Despite growing up in a county that develops far more ice hockey than baseball players, and in a community that did not even have a high school baseball team, Mike Gardiner made the majors. In 1984, the righty became the first pitcher to win a game for Canada in the Olympic Games. He went on to win nine games as a rookie for the 1991 Boston Red Sox. His career at the top level lasted six seasons with four teams, ending in 1995.
Gardiner had Ontario roots. He was born on October 19, 1965, in Sarnia, a town at the southern tip of Lake Huron right on the boundary with the United States, about 65 miles northeast of Detroit. His parents were Don (a commission salesman for safety supplies) and Mabel (née Gilliland,1 a teacher’s assistant). The family also included a younger sister named Sheri.
Don and Mabel Gardiner were both active in local youth baseball and hockey. Their contributions were recognized in 2004 when the Sarnia Sports Hall of Fame inducted them as a couple. Don had suffered from polio as a youth, which prevented him from playing, but his great love of sports led him to contribute in other ways. Among other things, he coached his son.2
Gardiner grew up next to a baseball field in Courtright, a town about 20 minutes south of Sarnia. There, he frequently played catch with Eric MacKenzie, who had one plate appearance for the 1955 Kansas City A’s. MacKenzie was a catcher, and so too was Gardiner until he turned to pitching at age 17 after showing promise as a substitute hurler.3
By then, the Gardiner family had returned to Sarnia, where Mike played travel baseball during the summer. Gardiner attended high school at Sarnia Collegiate Institute, which lacked a baseball team—a deficiency that Gardiner felt might actually have aided his career. “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 burned out physically and mentally.”4
After not playing high school baseball in Canada, Gardiner played college baseball in the United States. Pitching for Indiana State University, which recruited him after he caught and pitched for the Team Canada U-18 team, Gardiner went 3-3 with a team-worst 5.74 ERA in 1984.
Later that year came his first prominent baseball accomplishment, while representing Team Canada in the first Olympics that featured baseball, albeit as a demonstration sport. Eight of those Canadians went on to play pro baseball, and two others besides Gardiner made the majors: Steve Wilson and Kevin Reimer. Their skipper was none other than Eric MacKenzie.5
The youngest player on the team, Gardiner pitched seven innings at Dodger Stadium in host city Los Angeles. He yielded three runs on seven hits as Canada earned its only victory of the tournament by beating Japan—the nation that eventually won the gold medal—6-4.6 He called the game the first of his two great thrills in baseball.7
Named the Canadian Amateur Player of the Year, Gardiner received a $2,500 scholarship to defray the cost of his ISU tuition in a ceremony at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium.8
Gardiner had a similar collegiate record in 1985, finishing 6-5 with a 5.59 ERA for the Sycamores. He blossomed in his last two seasons, going 8-3 with a 3.26 ERA in 1986 and 13-4 with a 4.03 ERA in 1987.9 Asked to explain the differences between his first and last two years, Gardiner recalled, “I had tough luck as a freshman, but I was durable as all get-out. I could throw all the time and I pitched enough innings that I got a bunch of wins.”
The Seattle Mariners selected Gardiner in the 18th round of the 1987 MLB June amateur draft. Tom Mooney, who scouted Gardiner, had also scouted Ken Griffey Jr. and Dave Burba, the first two selections of the Mariners.10 In his third pro season, 1989, Gardiner had his first strong professional campaign. He had a combined 2.11 ERA between the Single-A Wausau Timbers of the Midwest League and the Double-A Williamsport Bulls of the Eastern League. After going 12-8 with a 1.90 ERA, Gardiner won Eastern League Pitcher of the Year for Williamsport in 1990,11 which earned him his first shot at the majors when rosters expanded that September.
Gardiner found out about his promotion to Seattle in an unusual way. Pitching with one out in the fifth inning, he could not understand why Williamsport manager Rich Morales visited him on the mound. An out later, Morales—for no apparent reason—visited again, necessitating Gardiner’s removal. Initially furious, Gardiner relaxed when he learned the visits were part of a ruse to let him know that that he was going to The Show.
