April 20, 2011
Commodore History Corner Archive
Mike Willis was born in Oklahoma, but moved with his family to Nashville at age 12. He attended West High School, but when the senior high was phased out to become a junior high, Willis chose Hillsboro High School for his senior year. The young left-handed pitcher seemed to have a future in baseball when the Cincinnati Reds selected him in the 1968 amateur draft.
"I went to school very young," Willis said recently from his Houston office. "I was 17 when I graduated from high school in 1968. My birthday is the day after Christmas so I was pretty young and a very good student. I felt like I needed to get a college education. Larry Schmittou had just been named the college baseball coach at Vanderbilt the year before. He offered me a partial scholarship for my freshman year, which was academic. He managed to scrape together some athletic scholarships in my sophomore year to give me a full ride thereafter."
Vanderbilt had an advantage in recruiting Willis because of Schmittou, but there was competition from another college for his talent.
"It was down to UT and Vanderbilt," Willis said. "I visited UT, which was our biggest rival. I spent a weekend up there. My dad wanted me to go MIT since I was real good in math. He didn't think I was going to amount to much in baseball and that challenged me. He told me to get an education since he didn't think I was going to make it to the big leagues.
"I caught a real break. I started playing for Schmittou's team when I was 16 years old in the summer Connie Mack League. We did well going to the Connie Mack World Series all three years I played for him. We came in last, third and second. Schmittou was coaching all those teams. Quite a few of the players at Vandy were on those teams like Jerry Reasonover, Steve Estep, Bill Winchester, Robert Harrison, Robert Hendrickson, Chuck Boyete and Jeff Peeples. Schmittou recruited very hard in Nashville in those years. We had a good nucleus by the time I was a sophomore."
As a sophomore in 1970, Willis led the Commodores in wins (7), innings pitched (79.1), a 2.39 ERA with 97 strikeouts. He also led Vanderbilt in strikeouts (71) as a senior. The pitching duo of Willis and Peeples was one of the best in the SEC.
"That was a very special time," Willis said about his playing days at Vanderbilt. "Schmittou made sure that we had a chance to play on summer league teams. One year I played in Alaska between my junior and senior years. The summer before that I played in Illinois in the Central Illinois Collegiate League. Since I went to school a year early, I couldn't be drafted until I graduated. I thought I lost some negotiation strength and money at the time.
"We were just starting to win in the SEC. The school got behind us. We didn't have much in the way of stands. There was this little amphitheatre behind home plate at McGugin Field. Students would fill it up. It was a scene when we played SEC games especially when Tennessee came to town. And Vandy won the SEC championship the year after I graduated."
Willis, 60, held the Vanderbilt all-time career strikeout record (350) until David Price the broke the mark in 2007 (441). He pitched a seven-inning no-hitter against Louisville in the first game of a doubleheader in 1971. Entering the 2011 season, Willis ranks 3rd career all-time in wins (24), 2nd in strikeouts (350), 5th in ERA (3.10) and 5th in innings pitched (307.2). After graduating at Vanderbilt in 1972, Willis was not surprised that he was again selected in the amateur draft in 1972. This time the Baltimore Orioles chose him in the 20th round.
"I was expecting to be drafted and I was pleased that it was the Orioles," said Willis. "I was a big Orioles fan growing up. They were big in the World Series in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was sent to Bluefield, W. Va. They had a tryout camp there. It was where all the draftees went who were the lower selections. I wasn't even signed.
"I pitched three or four innings in one game and Ray Scarborough called me into the clubhouse. He said, `Well, we are going to sign you. What kind of bonus do you think you need?' I told him I had a $2,500 student loan that needed to be paid off. I told him if he gave me $2,500 I would sign. That was the start of my professional career."
In Bluefield, Willis was 7-4 with a 3.03 ERA starting all 12 games that he appeared totaling 86 innings pitched. Bluefield was affiliated in the Single-A Appalachian League on the rookie level.
"I was very pleased with my time in Bluefield," Willis said. "In my second game, I threw a no-hitter. I struck out 17 guys. I think they stood up and took notice of me. It happened that the Orioles minor league director was there with our roving pitching coach Herm Starrette. They seemed to have been impressed.
