By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Two numbers fuel the legend of Brian Milner in Toronto Blue Jays’ lore: 18 and .444.
At 18 years old (and 218 days), he remains the youngest player ever to suit up for the club. He accomplished this feat when he was the Blue Jays’ starting catcher on June 23, 1978.
And .444 is the career batting average the Fort Worth, Texas native retired with after going 4-for-9 in two major league games.
But to reduce Milner to two numbers is a disservice not only to his accomplishments as a player, but to the type of person he is and the hurdles he has had to overcome.
“I guess you could say I got to sit at the counter at the cafe and order the cup of coffee,” reflected the now-60-year-old Milner about his big league career in a recent phone interview.
“I just wasn’t up there long enough to get the cup of coffee and drink it.”
Today, more than 42 years removed from his major league stint, the upbeat Texan feels grateful that he got to “order that cup of coffee” at all.
“I’ve got no regrets,” he said. “I’m not looking in the rear view mirror wondering what could’ve been.”
This is refreshing to hear from an ex-athlete who might understandably harbour some bitterness about a pro career that ended when he was 22. Baseball pundits and fans can be ruthless in judging players without taking into account their challenges and struggles. Milner has been a type 1 diabetic since he was 13. He relied on an artificial pancreas when he played and had to adhere to a very strict diet. And as much as he loved playing the game of baseball, his body did not. Milner has endured (by his count) 18 surgeries – almost from head to foot – since the beginning of his pro career.
“I think like every athlete who didn’t quite make it to the pinnacle of where you wanted to go and you get released, you got that shock and bitterness of it was somebody else’s fault or whatever,” he said. “That’s kind of a danger period for guys that get out of the game . . . I was probably a little bitter when I got released, but you know what? It’s all come out in the wash and you won’t hear me complaining.”
And in chatting with Milner on the phone for over an hour earlier this month, the youngest Blue Jay seems truly happy. He speaks of his love for his wife, Amy, and his pride in his son, Hoby, a left-handed reliever with the Los Angeles Angels, and in his two step-children, Laine and Collin. He also savours his job as a school teacher and shares nothing but fond memories of his five seasons in the Blue Jays’ organization.
Born in 1959, Milner says the first time he remembers playing baseball was in a vacant lot with kids in his neighbourhood when he was six years old. Two years later, he played his first season in Little League in Houston before his family moved to Fort Worth.
The love of the game was instilled in him at a young age. His father, Tate, suited up for a semi-pro squad in Dallas, while his mother, Hellen, competed in a softball league. Milner, who grew up a Johnny Bench fan, took to the catching position almost immediately. He says it was the only position that kept his head in the game.
“Plus, I was kind of a chunky monkey when I was little,” he added. “I had to lose weight when I was eight years old to make the 120-pound football team down in Houston, so I was a pretty chunky guy. Back then, they always put the bigger guy behind the plate.”
But Milner would slim down and become a standout all-around athlete. At Southwest High School in Fort Worth, not only did he star for the baseball team, but he also played quarterback and kicked for the football squad.
During his high school years, Milner attracted the attention of scouts – including the Blue Jays’ Al LaMacchia – and by his senior season, he was entertaining multiple scholarship offers. He made it known that his plan was to attend Arizona State University and this scared most teams away from selecting him in the 1978 MLB draft.
But the Blue Jays, in just their second season of existence, decided to take a flyer on the hard-hitting catcher and chose him in the seventh round. They then flew Milner and his parents up to Toronto and enthusiastically expounded on their plans for him and for the fledgling organization.
“They were first class. I mean Peter Bavasi, Pat Gillick, Elliott Wahle – wow, you talk about a first class bunch of human beings,” recalled Milner.
The Blue Jays dangled a $150,000 signing bonus in front of him, which was a huge amount of money for that time, but the clincher was when they offered him the opportunity to go straight to the big leagues.
“To get offered a major league contract to go from high school to the big leagues, my father said I’d be a fool not to take it,” said Milner.
So on June 17, 1978, after he played in the Texas High School All-Star Game at the Astrodome, Milner signed with the Blue Jays and joined the big league club in Arlington the next day.
With this, he became the youngest player in the team’s history and also the first to make the jump straight from the draft to the big leagues.