Gardiner debuted on September 8, 1990, against Boston at Fenway Park. This game represented the second of his two biggest baseball thrills. Seattle was trailing, 9-2, with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, when Gardiner came in with runners on the corners and gave up a “rinky-dink” RBI single to Tom Brunansky. He then struck out Randy Kutcher, and the Mariners ended up losing, 10-2.
Gardiner pitched in four more games for the Mariners in 1990. He got hit hard in three starts before notching four scoreless relief innings against Minnesota in his final appearance in a Seattle uniform. “I got kicked a bit,” he said of his late-season stint with the Mariners. “But I knew I could pitch. I came into spring training [in 1991] with a new pitch, a two-seam (sinking) fastball.”12
Gardiner feared he might not make Seattle’s Opening Day roster in 1991. Driving to the ballpark on April 1, he repeated to himself, “They’re not going to get me.” After the Mariners traded him to the Red Sox later that day for reliever Rob Murphy, Gardiner doubted the veracity of the news. After all, it was April Fools’ Day. Gardiner said nearly six hours passed before he believed in the reality of the deal.
Talking to the Boston media after the swap, Gardiner admitted, “I wouldn’t say I’m overpowering, but I can throw four pitches for strikes any time I want … that’s what makes me effective. I try to be confident and have a lot of intensity out there, just try to be in charge. I’m not going to be a strikeout pitcher, I just try to stay in command.”13
Gardiner enjoyed pitching in Boston. “It was cool. There was a lot of pressure, but I loved it,” he recalled in 2022. Even though he considered himself one of the more obscure players on the team, Gardiner, who lived close to Fenway Park, had to stop taking the Green Line to games because too many fans would recognize him. He eventually changed his commute by giving up public transportation in favor of walking.
Gardiner’s approach on the mound earned him plaudits from a much more famous professional athlete in Boston who’d played collegiately at Indiana State. As Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe observed, “Larry Bird is a man of action, which means he’s a charter member of the Mike Gardiner fan club. ‘He doesn’t fool around,’ admired Bird. ‘He gets the ball from the catcher, and he is ready to go.’”14 Gardiner had lived in Bird’s old dorm room and “was just hoping that some of his success would rub off on me.”15
After beginning the 1991 season with the Pawtucket Red Sox, Gardiner got off to a great start with Boston. He made a winning Red Sox debut before his father, who had made a half-day trip from Canada, in a 7-2 win over Baltimore on May 31. “The scouting reports were pretty accurate,” said Cal Ripken Jr., who was 1-for-4, an RBI single. “He had four pitches with good control.”16
Pitching on the road, Gardiner faced and beat Seattle on June 10, a 6-2 win over a future Hall of Famer. Randy Johnson “was overshadowed by … Mike Gardiner, who provided a clinic in poise while those at the Kingdome controls threw every funny noise and tired rock song they had at him,” wrote Steve Fainaru in the Boston Globe. “I’m not going to deny that at all,” Gardiner said when asked if he had additional incentive in facing his former team.”17
Asked about his poise, Gardiner explained, “I’ve always been around players who were older than me. When I was 15, I was playing against 18-year-olds in summer league. I pitched in the Olympics before 50,000 people. I pitched in the College World Series, and I think those things prepare you.”18
California beat Gardiner 7-2 in his second start, on June 15, but he turned the tables and upped his record to 3-1 with a career-high eight innings when Boston shellacked the Angels, 13-3. “Seeing him bounce back and beat a team that beat him was the best thing that happened today aside from the win,” said [Red Sox manager Joe] Morgan. “They knew how he was going to pitch, and he still did a great job against them.”19
Gardiner dropped his next five decisions, a losing streak that began when he “strained a muscle in his lower left ribcage”20 while facing the Yankees. Gardiner had one no-decision in the streak, on August 1,when he pitched seven innings marred only by a two-run Mark McGwire blast.21 “Gardiner’s 10th start impressed his skipper. ‘He pitched a fine game,’ said Morgan. ‘But that one pitch was right to [McGwire’s] wheelhouse. I had a feeling it would be a home run. That home run was bigger than life.’”22
Gardiner broke the losing skid with a win against the Blue Jays in his first American League game in his native Canada. He had “left more than 40 tickets for friends and relatives in the Toronto area … ‘No doubt it was a very important day for me,’ said Gardiner.”23
