memorable. I’m not sure when that call was, but it had to be before 2013, before the Jays got Buehrle from the White Sox.

There was a call back in 2007, after a journeyman 30 year-old September call-up named Tike Redman had had a big series against the Jays for Baltimore. He was hitting .340 in minimal at-bats and someone called up and suggested the Jays trade Vernon Wells for him. This was during a down year for Vernon, but he was only 28, coming off an all-star season and three straight Gold Gloves. And before the Wells contract became such a topic of conversation. That was something.

I’m sure there are so many more that I can’t remember specifically. I need to hunker down with the old tapes – I guess digital files, now – and write a book someday.

Yes you do. I know that you grew up listening to the great Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth as did many Jays fans. It must feel surreal to be the new voice of the Jays.

Indescribable. And yes, extremely surreal. There are lots of times when I’m sitting there in the booth before a game, and often even during a game, and I think to myself: “This is what I do for a living. This is nuts.” It’s unreal. And to think that I could be to some kid what Tom and Jerry were to me growing up completely blows my mind.

I remember my Dad took me to my first Jays game at the Ex back in the late eighties. Rance Mulliniks was my favourite player. I think it was just because I thought his name sounded cool, to be honest. The Jays experienced a lot of success back then, as they won five division titles and two World Series. The reason I’m going on about this is because I know you see parallels between today’s prospect-y Blue Jays and the talented youthful team in the early eighties.

Definitely. I’ve compared this current team to the 1982 Jays more than a few times. They were right on the cusp of being really, really good for a really long time. About to embark on a run of 11 straight winning seasons, all of which would have put them in the playoffs under the current system, I believe.

That ’82 team had Dave Stieb in his first full season (1981 doesn’t count because of the two-month strike), Willie Upshaw, Damaso Garcia, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield were full-time players all 25 and younger, George Bell and Tony Fernandez were in the minors, on the cusp of coming up, and it was the first time that the Jays didn’t finish alone in last place in the division. There are lots of parallels, I think. Now, are these guys going to wind up being as good as those guys were? Only time will tell, but the talent in the 25-and-under players who are already here like Danny Jansen, Rowdy Tellez, Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, and Trent Thornton along with guys on the way like Vladdy, Jr., Bo Bichette, Anthony Alford, Cavan Biggio and Nate Pearson is undeniable. Some will make it and some won’t, but hopefully a few of them will be a part of the next great Blue Jays team.

Looking back on your road and how you got to where you are today, could you have ever imagined that you would go from calling games in Welland to becoming the voice of the Jays?

Not even a little bit. I was 19, it was something fun to do, but I never imagined it as a career and certainly never thought I would ever get to do a single big-league game, let alone be in a major-league broadcast booth for 18 seasons and counting. After that 1989 season was over, I went back to school at U of T and was going to go to law school. I wrote the LSAT after second year and was looking into law schools (I did really well on the LSAT but my overall marks were pretty average, so I don’t really know what sorts of options I had as far as schools), but a couple of older cousins of mine who are lawyers – one of whom was the Attorney General of Ontario at the time – warned me about the long hours, the tons of grunt work, never seeing your family, and advised me to pursue what I was passionate about rather than become a lawyer because it seemed like a good idea. So all this is their fault.

***

What’s most important in this life is to continue to do the things that you are passionate about. If writing ever becomes something that isn’t fun for me, that’s when I know it’s time to stop. More often than not our passions turn into hobbies and for the lucky ones out there they become careers.

I’m pretty sure that Mike Wilner had no idea when he was a little boy and listened to Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth on the radio that he would end up becoming the voice of the Jays. Mike Wilner was able to turn his dreams into a reality. And that’s pretty damn cool.

  • The Humungus

    Hell of an interview.

    Also, I still have scars on my body from Community Park. Literal scars. I tried to hop the fence to get a home run ball and punctured my hand and arm on the unkempt metal spikes on the top of the chain link fence. Had to go to the St. John’s Ambulance and I almost threw up from the shock of realizing that I had metal stab about a half inch deep into my hand and arm.

    Good times. I think Brock University uses it for their baseball team now.

    • Ryan Di Francesco

      Glad you enjoyed the interview man. Mike is a class act guy – good human.

      And that’s hilarious…I mean, scary AF while it was happening – I’m sure. But, that pretty much sums up Community Park. And now you have Community scars or something haha. I try to make up a couple different stories for my scars – the truth, an exaggerated truth, and then a full on hyperbolic tale to see if the person will believe me.

      My cousin lived in Merritton, so we hung around that park quite a bit when we were squirts.

  • Regulator Johnson

    Is it a transcription error or just a hilarious coincidence that Wilner got the team we acquired Buehrle from wrong while mocking that Jays Talk caller who didn’t know where Buehrle played?

  • Oz Rob

    Great story and interview. Couldn’t agree more about the importance of passion. Superstition is funny. As a kid I’d find myself standing on a chair in my room touching the ceiling as I listened to the game on the radio. We always did well when I did this. But really I would have picked you as more of a Cat’s Cradle man.

  • Cincinnatus C.

    You were gonna write screenwriter slash novels? That’s quite a niche!

    Doing the math on the attorney general thing makes either Ian Scott or Howard Hampton Mike Wilner’s cousin, which, either way, would definitely be the most awesome thing about Mike Wilner.

    • Ryan Di Francesco

      I thought that was pretty cool, too. And, yeah, have written a couple of those script things. And some short stories. Haven’t done the novel thing-y yet. But, love doing the fan-fiction stuff here haha

  • Barry

    “I would say it was Roy Howell’s walk-off homer in the bottom of the 9th at the Ex in 1978 to beat the Twins, which I clearly remember being there to watch, but Baseball Reference says that never happened, so that can’t be it.”

    It’s amazing how faulty memory is.

    I vividly remember going to my first game in 1979. My dad took me on the GO Train from Oakville (my first ever train ride) and we sat on the third base side, eating ballpark peanuts. When John Mayberry came to the plate, they posted a cartoon picture of a truck with the words “Hit it Here, John” on the scoreboard in right. Mayberry hit two home runs, and I was certain it was because of the scoreboard cartoon. Then, he came up with two out in the ninth with the Jays trailing, but Mayberry representing the winning run. He flew out to centre field.

    Many years later, in the internet age, Retrosheet came about and I decided to look up the details of that first game.

    Mayberry ended the game with a fly ball out, all right. But he hit zero home runs that night. And yet, those home-runs-that-never-were are etched in my memory. It still blows my mind that they are a false memory.