I can’t remember exactly when I first met Mike Willman – I’m guessing it was around 1985 – but I can certainly remember where. It was at The Station bar on Baldwin Avenue. The late Tom Whitenack, who owned the establishment, introduced us.
At the time, Willman, a 1974 graduate of Arroyo High, was a student at Cal State Fullerton, having returned to college after a stint as a professional baseball umpire.
A journalism professor had just assigned him to write a story on a newspaper re porter, and since I was working for the Los Angeles Times, I qualified. So Mike interviewed me as we sat there at the bar.
The roles were reversed the other day, nearly 25 years later. We sat at another bar, The Bit, on Live Oak, sipping on a beer, only this time I interviewed Mike. And I can say that, without a doubt, his life has been considerably more interesting than mine.
Mike and his longtime friend Mark Mandala are co-owners of The Bit. Mandala is also co-owner, with Wava Hebert, of the First Cabin on Huntington Drive. Mike at one time worked as a bartender at the First Cabin.
But he is best known as a horse racing broadcaster who, since September 2005, has been the director of publicity for Santa Anita.
(Story continues below the following video with photo of The Bit co-owners Mike Willman (left) and Mark Mandala.)
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With the Santa Anita Derby coming up Saturday, this is one of Mike’s busiest weeks of the year. He oversees the racetrack’s public relations efforts in promoting the $750,000 Grade I race that features Kentucky Derby hopefuls.
But he found time to sit and talk about his life.
Mike and twin bother David, who were adopted, grew up not far from The Bit, which is located just east of the Par 3 Golf Course on Live Oak. Their home was located in the L.A. County area of Arcadia.
“We had an Arcadia address but attended El Monte schools,” Mike explained. He said he and David were 4 when their parents told them they were adopted.
“It wasn’t a big thing,” he said. “My brother and I said something like, ‘Okay. Can we go out and play now?’ ”
I need to say a few words here about David Willman. He was one of the top news reporters at the Times, breaking major stories out of the paper’s Washington bureau.
He was a Pulitzer Prize Award winner, and in journalism, it doesn’t get any bigger than that. Although, like a lot of us, he is no longer working for the Times, David recently won a Scripps Howard Foundation Award for a 2008 story. That award came with a $10,000 prize.
Years ago, probably around 1990, I got on an elevator at the Times and noticed a young man I had not seen before who looked exactly like Mike. I started to say something, but the young man was deep in thought and I left him alone.
But I remember thinking, “Wow, that guy looked as if he could be Mike Willman’s twin.”
A few months later, David Willman approached me and said, “You’re Larry Stewart, aren’t you? You know my twin brother Mike.”
I told him about seeing him on the elevator and thinking he could be Mike’s twin. And he was.
Anyway, back to Mike.
After Arroyo High, he attended Citrus College, a two-year community college. “I was on the three-year plan there,” he said. “I majored in good times and under-age drinking.”
Tony Lugo, a friend from Arroyo High, said of Mike: “He reversed his life. He used to party hearty; now he is a workaholic.”
Mike was the editor of the school paper at Citrus, but what he really wanted to do was become a baseball umpire. When he was 10, he wrote a letter to American League president Joe Cronin expressing his interest in umpiring. Cronin passed the letter along to Cal Hubbard, who was then the American League’s chief of umpires. Hubbard, who is the only person in both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Baseball Hall of Fame, wrote back to young Mike, providing him with a cherished memory.
While a student at Citrus, Mike umpired high school, college and youth baseball games. In December of 1977, he went to umpires school and was a professional umpire from 1978 through ’83. He worked in the Northwest League, the California League and the Texas League, each for one year, and in the Pacific Coast League for three.
He recently ran into former Dodger great Fernando Valenzuela, who, when first signed by the Dodgers, was assigned to Lodi of the Class A California League, where Mike was umpiring.
“I called a balk on him in Lodi,” Mike said. “Fortunately, I don’t think he remembered that.”
Mike also umpired some of Fernando’s game when he pitched for the San Antonio Dodgers of the Class AA Texas League.
After attending Cal State Fullerton and getting a degree in communications, Mike planned to follow his brother into the newspaper business. David initially worked for the Pasadena Star-News prior to his stellar career at the Times.
But Mike’s life took a different turn. After finishing his schooling in 1986, he got a job working in the jockeys’ room at Hollywood Park as the assistant clerk of the scales. He spent the spring-summer and fall meets of that year there.