Gardiner’s streaky season continued. Beginning with the Toronto game, he won three straight decisions, lost one, won three more, and then dropped his final three. His first loss in his last string featured a black cat venturing onto the field in Memorial Stadium just prior to an error that let in an unearned run in what would end up as a 4-3 loss. Gardiner blamed himself rather than the feline: “‘That was a great illustration for instructional camp – it shows you’ve got to throw strikes to win,’ said Gardiner, who threw 122 pitches, including 36 pitches in both the second and fourth innings. ‘I got behind the left-handed hitters and that hurt. I just didn’t get the job done.’”24
Gardiner finished his rookie campaign 9-10 with a 4.85 ERA. No Boston rookie pitcher would win as many games until Daisuke Matsuzaka recorded 15 in 2007.25 Pitching coach Rich Gale expected Gardiner to get better: “Gardiner has to … rediscover his changeup … a big pitch for him, and the loss was a reason why he had so much trouble getting through batting orders the third time around – and throw the big curveball less. To me, Gardiner is a 220-inning horse who will win somewhere between 12 and 16 games.”26
Incoming manager Butch Hobson had similarly high expectations but a slightly different diagnosis of Gardiner’s struggles: “I really believe Mike Gardiner can be a 15-game winner for us. I think he has that kind of ability. In some of the video we saw and some of the reports we read, we noticed he was throwing a lot more slop up there. He needs to throw his fastball more. He needs the confidence to do it.”27
Over the rest of his career, Gardiner won one fewer game than he had in 1991 alone. He did have a nice beginning to the 1992 season. He pitched three frames of scoreless relief to get the win in Boston’s third game of the year—a 7-5, 19-inning victory over Cleveland. After a no-decision in his first start, Gardiner improved to 2-0 with seven innings of two-hit ball against Milwaukee during which he walked one and struck out a career-high nine. Boston Globe beat reporter Nick Cafaldo compared Gardiner to teammate Roger Clemens.28
Following his first loss, Gardiner tossed a May 18 game against Seattle that strongly resembled his Milwaukee outing. He again gave up just two hits in seven innings, improving to 3-1 for the season and 3-0 in his career against the team that had drafted him. Gardiner then lost his next nine decisions, moved to the bullpen for two months, and went nearly four months without another victory. “I’m not seeing the plate,” he said at the time. “I’m just missing the catcher.”29 Indeed, Gardiner had walked 11 in his first seven appearances over 38⅔ innings, or a little more than 2.5 per nine innings—but he passed 34 in his next 16 appearances over 69⅔ innings, or nearly 4.4 per nine innings.
The Sox understandably lost patience with Gardiner, sending him to Pawtucket in July and bringing up Paul Quantrill, another righty Canadian pitcher known more for finesse than power. “I’m just going to take it like a man,” said Gardiner at the time. “I’m more frustrated with myself than anything.”30
Gardiner’s time in the minors overlapped with his marriage to Julie Girton in July 1992.31 His stay with Boston seemed to be near its end, considering that he had a 12-start winless streak and finished the season before an expansion draft with a 4-10 record. But in a “surprise move,”32 the Sox chose to protect the pitcher, who had had recently turned 27. The reprieve proved brief, however: less than one month later, Boston traded Gardiner and a prospect to Montreal for slugger Iván Calderón.
Gardiner appreciated the chance to play in Canada, calling his trade to the Expos “a big day” and recalling with fondness a time when his dad came to watch him pitch during the day before going to see the Montreal Canadiens—the elder Gardiner’s favorite team—play hockey that night. The move made sense for both teams. The Sox got a player with a proven track record of success, while the budget-constrained Expos dumped salary and obtained a player from Canada.
For Montreal, Gardiner made 22 of his 24 appearances out of the bullpen and spent time with the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx of the International League before the Expos waived him on August 22, 1993. Boston reportedly expressed interest in bringing Gardiner back on a minor-league contract,33 but instead Detroit picked him up on August 28. As Gardiner recalled nearly 30 years later, “I had a choice to go to Colorado or Detroit … I had always wanted to play in Tiger Stadium professionally… It was a great decision and getting a chance to play for Sparky Anderson was quite a thrill.”34
After going 2-3 with a 5.21 ERA for the Expos, Gardiner had a 3.97 ERA without a decision in 10 appearances for the Tigers. He defied expectations by making the Detroit roster out of spring training in 1994, which Anderson credited to his “outstanding” changeup.35
Gardiner went 2-2 with a 4.14 ERA for the Tigers and—for the only time in his career—closed a handful of games. He converted five saves in six chances before a players’ strike prematurely ended the season.
