Thirty-eight years before David Price was dominating batters for the Toronto Blue Jays, another left-hander from Vanderbilt University was mowing down hitters out of the bullpen in the club’s inaugural season.
Mike Willis, a 1972 Vanderbilt graduate, tossed 2-2/3 scoreless innings and recorded a save in his first major league game with the Blue Jays against the Detroit Tigers on April 13, 1977 and proceeded to allow just one earned run in his first 18 innings.
“I got to spring training with Toronto and they told me there wasn’t a spot for me in the starting rotation,” recalled Willis in a recent phone interview from his work in Houston, Texas. “They said, ‘You can go down to the minors and try to make it back as a starter or we can put you in the bullpen.’ I said, ‘Well shoot, I’ll try the bullpen.’ And after that first game, they started using me more as a closer, but I was also the only left-hander in the bullpen.”
Selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the 20th round of the 1972 MLB amateur draft, Willis had been stuck in the pitching-rich O’s organization until the Blue Jays chose him in the 1976 expansion draft.
“I was down in winter ball playing for Valencia and Don Leppert was our manager and he ended up being the bullpen coach for Toronto that first year,” recalled Willis. “He just called me into the office and he said, ‘Hey, you just got drafted by Toronto.’ And I said, ‘Oh.’ I hadn’t even thought about the (expansion) draft. I didn’t even know what day it was.”
But Willis was happy to be going to an organization where he’d have the opportunity to crack a big league roster.
Born in 1950 in Oklahoma City, Willis started playing baseball when he was seven. His father, Bill, introduced him to the game.
“My father had one of those real old fielder’s mitts that didn’t even have the fingers sewed together,” recalled Willis. “It was one of those gloves that they used to have back in the ’20s or ’30s. Someone had given it to him, so we’d play catch and he’d use that old-style glove.”
Willis started playing Little League baseball in Choctaw, Okla., in a uniform that consisted of a team t-shirt and a pair of jeans.
“I had a brother named Ron that was four years older than me, so I kind of tagged along with him,” remembered Willis. “I think that was one of the reasons I did so well in baseball because I was always playing against kids that were three or four years older than me.”
When Willis was 12, he moved with his family to Nashville, Tenn. A few years later, he was playing for an area all-star team when he was recruited by a coach named Larry Schmittou to suit up for his Connie Mack League squad.
By that time, Willis was a hard-throwing, high school southpaw who was attracting the attention of scouts. He was eventually selected in the 25th round of the MLB amateur draft by the Cincinnati Reds in 1968, but when Willis was in his senior year in high school, Schmittou was named the baseball coach at Vanderbilt University and rather than sign with the Reds, the teenage hurler opted to go to college.
Vanderbilt is a baseball powerhouse now, but back then, the sport was barely on the university’s radar.
“Baseball had just become more of a legitimate sport [at Vanderbilt], before it was like a club sport,” explained Willlis. “Coach Schmittou got there and started ramping up the program and they started playing 50 or more games a year . . . In the year I was there, he had one scholarship and I got half of an academic scholarship and half of an athletic scholarship the first year. And the next year, they were able to get me a full athletic scholarship. That was the only scholarship they offered. They got one a year.”
It was Schmittou’s hard work and the performance of Willis and his teammates that would put Vanderbilt on the collegiate baseball map.
“By the time I was a junior, we ended up winning the Southeastern division. Then in our senior year, we won it again,” recalled Willis.
While at Vanderbilt, Willis established a school record for most career strikeouts (350) that stood for 35 years until it was broken by Price in 2007.
Following his senior year, Willis was taken by the Baltimore Orioles in the 20th round of the MLB amateur draft. This time the young southpaw would sign.
After joining the O’s organization, Willis hurled a no-hitter and struck out 17 batters in his second professional start with Bluefield of the Rookie Level Appalachian League on June 28, 1972. The ensuing campaign he posted a 1.94 ERA in 18 starts for the O’s Class-A affiliate in Miami and was promoted to Double-A.
