Jays, Rays, And Some Good Old Days

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September 3rd, 2020

On Monday this week I posted a pic of this baseball card on my Facebook page. It is noteworthy for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact my last name is spelled incorrectly. That’s not uncommon in my world. Happens all the time to be honest, but it is unfortunate that it happened on the only real authentic baseball card ever made and sold with my mug on it. The common misspelling is why, when people ask me my name, I say “Bob Wilber, that’s Wilb-E-r” with a heavy emphasis on the E. Many people must think I either helped my brother Orville build and fly the first American airplane or I owned a talking horse on TV. One must be of a certain age to understand that second reference.

I only posted the baseball card on Facebook because my good friend Lewis Bloom, a legend in the NHRA world, made a post about the fact that his NHRA announcing career had come to an end, and he included an image of a very young version of himself on TV, side-by-side with the one-and-only Dave McClelland, from way back in the day. And the caption at the bottom of the screen just below the image of my friend Lewis was written as Louis Bloom. I felt his pain.

It’s Wilb-E-r but thank you anyway card company.

What I was not prepared for was the interest in my old baseball card. In all my years on Facebook, that one post created more “Likes” and comments than just about anything I’ve ever put out there. And, it also created a ton of correspondence from people who wanted to know more about the fact I used to work for the Toronto Blue Jays. I think I write enough about my playing career for most people to know I played in college, then played in the minor leagues for a while with Detroit and Oakland, and that I finally played as a semi-pro player until I was closing in on my 40th birthday, at which point my hamstrings and right shoulder informed me, quite bluntly, that I had to quit. Not as many people know about my scouting days for the Blue Jays, and the fact they utilized a few of us to also help coach in the rookie leagues after the June draft. My 1980 assignment was with the Utica Blue Jays in the New York-Penn League. Hence, this card which I never knew existed until just a few years ago. Happy to have the full team set now, all kept in a case in a nice safe place, thanks to eBay.

Yes, I look very young. I was. More than anything else, I still wanted to be playing, and just one year before I had been, when I transitioned from the outfield to the mound as a reliever for the Medford A’s. I looked as young as the rest of the Utica players. I even pitched against them in a practice game before the season started and the manager, Larry Hardy, had to come out to the mound in the second or third inning and ask me just to throw nice straight fastballs because they couldn’t hit me. Damn I really wanted to still be playing, but two different organizations told me to go home, so… There I was as a scout who was also coaching at the Class-A level. Pretty handsome, too. And yes, that’s a “chaw” of Red Man tobacco in my cheek. Or maybe Levi Garrett. Hard to say.

Thinking of that, and after replying to all the questions I received, I went on a mission. I knew, somewhere in this house, there was a photo in a super-cheap K-Mart frame, and that photo would be a great illustration of just how valuable and memorable my scouting days were. If you read my book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” you probably recall the parts about scouting, and the alternating amazingly wonderful memories mixed in with the very frustrating ones, when a full year’s worth of work would end up with no results, thanks to the way the Major League draft works. It was a hard job, with nearly nonstop travel, but boy did it “take me places” in many ways.

After much digging in the utility room, I finally found the cheap gold frame and the photo within. This is it.

The year is 1983. It was my third year with the Blue Jays and I was the club’s Midwest Scouting Supervisor. At that time, I’m guessing my territory included Tennessee, Kentucky, southern Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota. My territory seemed to change every year, but I think that’s what I was covering then.

The Jays brought us all up to Toronto at the end of the Major League season. We had many days of meetings at a downtown hotel, and then capped off the work with an afternoon and evening at the final game of the ’83 season. Part of the agenda was the taking of this photo. I’m easy to spot, right in the middle of the third row. The guy next to me, with the blonde hair, is Tim Wilken, who covered Florida for the club.

It’s Wilb-E-r but thank you anyway card company.