"The next year  I went to Miami, which was Single-A, and in June I was sent to Double-A [Asheville]. The next year, I started out in Asheville and after a month I went to Triple-A Rochester. Then I sat there in Triple-A for three years before I made it to the big leagues."
Willis had success at each level in the Orioles minor league system. He faced a problem that most of the young Baltimore pitchers experienced. The Baltimore Orioles were loaded with pitching. The 1971 Orioles had a four-man rotation of Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, Jim Palmer and Pat Dobson that won at least 20 games each. The Orioles had been to the World Series in 1969-71.
"I did have success," said Willis. "In 1974, I was 3-0 in Asheville. I got called up to Rochester and started out going 9-1, but I ended up 12-4 for the year. The next year I was in Rochester the entire year going 14-8 and throwing a shutout in the playoffs. So I actually won 15 games. That got me a call up to Baltimore in September. Earl Weaver was the Orioles manager when I went up there for three weeks. I didn't get to pitch a single inning. It just broke my heart.
"In 1976 I went back to Rochester for the entire season and won 12 games [6 losses]. I thought I was a high prospect for them. There was a lot of competition. Baltimore always had a lot of good left-handers. They traded away McNally in 1975, but they got Scott McGregor from the Yankees. Mike Flanagan came up from Rochester in 1975. He won 12 games that year. We were just competing against each other.
"They just got Ross Grimsley from Cincinnati a few years earlier. There were a lot of left-handers. They also got Tippy Martinez from the Yankees though he was a reliever. We were all waiting in the wings to go up. Dennis Martinez was in Rochester in 1975 as well. The Orioles were in the 1979 World Series and most of those guys came up from Rochester."
The Toronto Blue Jays were an expansion team in 1977 in the American League. There was an expansion draft held in the previous winter. The Jays took Willis as the 55th player chosen. Montreal was the National League expansion team that same year.
"I was hoping to get out of the Orioles organization," Willis said. "My career was getting stagnant. During those years I played year-round. In 1974, I went to Puerto Rico and played in the Winter League. In 1975 and 1976 I went to Venezuela. I was in Venezuela when I heard I was drafted by Toronto. I had been a starter all my career and they requested I do bullpen work. They didn't tell me right away that the Blue Jays drafted me.
"I never met anyone from the Blue Jays organization. I believe they called Don Leppert, who was our manager in Venezuela. He was the bullpen coach in Toronto the next year. In Venezuela I was suddenly moved into the bullpen, which was a tough transition for me. My arm did not respond that well to relief. I always did better pitching until I dropped; then take off four or five days and do it again."
In 1977, Willis was in the Blue Jays spring camp and assigned to their opening day roster as a relief pitcher. That historic first game in Toronto's Exhibition Stadium was delayed a couple of hours due to snow on the field.
"It was cold that week," said Willis. "We were right on the lake. That was the old football stadium that they converted to baseball. It was open-air and it snowed about five inches before opening day. They had a Zambonie out, but they got the game in. I didn't pitch until the next week. I finally got in a major league game. I came in against Detroit with one out.
"The first batter I faced was their left-handed catcher Milt May. I don't remember what he did at the plate. I came in that game waiting since opening day to warm-up and pitch. When I went to my stretch, my legs and cheeks were shaking. I was afraid they were going to call a balk on me. I was that nervous. I almost didn't stop. I came to a stretch and immediately threw it home. I was all right after that. I pitched three and two-thirds innings for a save on one hit. I didn't give up any runs in the first 18 innings I pitched. Back then you had to pitch more than one inning for a save."
The 1977 Toronto Blue Jays' record that inaugural season was 54-107. Their manager was Roy Hartsfield.
"It was hard losing all those games," said Willis. "I had been with the Orioles and every team I played for in their minor league teams won the pennant at every level. We had such strong teams throughout the minor leagues. I had never played on a losing team except in high school. It was a different mentality because guys were playing for their own stats. It wasn't the team game it should have been. Everybody was playing for their survival. We could get beat 10-0, and a guy could get three hits. He is all happy running around the clubhouse. Everybody else was like so what."
