May 3, 2013
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - There are few people, if any, who know as much about the history of the Tennessee baseball program as John Wilkerson.
Having been around the Volunteer program for the past 25 years, the longtime "Voice of Vol Baseball" has been witness to some of the its highest moments, including trips to the College World Series in Omaha in 1995, 2001 and 2005.
This past week ranks among his favorites though, as a whirlwind tour saw him catch up with five former Vols from virtually every era of the program's history in Chris Burke, R.A. Dickey, J.P. Arencibia, Luke Hochevar and Phil Garner.
Speaking at the Tennessee Baseball Bullpen Club Luncheon on Thursday, Wilkerson spoke at length about getting the opportunity to speak with those former players and what resonated with him after it was over.
"It was a fantastic week, almost as enjoyable a week as I have ever had looking at the rich history of this program," Wilkerson said. "I realize that there is a fan base here that can't wait to see this program do it again. I can stand here and tell you that I am firm in my belief that they are going to be there sooner rather than later."
His week started with UT hosting the series finale against Ole Miss on Sunday, April 20. Calling that contest for ESPNU was Burke who was a three-time All-American selection in his time at Rocky Top from 1999-2001. In his final season with the Orange and White, he was named the 2001 SEC Player of the Year and led the squad to the College World Series.
Burke's transition from a professional playing career to the broadcast booth is not one that surprised Wilkerson in the least.
"It is great to see him [calling games], I think he is a natural for it," Wilkerson said. "I think of how many times he was kind enough to be the pre-game interview for me and I don't think that there is any question that he has found a really strong niche for himself."
Immediately after that contest, Wilkerson began the eight-hour trek to Baltimore where he caught up with former Vols and current Toronto Blue Jay teammates, Dickey and Arencibia just before they opened a series against the Orioles at Camden Yards.
He would sit down with Dickey, the only three-time first-team All-American in Tennessee history from 1994-96, for close to an hour to discuss his well-chronicled journey from fireballer to knuckleballer, culminating in his being named the 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner.
During that sit-down, Dickey reflected on his time in Knoxville and the freedom he was given to work on his craft.
"He [told a story] about being at Kentucky and having a little trouble with kind of a knuckle-curve, so Coach Serrano showed him a different way to throw it," Wilkerson said. "It wasn't as though he was then going to work on it and craft it in the bullpen, time and time again, before he went out there [in a game], he said he went out there that night and threw it. Why not just dust this thing off and see what happens.
"He said he appreciated the freedom he had at Tennessee and has such a strong reverence for his time in the Orange and White. I don't think there is any question that being here, as it has with so many individuals, made a lasting impression on R.A. Dickey."
After his interview with Dickey, Wilkerson was able to say a quick hello to Arencibia who offered him a ticket to that night's game. While watching him warm up starting pitcher J.A. Happ in the bullpen before the contest, one thing stuck out to Wilkerson.
"J.P. is the same guy at Toronto, warming up in Camden Yards, that he was here in Knoxville, warming up at Lindsey Nelson Stadium," Wilkerson said. "It is a testament to him and I think it is also a testament that you can get being a part of this program. To see somebody who was a two-time All-American at Tennessee, an SEC Freshman of the Year, he was just controlling the situation like you would expect any veteran to do.
"It was great to see somebody who has carved a spot for himself at the highest level of baseball as he has, because you knew it was a dream when he arrived here and when you see dreams come true, that is the best of all possible situations."
Now just two days into the week, Wilkerson was already happy as a clam as he made the return trip to Knoxville with a quick visit to Murfreesboro on Tuesday for a mid-week contest against MTSU.
On Wednesday, his stretch of good luck would continue as welcomed 2005 SEC Pitcher of the Year and current Kansas City Royal Luke Hochevar as a call-in guest to his afternoon sports-talk show to discuss being in Boston during the man-hunt for the marathon bombers and the emotional celebration that followed at Fenway Park the day after their capture.
"For a city that had been locked down, for a city that was in fear like it was, [Hochevar] said it was the most unique baseball setting he has ever been in," Wilkerson said. "This is a Clemens Award winner, this is somebody who has been to the College World Series, has been to every Major League ball park, and obviously there would not be a circumstance or an atmosphere that would create what he experienced, but he said it was just one of those things that makes you appreciate being in a position like he was and in part of a game that meant so much to a community. He said it was the most emotional `Star-Spangled Banner' that he had ever been on hand to see."
Wilkerson's final visit of the week took him back quite a ways as he visited with fellow Bearden High School alum, Phil Garner, who played at Tennessee from 1968-70 before going on to a successful career in the Major Leagues as both a player and a manager.
One of Wilkerson's favorite memories of Garner had nothing do with his time at Rocky Top or in the Big Leagues though but rather a moment they shared together as Bearden Bulldogs.
During Wilkerson's high school days, the school held a ceremony to rename the baseball field in honor of Garner and Wilkerson was tasked with running the spotlight for the event.
"I was told that when he gets to the microphone, turn off the spotlight," Wilkerson recalled. "I'm thinking why would you ever turn off the spotlight when it is a guest speaker like that, so I left it on. I got a talking to because the stage direction was to turn off the spotlight. I did share that with [Garner] before we sat down and talked out at Willow Creek and he said, `You made an executive decision, you went with it, I like it.'"
When all was said and done, Wilkerson was able to sit down and talk with five former Tennessee players who combined to earn First Team All-American honors seven times during their time as Volunteers, who played in three of the program's four trips to the College World Series and all of whom are either current Major Leaguers or played at that level in the past.
His lasting impression from the week wasn't one of recalling past success, however, but one that gives him hope for the future of the Tennessee baseball program.
"That incredible week where I got to talk to Chris Burke, J.P. Arencibia, R.A. Dickey, Luke Hochevar is a reflection on the great history that this program enjoys, one that I am fortunate enough to celebrate any time I feel like it while doing the games," Wilkerson said. "And it is [a program] that I think is on the way back up because I can look at Chris Burke and remember when he was in the same shoes as A.J. Simcox is [now], the same position as Vincent Jackson, just trying to get a hold and get a feel for what you are facing.
"To have the opportunity to have seen those players come through these doors, wear this uniform and now do what is the greatest dream that has ever come true for a baseball player, I am looking forward to the next one that gets to do it, the next one that gets to call themselves a Major Leaguer and, hopefully, the next one that I get to visit at a Major League ballpark or a team hotel just to say, `Man, it is great to see that you have climbed the ladder and that you are still the same.'
"With 25 years around the program, it is a privilege and an honor to watch this team from one year to the next. Obviously, winning makes everything more enjoyable but I also think that you can't forget the blood, sweat and tears that goes into learning how to win and finding what is your place in the toughest baseball conference in the country."