By Perry Lefko
Take it from Mike Wilner, the longtime broadcaster of Toronto Blue Jays’ games, there is reason to be optimistic about the team this season.
A Mississauga resident for almost 20 years, the 47-year-old is heading into his 17th season as part of the Jays radio team and thinks they have made enough moves in the off-season to shore up some areas of concern to improve on last season’s failure to qualify for the playoffs.
“I think they’re going to be pretty good,” Wilner said. “They didn’t make any splashy or sexy moves in the off-season but they raised the floor and they dealt with a lot of the issues they had last year.”
He pointed to infield help as insurance for shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and second baseman Devon Travis, both of whom missed considerable time with injuries. The additions, he said, will be an improvement in terms of adding some much-needed backup offense pop to those positions, replacing Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins.
“They fixed that by getting (shortstop) Aledmys Diaz (in a trade with St. Louis) and (second baseman) Yangervis Solarte (in a trade with San Diego),” he said. “You’re covered if Travis and Tulowitzki get hurt and you have legitimate major-league bats to fill in.
“They got nothing out of the corner outfield last year. (Right fielder) Jose Bautista was just awful. He was arguably the worst everyday player in Major League Baseball. And he was playing every day, hitting in the top four spots in the lineup, so that really hurt the offence. Left field wasn’t really good either. So they picked up Randal Grichuk, who’s young, who’s a good defender, who hits the ball harder than almost anyone in the major leagues and he’ll play right field and he’ll give them more than Bautista did. And they picked up Curtis Granderson, who gives you a legitimate weapon against right-handed pitching and also a decent defensive outfielder. Those two spots are better now as well.”
He said the biggest thing that hurt the Jays last year was the nagging blister problem that affected pitcher Aaron Sanchez and limited him to just eight starts.
“Having Aaron Sanchez out there instead of having guys like Mat Latos, Cesar Valdez and Mike Bolsinger makes this team a heck of a lot better. Even with everything that went wrong last year, they were still three games out of a playoff spot in late August. The gap with what they did and what they need to do to get back into the playoffs is not nearly as large as people seem to think it is.”
Those people would be the ones saying the New York Yankees have loaded up their bats with some huge off-season acquisitions such as acquiring slugger Giancarlo Stanton, while the Boston Red Sox have a ton of stars, too.
“It’s easier to just fall back into that old story that the Jays just can’t compete with the Yankees and the Red Sox – that they’re too good,” said Wilner. “The Yankees have all kinds of question marks with their starting pitching. The Red Sox haven’t done anything to improve in the off-season. Both of them have rookie managers and that might wind up being something. Handing the division to the Yankees is a mistake. They are not going to score 11 runs a game, and they might have to in order to win a ton of games. Neither of those teams is going to win 110 games and I think a lot of people feel like it’s inevitable that they’ve got it sewn up. I don’t think they do.”
Wilner said working without longtime announcer Jerry Howarth, who has retired after 36 years of calling Jays’ games, will impact him significantly.
“It’s going to be really, really weird,” Wilner said. “Jerry has been part of the Blue’ Jays broadcast since I was 10 years old. It’s not being in the booth with him. Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth were Blue Jays baseball (broadcasters) for a quarter century. Jerry’s been doing it since Tom passed away in 2005. He took on the mantle and carried it very strongly.
“It’s going to be surreal not having him around. There has never been a Blue Jay game played without Tom Cheek or Jerry Howarth or both as part of the broadcast crew. It’s going to take a lot of getting used to for me and for all the listeners, but time marches on as they say and 36 years is one hell of a run.”
Wilner has no illusions that he will have a career as long as Howarth’s and be remembered the same way when it’s his turn to retire.
“No one’s grown up listening to me and not to listening to Jerry,” Wilner said. “He’s been on the whole time I’ve been on and Tom at the beginning, too. The idea that I have a chance to be that sort of a thing, to have people say, ‘I’ve been listening to this guy do baseball (for a long time),’ it’s mind-blowing to me. I don’t even want to think about it, to be honest with you.”
While not going as far as to say he’s the luckiest guy in the world to be doing what he does, he acknowledged: “It’s better than having a real job. The thing that I do for work is what everybody else sort of does to get away from work and for entertainment and to have a fun time at the ballpark. I have no illusions. I know I work in the toy department and it’s an awesome thing to do. Every job gets to be a job after awhile and you lose the stars in your eyes and stuff. It’s a ballpark, but it’s my office as well.
“Every once in awhile it just occurs to me, ‘holy crap, I’m a Major League Baseball broadcaster’ and that’s absolutely insane. It’s crazy. Never even in my wildest dreams did I think that it was a possibility.”