Gardiner pitched in only nine games for Detroit in 1995, his last season in the big leagues. Oddly, four of his appearances were against Boston. Facing other teams, Gardiner gave up four runs in seven innings, but the Sox pounded him for 16 runs in only 5⅓ frames. In the first two of those games, “he was suffering from an unknown virus and an allergy that he didn’t bother to tell … Anderson about.”36,37 As it turned out, the “mysterious sinus condition” required three operations.38
Facing Boston with a 6-3 lead on June 30, Gardiner threw an inside pitch that enraged José Canseco, who replied by hitting a solo homer that cut the lead to 6-4. Gardiner gave up two more before leaving with the game tied; the Tigers eventually prevailed, 7-6. “I was trying to throw a quality pitch inside,” said the former Red Sox pitcher, “and it was a little high. Sorry, that’s life … He actually buckled on the next pitch, which was a high curveball. But the next one was bad. I think my grandmother could have hit it.”39
Early Wynn said he would knock down his grandmother if she were digging into the batter’s box, and he went to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Mike Gardiner said his grandmother could have hit him, and just days after the Canseco imbroglio, Gardiner left the big leagues for good.
In his final three professional seasons, Gardiner pitched AAA ball for four different organizations (the Mets, Yankees, Astros, and Marlins). He had a strong 1996 season with a 13-3 record and a 3.58 ERA for the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia, but got hit hard in 1997 and 1998, when his playing career ended at the age of 32.
Gardiner has worked with young people and baseball throughout North Carolina, where he chose to live after his pitching career ended. As the founder of Stealth Baseball in Charlotte, he serves as the junior varsity head coach and the varsity pitching coach at North Lincoln High School in Lincolnton. Gardiner also gives one-on-one lessons to players in Matthews. From his first marriage, he has a son named Eric—named for Eric MacKenzie40—who paints stripes on cars at dealerships. Gardiner remarried in 2008 to Melinda Horowitz; he described her as the “smartest pharmacist I know.”
Canadian media sought out Gardiner in 2022 following the surprising success of the Philadelphia Phillies, who made an improbable World Series run under the leadership of Rob Thomson—Gardiner’s catcher when he led Canada to victory over Japan in the 1984 Olympics. “He was a leader,” Gardiner said. “I remember pitching in Brantford one night in the Intercounty League, and I gave up a home run and he was so mad at himself because he felt like he called the wrong pitch. And I’m like, ‘I threw it, it’s on me.’”41
That was in keeping with the trait Gardiner credited for making it to the majors. “I always played catch on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day,” he recalled in 2010. “My dad would play catch with me every day, no matter what the temperature was and that’s how I became mentally tough.”42
Last revised: February 5, 2023 (zp)
This biography was reviewed by Eric Vickrey and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
Sarnia Sports website (www.sarniasports.com)
1 Obituary of Mabel Gardiner’s brother-in-law, Robert Lessard. Echovita.com, November 2021 (https://www.echovita.com/ca/obituaries/on/sarnia/robert-lindsay-lessard-13679921)
2 Marty Gervais, My Town: Faces of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis (2006): 101.
3 Gervais, My Town: 101.
4 Kevin Glew, “Ex-Expos: Whatever happened to … Mike Gardiner,” cooperstownersincanada.com/2010/08/21/ex-expos-whatever-happened-to-mike-gardiner/ (last accessed December 8, 2022). Information from this paragraph comes from this blog post.
5 Bob Elliott, “Canada’s ’84 Olympic team full of surprises,” Toronto Sun, May 29, 2016.
6 UPI, “Baseball: Japan Loses to Canada, 6-4,” New York Times, August 6, 1984: C14.
7 Author interview with Mike Gardiner on December 10, 2022. Unless otherwise indicated, all unattributed characterizations of Gardiner’s thoughts and quotations come from this interview.
