ST. PETERSBURG — Baseball lost a cherished voice on Sunday.
More heartbreakingly, Liz lost a husband, and Michelle and Alex lost a father.
As for the rest of us in Tampa Bay? We all lost a dear, sweet friend.
It didn’t matter if you had met Dave Wills, or not. You still knew him. Knew his voice, knew his laugh, knew his assortment of pet peeves. Nine innings at a time, he gracefully provided the soundtrack for so many of our summer nights.
For 18 years, along with partner Andy Freed, he was the radio voice of Rays baseball. An entire generation of Tampa Bay fans will one day realize their love of the game grew as they listened to the melodic hum of Andy’s and Dave’s calls from car radios and smart phones.
Wills, 58, died at his home early Sunday morning, hours after calling a Rays spring game against the Yankees in Tampa. He left behind a closetful of tropical shirts, an arsenal of friends and more belly laughs than most of us could conceive.
“He loved being surrounded by people, loved the attention, loved being an ambassador for baseball, loved talking about the Rays,” Freed said. “There wasn’t a day that went by in the last 18 years when he failed to make me laugh. He would bust my (chops) about something, and before you know it we were both laughing our asses off.
“And now I can’t believe I’m talking about him in the past tense. I am overwhelmed with sadness. The shock is starting to wear off, and it’s giving way now to a deep, deep sadness.”
There is something special, something intimate, about baseball games on the radio. Because the game’s pace is leisurely, there is plenty of time for broadcast partners to steer conversations into historical, personal or just plain goofy directions. And because the season is 162 games long, listeners get used to the rhythms and personalities of the people behind the microphones. Almost as if they’re just another guy sitting on the barstool beside you.
And in Wills’ case, that was often the truth. Once he got off the air and bellied up to the bar, he was like a small-town mayor perpetually running for office. He shook hands, he shared stories, he turned strangers into friends and turned friends into confidantes.
“Andy got to sit with him for three hours every game, and I got to sit with him for three hours after every game,” said Rays video coordinator Chris Fernandez, who was one of Wills’ closest companions on the road. “We would talk baseball, we’d argue, we’d laugh. I think about it now, and I don’t know how I’m going to get through the season without him. He was always there for me.
“He just had this awesome personality even away from the booth. When you’re out with him, he’d strike up a conversation with the people next to you. If you had to pick a guy to represent the organization away from the field, he was the perfect guy to do it. If he was around, people were laughing.”
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His voice was both powerful and distinctive, but his appeal was more about the quality of the content than the slickness of the delivery. Wills was an unabashed Rays fan, but he wasn’t shy with his criticisms. Sort of like a cheerleader with attitude.
He would get as angry about a boneheaded play as you might at home, and that honesty endeared him to listeners even if he risked angering the people in uniform.
“We would (tease) him about it, because he was our biggest fan. He loved the Rays, and he loved baseball,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I never got to hear him do our games, but I heard sometimes — and maybe you shouldn’t say this — he could be critical of us. But it always came from a good place, with the best intentions. He wanted us to win so bad. I really felt that way. And he knew the game, he paid attention to everything, every player, every team.
“Just such a likable guy with such a big presence.”
If there is solace to be found, it is knowing that few people enjoy living with as much honest enthusiasm as Wills did. It took him a while to get a fulltime job in a big-league radio booth, and he leveraged that opportunity to its fullest potential.
He’s gone now, a week before his 59th birthday, and three weeks before the start of a new season. That’s a sad thought to bring to the ballpark today, but it’s tempered by knowing the legacy he left behind.
The calls on the radio that will live forever. The laughter in our hearts that cannot be erased.
The privilege in knowing that all of us — you, me and every Rays fan far and wide — once had a good friend named Dave Wills.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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