Part 1 of the Mike Wilner Interview
Most Batter's Box denizens will be familiar with the work of Mike Wilner. Studio host of the Blue Jays radio broadcasts on the FAN radio network, Mike's work goes out across the country before and after every Jays game. He was kind enough to sit down a few weeks ago to answer some questions from Batter's Box. In Part One, we learned about the path to becoming a broadcaster, and a bit about the job. Today, Mike gives us a closer look at this current Blue Jays organization, from the GM to the bullpen coach.
First, though, the acronyms. Kent Williams, while skulking around the field during batting practice as Da Box's official reporter and unofficial Reed Johnson stalker, has noticed that Mike talks in a language all his own, to the amusement of the rest of the press. It turns out that these are acronyms for his various features on the radio.
"'DBR' is the Daily Baseball Report, which airs every weekday at 5:55pm on The Fan 590. It's my own column, 90 seconds where I get to say whatever I want. The "RRT" is how I affectionately refer to the Writer's Round Table, which goes on the Pre-Game Show about once a month or so.”
But what about “hoots”? Mike says that “it's probably really 'HHOOTS' - the Home Hardware Out Of Town Scoreboard. It's just pronounced 'hoots'. And never on the air!” Mike also has an additional regular time slot which he hasn't acronymized yet, the Full Count (airing weekdays at 2:40 through the regular season). As well, Mike is hosting the pre- and post-game shows for the playoff games on the Fan Radio Network this fall.
As someone who spends his working hours researching and thinking about baseball when he isn't talking about it on the air, Mike has strong opinions about the Blue Jays, both the players and the organization. He spends hours every week talking to the players, the management, and the fans, so his insights are worth noting.
Like a lot of Blue Jays fans, Mike bemoans the half-empty SkyDome. "The only thing that can be done is to win... for the big crowds, especially. There has been more buzz about the Jays in Toronto this year than any season since the strike, and the fans have responded by packing the place, but the Jays have really stunk it up those nights. In front of their three biggest crowds of the year, they've been absolutely smoked. I think if they'd performed in those games, they would have gotten at least a small bump the rest of the way. I really think the only thing they can do to get the numbers to really jump is seriously contend, regardless of the marketing strategy. Though $2 nights aren't a bad idea." Mike doesn't think that there are a lot of baseball fans in Toronto, but that there are a lot of Blue Jays fans. "We saw that in May and June when the Jays were red-hot. You could feel the resurgence in baseball in this city."
The media doesn't help. "I think it's terrible that hockey is a lead story on radio and TV sportscasts in the summer. This July, when every broadcast outlet led with the fact that Dominik Hasek was THINKING about coming back, and every paper had that story on the front page of its sports section. That was just ridiculous." Part of the problem, too is that the Blue Jays-only fans "know what they know - Devon White was the best centerfielder ever, Joe Carter is the greatest clutch-hitter in history...." But those fans will be back, Mike says, "when the Jays become a year-in, year-out contender again."
Ask Mike if that's possible, and his enthusiasm for the new regime is evident. "I don't think the Jays will ever be able to reasonably compete on an equal basis with the Yankees and Red Sox from an economic standpoint, but I do think they will be able to compete with them on the field." He doesn't believe the Jays are doomed to ten more years of third-place finishes: "I really don't believe that money is the be-all and end-all to success on the field.
“The Jays are up against it, absolutely, because the Yankees and Red Sox have the combination of money and smart GM's, but the presence of George Steinbrenner can lead the Yanks to panic moves that Brian Cashman has nothing to do with - Ruben Sierra, Dan Miceli - and the glare in Boston might make Theo do something he may regret. Guys like Bush, McGowan and Arnold probably won't really contribute until mid-2005 at the earliest, but I think the Jays can be right up there for a long time if they stay on course. Although, who knows what bounty the young outfielders may bring? There's not going to be room for all of Rios, Gross, Griffin, Werth, Johnson, Wells and Kielty."