“It was like a fantasy land,” said Milner of walking into a big league clubhouse for the first time. “I saw John Mayberry and Rico Carty. I was seeing these guys I’d been watching on TV and I was awestruck.”
It was Hall of Famer and Blue Jays’ hitting coach Bobby Doerr who took Milner under his wing.
“What a kind, gentle man he was,” recalled Milner. “He was the guy that steered me a little bit.”
Doerr told the right-handed hitting Milner that they were going to ease him into the lineup and that he’d likely see his first action against a left-hander.
A few days later, on June 23, 1978, while the Blue Jays were in Cleveland, Milner found his name in the starting lineup against Indians left-hander Rick Waits.
“I walked into the park that day and I think we took BP and then the starting lineup was posted and I was coming in and they said, ‘You’re going to start today, Milner.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, wow!’ Which was great because I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it,” he recalled.
Batting ninth, Milner recorded his first big league hit – a single up in the middle in the ninth inning – in the contest. The Blue Jays lost 8-3, but the 18-year-old ended up catching a trio of pitchers: Jesse Jefferson, Dave Lemanczyk and Joe Coleman. And though he had caught them in bullpen sessions, he learned about their respective arsenals on the fly.
“At 18, I didn’t really know a heckuva lot that was going on,” he said. “In the game, I was just kind of stabbing. It probably looked like I had a big boxing glove on half the time. I was as green as green could be.”
Milner’s second big league contest, three days later, was even more memorable. In that game, the Blue Jays exploded for a team-record 24 runs against the Baltimore Orioles at Exhibition Stadium. Milner had two singles and a triple in his first three at bats.
“I made it to third base [on the triple] and I slid in and I popped up on the bag and I was huffing and puffing a little bit, but the third base coach [Jackie Moore] goes, ‘You need to tip your cap.’ And I go, ‘What for?’ Well, the people were giving me a standing ovation and I didn’t even realize it. I was so locked in. You talk about an Aha moment in your life,” said Milner.
He scored three runs that game and caught left-hander Tom Underwood and right-hander Tom Murphy. The Blue Jays won 24-10.
But even with four hits in nine big league at bats, Milner knew he needed to go to the minors to get more playing time and hone his skills. So shortly after his three-hit game, he was sent to their Rookie-ball affiliate in Medicine Hat, Alta.
Milner vividly recalls the trek from Toronto to Medicine Hat. The Blue Jays flew him to Calgary from Toronto on a standard commercial Air Canada flight, but when he reported to the gate for his connecting flight to Medicine Hat, he grew concerned.
“I looked out and it was one of those turbo prop planes that held maybe eight people,” said Milner. “So this was my welcome to Rookie ball.”
Fortunately his plane landed safely and he got to play alongside future big leaguers Lloyd Moseby, Paul Hodgson (Marysville, N.B.) and Geno Petralli in Medicine Hat. Milner regularly batted leadoff and learned a lot from manager John McLaren.
“I would just sit and listen to Johnny,” said Milner. “And a lot of times, he wouldn’t say more than he needed to, but he was a fantastic catching guy. I’ve got a lot of love and admiration for Johnny. He taught me a whole lot about catching.”
Milner excelled in his first pro season, batting .307 with 58 hits – including three triples and four home runs – in 51 games. Unfortunately, he also suffered his first in a long string of injuries. After diving for a ball in one of his first games, he ended up with a hernia in his upper abdomen. He was also experiencing pain in his throwing arm and was diagnosed with bone chips in his elbow.
“Every time I threw, my arm would go numb from my finger tips all the way to my neck,” he said.
Following the season, Milner underwent surgery for the hernia in November and then had a procedure on his elbow just prior to spring training. As a result, he played just 38 games with the class-A Dunedin Blue Jays in 1979 and served exclusively as a DH.
Milner had recovered by the start of the ensuing season and he put together a strong campaign with the class-A Kinston Eagles, hitting .259 and knocking in 71 runs in 135 games. For his efforts, he was selected to the league’s All-Star Game.
