For longtime Blue Jays fans, the memory of Tom Henke fanning Orioles pinch-hitter Larry Sheets on September 30, 1989 to clinch the club’s second division title remains vivid.
What many have forgotten, however, is that without the four shutout innings supplied by right-hander Frank Wills in relief of Jimmy Key that day, there likely wouldn’t have been a celebration. Sadly, the author of this gritty, underrated performance passed away on May 11 at just 53 years old.
Wills, who retired from professional baseball after the 1991 season, died unexpectedly in his sleep at his New Orleans, La., apartment.
According to a report in The New Orleans Times-Picayune, the former Jays reliever had been working for a company called Carey Limousine and his employer grew concerned when he didn’t report for work on May 11. After placing several calls to Wills, his employer contacted Wills’ building manager who let him into the apartment where the ex-pitcher was found unresponsive.
Wills’ sister, Katie, told the paper that the cause of death is unknown, but she added that a week prior to his death, Wills had complained about a fever and a pain in his arm.
With Wills’ passing, three pitchers (the others are Mike Flanagan and John Cerutti) from the 1989 Jays staff have now died.
A legendary athlete in his hometown of New Orleans, Wills was a three-sport star at De La Salle High School, excelling in baseball, basketball and football. He led his high school team to a state baseball championship in 1977.
His athletic prowess earned him a scholarship to Tulane University, where he served as a punter on the football team and as the ace of the pitching staff. In his final college season, he was selected as a first-team All-American for his prowess on the mound.
His college dominance would convince the Kansas City Royals to select him in the first round (16th overall) of the 1980 draft. Wills would spend three seasons in the minors, before making his big league debut on July 31, 1983 in relief of Royals lefty Paul Splittorff against the Detroit Tigers at Tiger Stadium. In four innings, he would strike out six batters, but would also walk five – including three in his first inning.
The 6-foot-2 moundsman was dealt to the New York Mets in January 1985. The Mets then flipped him to the Seattle Mariners and he started the 1985 campaign with the Mariners’ Triple-A affiliate in Calgary. With the Alberta club, he would register four wins and toss two complete game shutouts in nine starts before being promoted.
He would hurl a career-high 123 innings that season and register his only big league complete game. Pitching against Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven on August 17, the Louisiana native would go the distance in a 2-0 loss. The pair of runs off of him came via a two-run homer clubbed by Kent Hrbek in the fifth inning.
In March 1986, he would sign with the Cleveland Indians and spend parts of two seasons with the Tribe before landing a minor league deal with the Jays.
His Blue Jays debut came in relief of Jimmy Key in the fifth inning against the California Angels on July 29, 1988. He recorded the final two outs of that frame and would toe the rubber nine more times for the Jays that season.
The following campaign he would register a tidy 3.66 ERA in 24 appearances and was one of the Jays’ most effective relievers down the stretch, posting a microscopic 0.63 ERA in 14-2/3 innings in September.
In 1990, he would pitch in 44 more contests for the Jays and tally a career-high six wins, but after he was hit hard in four appearances the following season, he was demoted to Triple-A Syracuse.
The veteran right-hander would hang up his spikes following the 1991 season and return to New Orleans. Aside from working with the limousine company, Wills was active in his church (he was reportedly a devout Catholic), baseball clinics at De La Salle High School and with the local Animal Rescue chapter.
Entries in the online guest book attached to his obituary (link below) indicate that he was very close with his two daughters, Dorian and Olivia.
“The depth of a daughter’s attachment to her father is profound. His impact will never decrease,” reads an entry posted in the guest book by his daughters. “His selflessness, empathy, and compassion will continue to outline our framework for relationships, generation after generation. Our hearts are broken and our lives will forever be incomplete without him. Daddy, we love you endlessly. Please know you are forever our hero.”
Wills is also survived by one grandchild, two sisters and three nieces. He was laid to rest in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in New Orleans.
To read his obituary and/or leave a note of condolence, follow this link: http://obits.dignitymemorial.com/dignity-memorial/obituary.aspx?n=Frank-Wills&lc=7192&pid=157641315&mid=5103892&locale=en-US