While other kids were shoveling snow off their backyard rinks, Mike Gardiner was clearing the sidewalk in front of his house, so he could play catch with his dad.
“I always played catch on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day,” recalled Gardiner, a Sarnia, Ont., native who pitched six seasons in the big leagues. “My dad would play catch with me every day, no matter what the temperature was and that’s how I became mentally tough.”
That toughness served him well over the course of his 12-year professional baseball career, helping him evolve from a marginal prospect into a regular in the Boston Red Sox rotation.
Growing up in Courtright, Ont., in a house that backed onto one of Canada’s most beautiful diamonds, Gardiner seemed destined to be a ballplayer.
Now 44 and living in Charlotte, N.C., the passionate Canuck counts Eric MacKenzie, the ex-major leaguer who now meticulously grooms the Courtright field, as a key influence on his career. MacKenzie, who appeared in one game for the Kansas City Athletics in 1955, was running the Mooretown arena when a nine-year-old Gardiner began asking him to play catch.
“I’d get my chores done, and then I’d hop on my bike and I would ride my bike from Courtright over to Mooretown and bring two gloves and a couple of baseballs. Sometimes I’d have to sit there for an hour and wait for him, then we’d play catch. Twenty minutes later, I’d be back on my bike and going home,” recalled Gardiner.
Though his future would be as a pitcher, Gardiner spent much of his teens as a switch-hitting catcher.
“I had targeted the catcher’s position because it was the quickest way to get anywhere,” he said.
In grade 10, Gardiner moved to Sarnia, where he was mentored by coaching legends Rick Birmingham and Harry Moore. His high school, Sarnia Collegiate, didn’t have a baseball team, a fact that Gardiner believes may have helped him.
“If you look at a lot of high school programs these days, they play two or three games a week and they use one or two pitchers the whole season,” he explained. “That’s where the best players get burnt out physically and mentally.”
Always the hardest worker on his teams, Gardiner’s commitment was rewarded when he was selected to Canada’s national 18-and-under squad for the World Junior Championships in Johnstown, Pa., in 1983. Alternating between catching and pitching, Gardiner helped Canada capture a bronze medal, the country’s first medal at an international competition.
His performance earned him a scholarship to Indiana State University, where he would pitch from 1983 to 1987. He still holds the school’s record for most wins and was inducted into the Sycamores’ Hall of Fame in 2007.
Gardiner also suited up for Canada at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where he was the only pitcher to defeat the eventual gold medal-winning Japanese team. His battery-mate for that game was Rob Thomson, who’s now the third base coach for the New York Yankees.
While at Indiana State, Gardiner caught the eye of scout Tom Mooney, and the Seattle Mariners selected him in the 18th round of the 1987 draft. The Canadian right-hander was assigned to the Mariners Class-A Short-Season club in Bellingham with Ken Griffey Jr.
Rising through the Mariners organization, Gardiner would make his big league debut at Fenway Park on September 8, 1990. He entered the game in the eighth inning with the Mariners trailing 9-2 and allowed a bloop hit to Tom Brunansky before striking out Randy Kutcher.
He was dealt to Red Sox for Rob Murphy on April 1, 1991.Gardiner reported to Beantown and would record nine wins that season, pitching in a rotation alongside Roger Clemens.
“Roger didn’t say a whole lot, but when he did speak, you listened. We got along great. He asked me to run with him on several occasions,” said Gardiner.
After the 1992 season, Gardiner was traded to the Montreal Expos. While excited to be pitching in his home country, Gardiner’s experience with the Expos was a frustrating one.
“I was basically the 13th guy on a 12-man pitching staff, so I got tossed up and down so many times between Triple-A Ottawa and the big league club that they were putting my mileage in the pre-game notes,” explained Gardiner.
In August 1993, he was granted his release and signed with the Detroit Tigers.
“I chose to sign with Detroit because I was an hour from home. I grew up watching Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and Al Kaline and Norm Cash and all those guys,” he said. “And having my mom and dad and my friends come out to watch, it was just an absolute thrill.”
When Mike Henneman was injured in 1994, manager Sparky Anderson began handing the ball to Gardiner in the ninth inning.
“I was the closer for 10 days while Mike was on the disabled list,” said Gardiner. “That was a thrill to get a few major league saves.”
Unfortunately, a mysterious sinus condition started to bother him the following year. He eventually underwent three operations to combat the condition. After spending a portion of the 1995 campaign with the Tigers, he would pitch three more seasons in the minors.
Gardiner now runs Stealth Baseball, a non-profit organization in Charlotte that emphasizes physical, mental and emotional growth in its players. The program has grown into one of the most successful in North America.
Each July he brings one of his teams to Courtright to compete in the Don Gardiner Memorial Tournament, an event named in his father’s honour. Returning home also gives Gardiner a chance to visit with family and friends. Before Christmas last year, he also made his first visit to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ontario.
“I’m still Canadian. I have a green card down here, but I would love to get involved in Baseball Canada again,” he said.