Willis was Toronto's top left-handed relief pitcher for two seasons. In his first year, Willis was 2-6 in 43 games (three starts) while collecting five saves. He pitched in 107.1 innings with a 3.94 ERA. The next season the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder would pitch in 100.2 innings in 44 games (two starts) with a 4.56 ERA and a 3-7 record. Willis also earned seven saves that year.
"It wasn't that much fun because we were losing all the time," said Willis. "I was the only left-hander in the bullpen most of that first year. Near the end of 1977, we got Balor Moore who was another left-hander. We shared time in the bullpen after that. The first year was hard. Being the only left-hander, Hartsfield would warm me up in the third, fourth or fifth inning to go in long relief and then I'd sit down.
"If we had a lead in the eighth or ninth inning I would warm up again because I was the left-hander. It seemed like I just warmed up all the time. That happened quite often where I warmed up four or five times a game. Sometimes when I finally got into the game they'd say, `man, you don't have much today.' I'd tell them, `I've been warming up all week and you didn't put me in the game.' That is the nature of an expansion team."
In the six major league games that Willis started in five seasons in Toronto, he only tossed one complete game. And that was against the New York Yankees and Ron Guidry who was a phenomenal 22-3 with 16 complete games that season. The left-hander was the American League's Cy Young recipient that season totaled nine shutouts and a 1.74 ERA.
"It was in the middle of September and the Yankees were playing for the pennant," said Willis. "It got down to where we were playing New York and Boston at home and then we were going to New York and Boston to finish the season. That was the year they tied for the pennant and had a one-game playoff. The Yankees came in to play us and Hartsfield said, `OK, we are going to start all left-handers against the Yankees.' That was because they had trouble hitting left-handers. We had a doubleheader and Hartsville told me I would start the first game.
"I asked who was starting against and was told, `Guidry!' I thought `oooh, man,' since he was 22-2 at the time. I hadn't thrown for more than three innings in a game the entire year. I went nine innings in that start and got the win, 8-1. The next week, I started in Yankee Stadium against Catfish Hunter and I lost that game. That was probably more exciting than winning in Toronto. The fact that I got to start in Yankee Stadium against Catfish Hunter was a big deal for me."
Willis was asked if he struckout any big bats while pitching in the major leagues especially the Yankees.
"In the game that I won 8-1, the first three times I faced Reggie Jackson I struck him out," said Willis. The fourth at-bat, I had a 0-2 count on him and he squibbed one off the end of the bat for a ground ball back to me. He never could hit me. Of course, he was a left-handed hitter. Some guys you have their number and some guys you don't. I don't remember him ever getting a hit off me. In that same game, Lou Piniella got three hits off me."
In 1979-81, Willis split time in Toronto and their Triple-A club in Syracuse. It appeared his pitching ability was on the decline.
"I was struggling," Willis said. "I had arm problems in 1979 and didn't really recover from it. I had gone to the Winter Leagues for three years in a row. I think my arm just wore out. The velocity on my fastball was down. You weren't supposed to lift weights in the off-season with a rehab arm injury. I came home and played basketball in the off-season. That was my workout. Now players lift weights even during the season. The 1979 year was bad for me.
"That was the year that the umpires were on strike. I was a screwball pitcher, which was my main pitch. We had amateur umpires as replacements. I don't think they had seen that type of pitch. They would not call it a strike. I would get behind hitters and come in with a fastball and it got nailed. It seemed to happen over and over. Then we had the baseball strike in 1981. When we returned from the strike, they sent me down. At the end of 1981 I came back, but my shoulder was hurting again. I never would admit it to anybody, but it affected the way I was throwing."
In the 1981 season, Willis appeared in 20 games for the Blue Jays with a 5.91 ERA and a 0-4 record in 35 innings of relief. When the season was over, Willis was given his release by the Blue Jays. The Philadelphia Phillies signed Willis and he spent the entire 1982 season with their Triple-A team in Oklahoma City.
"Philadelphia invited me to camp," said Willis "Tug McGraw had a sore elbow for them. They were looking for an extra left-hander, but they needed him. I'm not saying I would have replaced Tug McGraw, but it was in their thinking. I spent the entire time in their big league camp and McGraw's elbow came around. So they sent me down to the minor leagues. I just had a terrible year down there."