8 Peter Gammons, “Payin’ the cost to be the boss,” Boston Globe, June 2, 1991: 56.
9 ISU statistics linked at gosycamores.com/sports/2014/2/14/Baseball%20Historical%20Statistics.aspx (accessed December 8, 2022).
10 Nick Cafardo, “Frankly, he is a keeper,” Boston Globe, May 5, 1991: 70.
11 1991 Red Sox official scorebook magazine, third edition, 1991: 52.
12 Howie Newman, “What’s Another Setback?” Diehard Magazine, August 1991: 17.
13 Steve Fainaru, “Sox trade Murphy,” Boston Globe, April 2, 1991: 54.
14 Bob Ryan, “Bird keeps busy watching Sox, taking walks,” Boston Globe, June 18, 1991: 25.
15 Nick Cafardo, “Wedge, still on the mend, cast in role as third catcher,” Boston Globe, August 20, 1992: 79.
16 Mark Blaudschun, “A shot in arm for Sox,” Boston Globe, June 1, 1991: 35. Gardiner handled Ripken well throughout their careers. Ripken went 3-19 against Gardiner with two singles, one homer, and two strikeouts.
17 Steve Fainaru, “Sox blast away,” Boston Globe, June 11, 1991: 105.
18 Steve Fainaru, “Gardiner has it all under control,” Boston Globe, June 12, 1991: 50.
19 Marvin Pave, “Gardiner reaped measure of revenge,” Boston Globe, June 16, 1991: 56.
20 Michael Martinez, “Red Sox Boosterism Serves as Gasoline for Smoldering Yanks,” New York Times, June 27, 1991: B11.
21 McGwire would hit three homers in only nine at bats against Gardiner, who also walked the slugger three times.
22 Liz Robbins, “Gardiner made just one mistake,” Boston Globe, August 2, 1991: 67.
23 Nick Cafardo, “Pain in Burks’ knee intensifies,” Boston Globe, August 12, 1991: 26.
24 Claire Smith, “Red Sox, in Need of Luck, Get Everything but, and Lose,” New York Times, September 24, 1991: B10.
25 Amalie Benjamin, “No forward progress regarding Schilling,” Boston Globe, June 24, 2007: 57.
26 Peter Gammons, “It seems Hobson has what it takes,” Boston Globe, November 3, 1991: 58.
27 Nick Cafardo, “A shot in the arm for young pitchers,” Boston Globe, December 11, 1991: 91.
28 Nick Cafardo, “Brewers pained by Gardiner’s recovery,” Boston Globe, April 22, 1992: 41.
29 Nick Cafardo, “Gardiner having trouble focusing,” Boston Globe, July 17, 1992: 75.
30 Nick Cafardo, “Esasky has hopes of return to Boston,” Boston Globe, July 19, 1992: 48.
31 Nick Cafardo, “Door may be opening for Wedge,” Boston Globe, August 2, 1992: 66.
32 Nick Cafardo, “Wedge, McNeely not on list,” Boston Globe, November 13, 1992: 45.
33 Nick Cafardo, “Giving it the old college try may land Nixon after all,” Boston Globe, August 25, 1993: 43.
35 Reid Creager, “Detroit Tigers,” The Sporting News, April 11, 1994: 23.
36 Larry Whiteside, “They’ll make spot for Smith,” Boston Globe, May 10, 1995: 50.
37 Gardiner missed time due to the allergies after confessing. Reid Creager, “Detroit Tigers,” The Sporting News, June 12, 1995: 27.
38 Glew, ““Ex-Expos: Whatever happened to … Mike Gardiner.”
39 Larry Whiteside, “Inside story: Canseco gets event,” Boston Globe, July 1, 1995: 63. Like his fellow bash brother McGwire, Canseco mashed Gardiner, going 4-14 with a triple, two homers, two walks, and a hit by pitch.
40 Tara Jeffrey, “Field of Dreams: A chat with longtime groundskeeper Eric MacKenzie,” Sarnia Observer, June 28, 2013.
41 Gregor Chisholm, “A humble Canadian quietly brought the Phillies to the World Series,” Toronto Star, October 28, 2022.
42 Glew, ““Ex-Expos: Whatever happened to … Mike Gardiner.”