Tim was hired one year before me, and I’m relatively certain he was the youngest full time professional scout in MLB when he started. I signed my contract the next spring, in 1980, and I do believe I was a year younger than Tim. Still, despite our age and lack of experience, the team sent us out on assignments together more than a few times. We covered the biggest amateur tournament in the country, the NBC Tournament in Wichita, as a tag-team. You needed help there. The games went on from dawn until well after dark, and on one night they’d always just keep playing. Any fans in the stands who made it all the way to when the sun came up got free donuts and the morning paper. We saw a LOT of future big leaguers at the tournament, and honed our radar gun and stopwatch skills for endless hours in 100-degree Wichita heat. But we also entertained each other and became friends. That’s important. Scouting is, by nature, a pretty lonely job. A lot of driving, a lot of bad hotels, and a lot of high school or college ballgames. Tim was a great guy. He still is.

So here are the answers to a couple of “challenges” I put on that Facebook post, about this photo from 1983. The first one was the fact there are four former Blue Jays managers in the photo. They are Bobby Mattick, Bobby Cox, Jimy Williams, and Cito Gaston. In addition, John McLaren went on to manage the Seattle Mariners.

There are also two members of the Baseball Hall of Fame who have their plaques hanging in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. That would be the aforementioned Bobby Cox as well as Pat Gillick, one of the most successful and respected General Managers and senior executives to ever be in the game.

Finally, I believe there is only one person in the shot who is in the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame. That would be my buddy Tim Wilken, who still watches baseball games for a living. The crazy young dude I spent so much time with when we were in our 20s is now a legend himself. And his plaque looks just like him! I took this photo during Spring Training a couple of years ago, in Fort Myers.

If you read my book, you might remember the name Don Welke. He was the area scout who was tasked with the impossible effort of showing me the ropes right after I went to work for the Blue Jays. I rode with him, on endless two-lanes, for a full month before I was sent out to join the wolves by myself. A truly good man.

In the back row are the two Scouting Directors I reported to after the team finally organized the chart to have them oversee all the scouts. I reported to Wayne Morgan when I spent 1981 out in Fresno, and then I reported to Bob Engle when the team moved me back to St. Louis in 1982

The three women in the front row were essential. Without Carolyn, Susan, and Ellen we scouts would’ve been lost. They kept track of us, got us paid, handled processing our expense reports, and worked with us on travel when trips needing airplane flights were involved. Amazingly great people. Seemed like we were always on the phone.

We were both young go-getters once. Now one of us is a legend and Hall of Famer and the other took this photo.

And Pat Gillick… When I joined the club Pat was not just the General Manager, he was also fully in charge of just about every facet of the franchise. The team had only joined Major League Baseball as an expansion franchise in 1977, just three years before I was hired, and the full front-office staff had not yet fully coalesced. So Pat, the GM of a Major League team, also acted as scouting director, leader, motivator, and mentor. In my first year, whenever I’d have something important to run up the flagpole, I’d call Pat directly. He always treated me with such class and dignity, and he took the time to encourage me and keep me motivated. You’ll notice he’s not front-and-center in the photo. That’s Pat Gillick. Just part of the team, like everyone else in the second row. An amazing man. A legend. A permanent resident in that small brick building on the main street in Cooperstown, NY.

Right after the 1984 draft, I resigned from scouting and accepted my first job with Converse Shoes. It was hard to leave the game, but it was a great adventure with Converse. I lost track of everyone in the photo except for Pat Gillick. A full year and a half later, when the Cardinals played the Royals in the World Series, Pat set me up with tickets for all seven games. No questions asked. Happy to do it.

When I joined my brother Del’s sports marketing company, and we implemented and managed IBM’s huge sponsorship of all MLB clubs, I made sure the Blue Jays were one of my teams (we divided up the big leagues among three staff members and all had other sponsor relationships to maintain as well) so Pat and I would see each other at least once per summer when I’d come in on the IBM program. Always a smile. Always.