Willis recorded at least 12 wins and was a top-of-the-rotation starter in Double-A and Triple-A between 1974 and 1976, but with hurlers like Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar in the big league rotation and highly thought of left-handers Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor battling him for innings in the minors, it was difficult for Willis to crack the big league staff. That’s why he was grateful that the Blue Jays selected him in the expansion draft on November 5, 1976.
After being a starter, Willis had to make the transition to a relief role with the Blue Jays. The versatile southpaw pitched effectively at the start of the Jays’ inaugural season, but being the only lefty in the pen, he tired as the campaign progressed.
“Back then, our pitching was very inconsistent, so I’d warm up in the third or fourth inning and then sit down and then I’d warm up in the seventh or eighth inning and sit down and then come in in the ninth if the game was close. And then I would do it again the next day,” he explained.
“And I’d never relieved, so I didn’t know what to do. Every time I got up, I basically got up to go in the game and I just pitched myself out. Some days I’d come in after a week of warming up and I’d have a really mediocre outing and they’d say, ‘You haven’t pitched in a week!’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, but I’ve warmed up every night three or four times.’ But that’s no excuse. That’s the way the game was then. If you were out there in the bullpen, you were available.”
Out of his 40 relief appearances that season, Willis pitched more than two innings 23 times and more than three innings, 13 times, including hurling 7-1/3 innings of one-run relief against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on September 27.
“Jeff Byrd was the starter that day and he couldn’t get out of the first inning,” recalled Willis. “I came in the bottom of the first and I think we were behind 5-1 or 6-1 and we came back and we almost won the game. It ended up 6-5.”
Willis finished his rookie season with a respectable 3.94 ERA and he returned as the go-to lefty in the Blue Jays’ pen the following campaign and registered seven saves, but he also made two starts. On September 20 that season, he started the first game of a doubleheader against Ron Guidry and the eventual World Series champion New York Yankees at Exhibition Stadium. Guidry was 22-2 at the time, but Willis would out-duel the Bombers ace and toss the only complete game of his career. He also struck out Reggie Jackson three times in the 8-1 win.
“I was a soft-throwing left-hander and I threw a lot of breaking balls to left-handed hitters,” Willis explained, when asked how he pitched to Jackson. “For some reason, if I hung it, he took it and if I threw a good one, he swung at it. I don’t think he ever got a hit off of me. If he did, I don’t remember it.”
After struggling with arm problems in 1979, Willis returned to register a 1.71 ERA in 20 relief appearances for the Blue Jays in 1980.
“I started out in the minor leagues that year and I got used very effectively after I got called up,” Willis said of his success in 1980. “My arm got strong and it just carried over when I got to the big leagues. For some reason, I just couldn’t catch the fire that I had in 1980 when I came back in 1981. In 1981, I had a terrible year and everything fell apart.”
Following the 1981 season, Willis signed with the Philadelphia Phillies and spent 1982 in Triple-A.
Willis got married in the fall of 1982 and his wife gave birth to their son, Matt, in the summer of 1983. After the 1982 season, Willis decided that he wanted to stay home with his family rather than find a new club. But after a year off, he returned to the Phillies as a minor league pitching coach.
“I was actually a pitching coach in the minors for the Phillies for five years,” he said. “And I got to throw batting practice every day for the kids and shoot, after a year off, my arm felt better than the previous 10 years.”
Willis would later move to Houston and reconnect with former Blue Jays teammate Balor Moore, who offered him a sales position at his company, Brittex International Pipe Supply, in the summer of 1990. Willis accepted and has been working there ever since.
“It’s a small, pipe company, family run, and very close knit,” noted Willis.
Willis is now remarried. His wife’s name is Stephanie and his son, Matt, works as a software engineer at Facebook in Menlo Park, Calif. He also has two step-sons, Luke and Louis.
Willis has not been back to Toronto since a Blue Jays Old-Timers game in 1992, but he has nothing but fond memories of the city.
“Some of the stuff that I remember about Toronto that sticks out the most is just how beautiful the city is and how clean it was,” he said. “There were very few billboards and advertising on the roads. The city was just immaculate. You’d never see any trash or litter like you do in some of the rougher parts of the U.S. cities. It was just a beautiful place.”