On J.P. Ricciardi, Mike gushes. "I love the guy, in a completely platonic way. He's got a straight-forward, no-nonsense attitude, and doesn't need people to like him or approve of what he's doing. He knows what he wants to do and is sticking to the plan. Ricciardi is brutally honest for the most part, utterly transparent about his motives and agenda, and always available. He's surrounded himself with people he respects and trusts, and isn't afraid to let others take the spotlight. Of course, it helps that he thinks basically the same way I do."
Mike defends the deal to pick up Luke Prokopec - "didn't work out, but a great gamble to take," and the transient pickups of Davis, Acevedo, and Service are "great moves". He acknowledges that it's not all rosy - Tam, Creek, and Sturtze got major-league deals "when there was really no need" - but Mike points to far more good ones - a litany of sharp deals from Mondesi and Lopez to Bordick, and Myers and Catalanotto, through Shannon Stewart and Cliff Politte.
It's normal for the manager to be one of the most frequent targets of a fan's ire, and despite the fact there's no cheering in the press box, Mike's like many of us in wanting to have a go at Carlos Tosca. Saying straight up that "I don't think Tosca is the guy who will be running the show when the Jays get to championship calibre," Mike grants that he has the respect of the players in the clubhouse - who play hard for him - unlike Buck Martinez. But he can't approve of the strategic decisions of the Jays skipper. "Playing match-ups to the nth degree, which he's calmed down a bit about the last month and a half or so, got ridiculous in the middle part of the season. It seemed as though he never allowed a pitcher to face a hitter of the opposite side. I can remember him lifting a guy with a six-run lead in the 7th or 8th because he put a runner on and there was a hitter of the opposite side coming up." All of the relievers Mike spoke to "thought it was just a mess. Guys need to be shown that you have confidence in them, whether they've earned it or not, because if you're going to have them in your bullpen, you have to be able to trust them to get an out."
Tosca's lineups also come in for their share of criticism. " I don't like the fact that he forgot about Josh Phelps for two months... I also can't believe he puts so much faith into such small sample sizes, sticking a guy in a line-up because he's 1-for-2 against a specific pitcher, or not using a guy because he's 0-for-3." Even the manager's motives come in for criticism... "I think that even though he says all the right things, he really isn't on the same page as J.P. at heart, and wants to bunt, and steal bases, and hit and run."
But the mood of the team, Mike says, is still positive despite having fallen out of contention. "I think for the most part, the team is still pretty loose. I think Mike Bordick helps with that a lot, as does Vernon Wells. I think the team realizes that at this point, it just doesn't have the horses to seriously contend, but that it's definitely moving in the right direction, so that keeps the guys happy.
“I don't think the relievers are happy, though - you could see that on the face of Cliff Politte against Oakland this weekend and earlier this season with Tanyon Sturtze (though really, he has no case). Tosca hasn't made any friends in the pen this year... the rest of the team is still responding to him, though, evidenced by Carlos Delgado's continued hustle, and the reaction of the club immediately following that big closed-door meeting."
The coaches? "They've all been tremendous. It's a wonderful teaching staff." Mike Barnett is "a great hitting coach. Calm, understated, detailed, knows his stuff backwards and forwards, and respected by his hitters." Gil Patterson "has a tremendous knowledge of the game from the mound, and the attention of his pitchers, as well," and Bruce Walton "does his job well". John Gibbons has "shone the three times he's taken over for Tosca as manager. He knows how to handle a pitching staff, lets relievers work out of jams, and often goes out to the mound himself to talk strategy with pitchers. He wouldn't be so terrible as the next manager of this ballclub, I don't think"
Brian Butterfield, in particular, is singled out... "a great baseball mind, also with a great attitude. Orlando Hudson has given him a ton of credit for helping him become the great defender he is. Butterfield has yet to be able to work his magic with Woodward, and he's trying everything he can with Hinske. I think the greatest challenge of his career as an infield instructor will be to make a major-league third baseman out of Hinske." Mike, though, notes one tiny blemish on Butter's copybook. "The double play appeal play on that liner off the pitcher against Texas. Buck Showalter knew Bordick had to go back and tag first and second before advancing, neither Bordick nor Butterfield nor Carlos Tosca did."
Tomorrow, Mike gives his take on the Blue Jays players. Stay tuned.