“I think I went like 0-for-55 in July. I caught a lot of games. And [manager] Dennis Holmberg was like, ‘You gotta learn how to take care of business.'” recalled Milner. “I was healthy. And then July just hit me. That was the year that it was 100 degrees here in Texas for like 40 straight days and the heat and humidity down there in Carolina was just so tremendous that it kind of sapped me.”
Thanks to his strong performance in Kinston, Milner was invited to big league camp in 1981, but ended up being assigned to double-A Knoxville, where his average dipped to .231 in 112 games.
Still just 22, he returned to double-A in 1982, but while attempting to battle through a collection of injures, his struggles worsened, and after 37 games, the Blue Jays released him.
“At the time, I was kind of naïve, so I was shocked that I got released, but when you look at my statistics on paper, I was really a liability,” said Milner. “I went from prospect to suspect over night.”
Milner now understands that his release was just part of the business.
“To be successful, you’ve got to figure out how to be consistent,” he said. “A Rookie Ball guy does it maybe two times a week. A major league player does it five, six or seven days a week, so it was hard to develop that consistency with my game when I was hurting a lot of times. There was that psyche of competition and the psyche of just getting yourself up for rehab to get back to a certain point where you can compete for a job. It was kind of gruelling, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
After being let go by the Blue Jays, Milner returned to Fort Worth and started a landscaping business which he operated until 1990. At that point, he was offered an opportunity to return to baseball and he was hired as a coach for the New York Yankees’ short-season Class-A Oneonta affiliate.
For the next six seasons, Milner served in various capacities – including batting and catching coach – for Yankees affiliates in Oneonta, Greensboro (class-A) and Prince William (class-A Advanced).
During that time, he worked with future Yankees greats like Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter.
“They sent Jeter to me at the end of his first year [in the organizaiton] and they said, ‘Hey, just don’t screw him up,’” recalled Milner.
After six seasons with the Yankees, he was hired as a scout by the Chicago Cubs. His region included Northern Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. In that role, he scouted and signed, among others, Eric Hinske, who later won the American League Rookie of the Year award with the Blue Jays in 2002.
By 2007, Milner was newly married to Amy, and she encouraged him to return to school to finish his degree. He did so and obtained his degree in Business Administration from Tarleton State University in 2009.
“I got my teaching certification in Social Studies and Special Education through an alternative certification program in the same year,” explained Milner.
With that, Milner became a school teacher.
“I went right into high school to coach and to teach Special Ed and Social Studies and I guess I’m starting my fifth year now at an elementary school, teaching Special Ed to third, fourth and fifth graders. And I love it. I can’t wait to get up every morning,” he said.
Milner was also able to be in Philadelphia in June 2017 when his son, Hoby, received his first big league call-up from the Phillies. And it gave Milner comfort to know that the Phils’ bullpen coach was McLaren, his manager at Medicine Hat nearly 40 years earlier.
These days, Milner feels blessed to be able to watch his son who’s now pitching for the Angels. He’s also very proud of his wife Amy, who owns an interior design business called Fal De Ral Home & Design and his step-daughter, Laine Bechtel, who has a wellness/nutritional education and fitness company and his step-son, Collin Hetzler, who’s doing groundbreaking work in data and analytics for Driveline Baseball.
The former Blue Jay is not on social media, so he has lost touch with most of his ex-teammates, but he has reconnected with Hodgson. In fact, in September 2018, Milner made his first visit to Toronto since his big league stint with the club in 1978 to visit with Hodgson and his partner, Lisa.
“When Amy and I flew up there and I saw Paul for the first time in 30 some odd years, I had tears in my eyes,” he said. “We just picked up where we left off.”
Milner says the Blue Jays and the city of Toronto will always have a special place in his heart, and fans haven’t forgotten him either. He still regularly receives letters and autograph requests in the mail from them.
“I’ve kept all of their letters in a folder, and it’s so thick because people are so gracious,” he said.
So yes, Brian Milner played with the Blue Jays when he was 18 and he batted .444 in two major league games, but as you can see, he’s much more than those two numbers.
And as the youngest Blue Jay inches towards retirement age, he has a wife and family he loves, a teaching job he savours and memories he cherishes from when he “ordered that cup of coffee” in the big leagues.
“I’ve had a great fairy tale life,” he said. “If something happened to me tomorrow, I’ve got no complaints. It’s been a great ride.”