“That was a great job,” Mike said. “Can you imagine, hanging around with legends like Bill Hartack, Eddie Delahoussaye, Laffit Pincay, Willie Shoemaker, Alex Solis, Ray Sibille, Gary Stevens? I could go on and on.” Mike had always liked horse racing. Now it had him hooked.
The year before he had done some broadcasting on Santa Anita’s inter-track radio station, and he eventually gravitated toward the broadcasting side of horse racing.
He learned much about the business doing fill-in work for Bill Garr, who besides providing stretch-call race results also had a daily radio racing show on KIEV.
In 1990, Mike got his big break when Marge Everett, who ran Hollywood Park, hired him to do the daily television replays. That job led to a stint with TVG and a host role on “Hollywood Park Today,” which as a regional cable television network show regularly out-rated baseball, college basketball and most other sports programming in the L.A. market.
Also, since November 1992, Mike has had his own horse racing radio show, “Thoroughbred Los Angeles.” The extremely popular show has been on several radio s tations and can now be heard Sundays, 9-10 a.m., on KLAA-AM 830.
Mike’s life took another turn when he became Santa Anita’s publicity director. There’s no question there have been some difficulties along the way.
Horse racing attendance has been on a decline in recent years and newspapers, faced with their own problems, have cut back on horse racing coverage. On March 5, Santa Anita’s parent company, Magna Entertainment, filed for bankruptcy, which is not the kind of story any publicist wants to have to deal with.
But despite it all, Mike says he loves his job. “I’ve been blessed,” he said. “I just can’t say enough about how great it is to work for a man like Ron Charles.”
Charles is the highly respected and popular president of Santa Anita. “Also, I have a great staff,” Mike said.
It includes Jack Disney, the former Los Angeles Herald Examiner sportswriter, Ed Golden, who does a marvelous job with the daily notes, Debbie Olsen, who runs the press box, and Linda Meentz, who handles a lot of the detail work with a friendly smile.
But the Mike Willman story doesn’t end here. He has also had unbelievable success as a small-time horse owner and breeder.
He initially had some success with a horse named Sweetcakesanshakes. Delahoussaye won his 6,000th race aboard that horse in 1999.
And later came McCann’s Mojave, who provided Mike with the highlight of his life. On Jan. 27, 2007, at odds of 33-1, McCann’s Mojave won the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park in Florida. Mike’s portion of the purse was $550,000.
His job required Mike to be at Santa Anita that day, and at an impromptu press conference, he was near tears. He had just gone through a bitter divorce, and McCann’s Mojave provided him with both much-needed joy and money.
“My life has been a nightmare since last summer,” he said at the time. “I had to borrow a lot of money to make sure I had my two kids and was able to hold onto my house.”
McCann’s Mojave retired to stud at Rancho San Miguel in September 2008. He won 12 of 35 races and more than $1.5 million in purses.
These days, 52-year-old Mike, who lives in Glendora, is the devoted father to his two sons, Jason, 10, and Matthew, 6. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called Mike to see if he has time for a beer, and inevitably he’s doing something with his boys. And he cut back his weekend radio show from Saturday and Sunday to just Sunday to give him more time with them. He knows what it takes to be a good parent because he and his brother had two of them, Ken and Barbara Willman.
Three years ago, Mike met his biological mother, Mariann FitzGerald, and says the two of them have since developed a great relationship. “She was 21 and unmarried when she had David and I at St. Luke’s Hospital in Pasadena,” Mike said. “She wasn’t ready for the responsibility of raising two babies.”
Mike said he now has two half-sisters and a half-brother (they’re all full siblings) and he is in regular contact with them. His mother’s father, Mike’s biological grandfather, was a respected surgeon in the Spokane area. Dr. FitzGerald and Bing Crosby were neighbors and best of friends as kids and for the rest of their lives.
When his grandparents’ kids were young, including Mike’s mom and her brother Gerry (Mike’s uncle), the two families spent time together in the summers at Coeur d’Alene Lake in Idaho, where Mike’s mother’s family lived, and in nearby Hayden, where the Crosbys lived, Mike said.
A couple of years ago, Mike learned his biological father lived in Yakima, Wash. He called information, got his number and called it. When a man answered and verified who he was, Mike pretended he had called the wrong number. “I just wanted to hear his voice,” Mike said.
Now, as we wind things up, hopefully you can see why Mike Willman’s life has been such an interesting one.