As for Tim Wilken, years later in 2001 I left our home in Austin and drove to Florida for the NHRA Gatornationals in the incredible Trans Am I got as part of the Worsham Racing sponsorship from Pontiac, and went to see a Spring Training game at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg. It was a Tampa Bay Rays home game, and upon departing the ballpark I literally bumped into Tim on the concourse. I think he was still working for the Blue Jays then, but not long after that he joined the Rays organization. I just remember it being an absolute pleasure to see my old “running mate” one more time. I hope we get to see each other again soon. We should make that happen.

When I found the cheap frame with the Blue Jays color 8×10 in it, I wanted to take a photo of it with my iPhone (my scanner bit the dust years ago.) There was too much glare on the glass, so I decided to take it out. Something felt a little odd about it when I was pulling the photo out, as if it was slightly too thick. And then I discovered this!

I’m just about absolutely sure this is from the winter of 1981-82. I think it was January when they brought us all together in Toronto. Why am I sure? Because Bobby Cox is in this photo and he joined the team as its new manager right at the end of the regular season in 1981. We attended the World Series in Los Angeles together, along with Pat Gillick, Team President Peter Bavasi, and front office executive Elliot Wahle. I got to hang out with the big shots. Many good stories in the book about that trip, including conversations with the likes of Yogi Berra and Reggie Jackson. Also a story about singing school fight songs in a small Mexican cantina near Dodger Stadium, after a few margaritas. You can’t make that stuff up.

I clearly had framed this photo when I got it (thanks to Susan Turjanica I imagine) and then put the color version of the 1983 meeting in front of it in the frame. I probably forgot this black & white picture was there within a week. When I pulled it out just a couple of days ago, I hadn’t seen it in 37 years. Amazing.

January of 1982, I think. We look like an interesting bunch

I had vague memories of that time they brought us all in for those particular meetings in Toronto. We again stayed in a very nice hotel in downtown and had endless meetings for days. That was a big “stand up for myself” meeting for me, because the discussion finally got around to the fact the Blue Jays had either just selected or were about to select pitcher Jim Gott in the Rule 5 draft, because he was left unprotected by the Cardinals and still a minor leaguer, not on the big league roster. I was the first scout to see him in the Mexican Pacific League in late 1981. I made sure Pat Gillick knew exactly what I saw in Gott with direct “not easy to make” phone calls from my motel rooms in Mexico, but in our meetings some other guys tried to take credit for finding him down there. I’ll never forget Pat looking directly at me in that meeting, with a look that said “Are you going just sit there or stand up for yourself?” I raised my hand and was allowed to speak. The young scout in the room stood up for himself.

The fact this old pic is black & white, and the fact we’re all in coats and ties while standing on the stairs at a super-ritzy Toronto steakhouse, makes it look much older than it is. Less than two years later we were standing there in Exhibition Stadium for the color photo, and much more casually dressed. I remember that night now, but hadn’t thought about it much since it happened. It was an old-school place, with dark paneling and velvet booths, and waiters constantly hovering over us. Somehow they managed to get us lined up for a photo. I’m pretty far in the back, standing next to Cito Gaston. That’s good company. Pat Gillick is on the far left end of the first row.

So that’s my historical story for this week. A young man’s journey as a baseball scout for the Toronto Blue Jays. Pat Gillick made sure it was a great organization.

A baseball card with my name spelled wrong led to digging around the utility room to find the $2 frame that held the 1983 organizational photo, and taking it out of the frame caused me to discover the hidden gem behind it. Fate, I guess.

Good days. Great experience. I didn’t become a “lifer” like my buddy Tim Wilken, but I wouldn’t go back and change a single thing. All those dominoes had to fall in a specific order, or I wouldn’t be here writing this blog and about to publish my second book. Just plow forward, right?

As always, I request only one thing. If you enjoyed this trip through my scouting days, please click on the “Like” button below. And if you ever run into Pat Gillick or Tim Wilken, tell them I said hi. Much respect for those guys, and many others in those two photos.

See you next week.

Bob Wilber, at your service and remembering the Wichita tournament.

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