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Mike Willis

January 19, 2010

Mike Willis spent three seasons climbing the lower rungs of the Baltimore Orioles minor league system, and then he spent three more seasons stuck at the team’s Triple A affiliate in Rochester. He was a good minor league pitcher. The textual highlights on the back of this 1979 card point out that he notched a no-hitter during his first professional season, in 1972 at Bluefield, and that he led the International League in shutouts in 1974. His best season came the following year, when he went 14-8 with a 2.57 ERA for a Rochester squad that finished nearly 30 games above .500.

The success of that Rochester squad suggests the major reason for Mike Willis’ extended minor league limbo: the Orioles of that era were loaded with talent above, below, and beside him, especially in the pitching department. On the big club from 1974 through 1976, when the team finished second, first, and fourth in the A.L. in team ERA, the Orioles featured 20-game-winners Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Wayne Garland, and Mike Torrez as well as long-time star Dave McNally and 18-game-winner Ross Grimsley. All of those pitchers save for Palmer were on their way out with the Orioles, but unfortunately for Mike Willis the Orioles’ system was stocked with potential replacements. As he continued to win games in front of the Rochester faithful, he was passed over for promotion to the big club by three fellow (and younger) starting pitchers who would, with Palmer, form the core of a rejuvenated Orioles staff in the late 1970s and early 1980s: Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez, and Scott McGregor. Willis’ numbers at Rochester were good enough that you have to think that he began to wonder what those guys had that he didn’t have.

Perhaps doubt began to creep in. In 1976, for the first time in his professional career, his ERA edged above 4, though he still managed to win twice as many games as he lost (12-6). In November of that year, the Orioles left him unprotected for the Blue Jays/Mariners expansion draft. In this draft of guys that other teams could live without, Mike Willis went 55th, right before Puchy Delgado.

He lasted a handful of seasons with the Jays, splitting time between the majors and the minors. On the big club, he racked up three times as many losses as wins, which isn’t surprising given that the Blue Jays’ winning percentages during the Mike Willis Era were .335, 366, .327, .414, and .349. This 1979 card captures him in the midst of these years of constant defeat. His contorted face and body do not give off an aura of power or confidence (unlike, say, a similar moment in a Nolan Ryan card from a year later) but rather of great effort and limitations and a gnarled and irreducible cyst of hope. The world passes you by. The world lambasts your ineffective junk. You wind and twist and try again, your stuff thin smoke and fractured mirrors, magic and luck all but gone. You keep throwing. As long as they put a ball in your hand, you throw.

In 1982, Mike Willis, apparently no longer wanted by the Blue Jays, got work with the Oklahoma City 89ers, a Phillies affiliate. His ERA that season was an even 7.00, and the 89ers, a collection of fading veterans surrounding prospect Julio Franco, went 43-91. Astoundingly—considering the ERA and the help around him, or lack thereof—Mike Willis finished the season with a winning record of 7-6. This last morsel of luck proved to be of little use: It was over. As several of his former Rochester teammates were rolling to the 1983 World Series title in Baltimore, Mike Willis was beginning life out here with the rest of us, empty-handed.

12 comments

  1. Is it my imagination or did the 1979 set have a lot of shots like this card, with a hazy, blurry crowd as a backdrop? (I assume it’s Yankee Stadium pictured.) I seem to remember the Yankees cards that year all seemed to have that fuzzy crowd scene in the back.

    In any case, with guys like Mike Willis, I always imagine him being disposable to our baseball memories (his card was just filler to the ten year old me who would have found it in the pack), but with guys like him, he was probably the best player to ever come from his hometown (OK, not in Willis’ particular case, as he was from Oklahoma City) and it probably came up a million times since he left organized ball that he was an ex-big leaguer. I wonder if being a ballplayer continues to be the identity these guys have of themselves or if they internally view their career as just a part of their life? (I’d love to have his four year career myself.)


  2. Sb1902,

    I think you’re right about the ’79 set. Overall, I really like the ’79 set but the thing I don’t understand is the arbitrary nature in which they picked out the colors for these cards. Yellow and Green for a Blue Jays card??? What did they have on the A’s cards, blue and white or red and blue?