That lone season in Oklahoma City, Willis was 7-6 in 56 games and a 7.00 ERA. Willis said he was married that season. He retired at the conclusion of that season.
Willis was asked if he ever intentionally threw a pitch at a batter?
"A manager very seldom tells a pitcher the hit a batter," Willis said. "There were different philosophies. When I came up in the Orioles' system, Earl Weaver was adamant that he did not want his pitchers to hit anybody. He had seen what had happened to Don Baylor when he was hit in the face. They thought he was dead. Weaver will tell you that if you can't get anybody out, and he would throw in some expletives, get your ... back to the minor leagues. You aren't going to get my players hurt if you can't get anybody out.
"Back in the 1970s, 80s and earlier, the knock down pitch was more prevalent and it wasn't such an issue. You had to hit somebody first and then maybe if the other team retaliated and hit somebody, the umpires would come out and give a warning. Now if you just come close to a guy the umpires give a warning and that's it. If you gave up a home run, the next guy up invariably had it in the back of his mind that he might not dig in so much because this pitcher might hit him. If you did throw up and in, he was ready for it. He was expecting it. That was just the nature of the game back then. As well as being a left-handed pitcher, your bread and butter was a low and away fastball, screwball or whatever on the outside corner to a right-hander.
"You have to pitch inside on right-handers just to keep that outside plate yours. If a guy starts leaning over the plate, when he is trying to go the other way with that outside pitch, then every few pitches you bust him inside. Not to hit him, but to get him off the plate. Then you go back outside. That's pitching. It's real hard to do today because you can come in and miss just a little even if you have been warned; they kick you out of the game. You only throw at a batter to protect your teammates. If one of my teammates gets knocked down then I retaliate and knock down one of their batters. And that happened more than once."
After his final season in Oklahoma City, Willis was out of baseball altogether for one year then became a pitching coach in the Phillies minor league organization for five seasons. Willis has been living and working in Houston since 1988. He said he gets back to Nashville about once a year and last saw Vanderbilt play Rice University in Houston in 2007. Willis witnessed David Price earn the victory.
Willis' five-year major league totals include a 7-21 record, 144 games (six starts), 15 saves in 296 innings pitched. His ERA was 5.18 with 149 strikeouts. In nine minor league seasons, Willis was 75-47, 251 games (117 starts), 19 saves, 402 strikeouts in 1004.1 innings pitched. His career minor league ERA was 3.42.
Willis was asked to look back on his career as a professional baseball player with thoughts on the game.
"One of the highest moments of my career was when I first got my first baseball card with my picture on it," laughed Willis. "That made it official that I had made it to the big leagues. The rest of it was a dream. It's such a short career with three and one-half years in the big leagues. It took me 11 years to play baseball professionally. It seemed like a blink of an eye.
"People say these big leaguers are getting too much money. There are a lot of guys that never get a day in the big leagues or just one year then toil in the minors. They burn up 10 or 12 years of their life. In my first year in Toronto, I made $25, 500 and the league minimum was $21,000. They had just raised the minimum from $16,000 to $21,000 that year. Sure the superstars make a lot of money, but there are a lot of guys that didn't achieve what they were hoping."
Traughber's Tidbit: In March 1971, Vanderbilt pitchers recorded three no-hitters (two back-to-back) in five games. On March 18, in the first game of a seven-inning doubleheader, Mike Willis defeated Louisville, 3-0. Willis struck out 14 Cardinals (including the first eight), walked two while one batter reached base on an error.
In the nightcap of that same doubleheader, Vanderbilt's Doug Wessel tossed a 2-0 shutout against the Cardinals while allowing no hits. Wessel struck out 12 batters while walking three Cardinals in the back-to-back gems. Vanderbilt's Chuck Boyette was the catcher in both games.
On March 20, 1971, Commodore pitcher Ed White threw a no-hitter in the second game of another seven-inning doubleheader against Calvin College. White struck out seven batters while giving up one walk in the 13-0 victory. Greg Collins was the Commodore catcher of record. All no-hitters were seven innings and played on McGugin Field.
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com. To read about Nashville baseball history this season check out www.nashvillesounds.com "Looking Back" for more stories by Bill Traughber.