  3. Mike Willis just reminds me of how arbitrary life is and how much luck plays into our lives.

    Willis was drafted by the Reds in ’68 but decides to go to Vanderbilt instead. Who knows what would have happened if signed with the Reds.

    He gets drafted by the Orioles in ’72. The Orioles are the best place for a pitcher to pitch in the 70’s basically for 3 reasons: Pitcher’s park, Great Defense, Good offensive team. The only problem is baseball overrated all of the Oriole pitchers back then because there was no way to adjust for this advantage. So even league average pitchers tended to stay on the team longer because they were perceived as better than they really were.

    Willis never gets his chance because of the pitcher log-jam which in reality he probably could have pitched as well as a lot of pitchers on the Orioles staff. Instead, he is unprotected by the Orioles and drafted by an expansion team that plays in a hitter’s park with bad defense with horrible hitters.

    You look back on those ’76 Orioles that came in second place and you really wonder what Weaver was doing:

    Cuellar-66era+
    May-87era+
    Grimsley-83era+

    Willis could have pitched just as good if not better than those 3 guys.

    Willis would have ended up with Orioles without the expansion draft and probably would have been good enough to play in the ’79 & 83 series.

    Also, like Mike Beard, Willis was victim of bad timing. If he had come up in the 80’s or 90’s he could have played forever and made a ton of money as a left handed relief pitcher.


  4. Wow, those 89ers were quite the conglomeration of has been and never would be. A couple of elder Cardboard Gods played for them too, Josh, including Stan Bahnsen, Warren Brusstar, and the great god of laughter and mirth Rowland Office.


  5. johnq, I, too, have wondered about the color combos for the various season. For the ’79 Blue Jays, however, I wonder if it’s possible the “Blue Jays” is in blue, but with the yellow background, it came out green?


  6. godfreyjon65:

    I noticed that the only pitchers to escape the overwhelming 89er tendency toward defeat (i.e., they had winning records) were the only fellows with profiles on this site: Willis, Brusstar, and Bahnsen.

    Also, the 89ers provided quite the intersection of pro careers, with Bahnsen, who started playing pro ball in 1965, sharing bus rides with young Julio Franco, who played professionally in Mexico last year (and played in the majors in ’07).


  7. sb1902,

    That could be, not sure. Very strange an ugly lettering on the ’79 set. I remember the Mets were Brown with yellow letters, the Dodgers were a pink color I think, The Royals were brown and yellow like the Mets, very strange.


  8. It’s worth noting that also on that ’82 89ers roster was a young Mark Davis, who would go on to become possibly the least successful (statistically, not financially) Cy Young award winner. There must be some meaning or at least irony in this.


  9. You’re right, notalenthack. Davis went 5-12 with a 6.24 ERA.

    Absolutely, that’s Yankee Stadium in the photo. Willis appeared in one day game there in 1978 – the first of a doubleheader on May 28. He came on in the seventh, in a tie game with the go-ahead run on third. Chris Chambliss singled to put the Yankees ahead, then Willis got out of the inning. But he came back out for the eighth, gave up a single, a double, then hit the showers. Rough day indeed.


  10. Mike Willis stands out for me for two reasons. One is obvious; he shares my last name, and as a kid growing up in the late 70s, that seemed pretty cool at the time.

    Second, I recall an obscure trivia question making the rounds in 1978 (probably from a note in a Sunday Globe Peter Gammons column) that the only 3 pitchers to beat Ron Guidry in 1978 were all named Mike: Caldwell, Flanagan, and…Willis. Which meant that when the Red Sox sent Mike Torrez to the mound on October 2nd, my “karma uber statistical sampling” brain was convinced the Sox were going to win.


  11. http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1978/B09201TOR1978.htm

    That’s Willis v. Guidry. When you look at the boxscore, it’s almost unfathomable. Here’s Guidry, in one of the most dominating seasons by a pitcher in MLB history, getting his ass kicked by the worst team in baseball. And Mike Willis, in probably the most memorable game of his brief and otherwise uneventful major league career, shutting down the World Champs in a complete game effort and delivering Guidry his 3rd and final loss of 1978.


  12. It’s good to see that Snuffy Smith finally made it to the big leagues.



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