ST. PETERSBURG — Dave Wills loved being Dave Wills.
He relished his job broadcasting Rays games on the radio since 2005, usually sporting team gear and a gaudy league championship ring. He engaged with fans at stadiums, restaurants and bars around the majors, talking passionately about the game and the team. He lent his time, and his distinctive voice, to charitable organizations. He bragged often about his children and told funny stories about his wife, Liz.
“He loved his family. He loved his work. And we all loved him,” said former Rays manager Joe Maddon.
Wills, 58, died early Sunday morning in his sleep at his Lutz home, the team and his family and friends said.
“He was a loving father and husband who had a passion for life, his family and Rays baseball,” his daughter, Michelle, posted on Facebook. “To know Dave was to love Dave. He had an infectious personality and an uncanny ability to talk to anyone and everyone and make them laugh.”
Longtime radio partner Andy Freed said he and Wills clicked when they first met after being hired in 2005, going to dinner that night and talking for hours, and bonded tremendously over 18-plus years together.
“(Legendary broadcaster) Jon Miller would say that, as a broadcaster, you want to be good company, that you’re with people all the time in their cars, in their houses, when they’re doing yard work,” Freed said. “And Dave himself is very good company.
“He could make you laugh. At least me; he could make me laugh until I fell off my chair. But he also could be a great sounding board when things weren’t going well. And he was a very, very good listener.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash, who visited with the Wills family at their home Sunday morning before returning to Tropicana Field for an exhibition game against the Orioles, said it was “a pretty devastating day” for the Rays family: “Shocking, sad, heartbreaking covers all of it.”
“Dave meant so much to so many people and certainly is going to be very missed,” Cash said. “But we can choose to think about all the good times we had with him, all the laughs, and what he meant to this organization top to bottom.”
Former Rays communications chief Rick Vaughn, who was involved in hiring Wills and Freed and remained a close friend, noted how Wills relished his role.
“Baseball lost one of its most informative and entertaining storytellers, and I feel like I lost a brother,” Vaughn said. “He was so happy here in Tampa Bay and so eager to represent the Rays wherever he went.”
Added Freed, “He really enjoyed meeting people and being the center of attention when it came to the Rays.”
Wills and Freed quickly became favorites of Rays fans and were considered one of the top broadcasting duos in the majors.
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“Dave was an outstanding broadcaster, a great friend, and an even better person,” Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said in a statement. “He had a remarkable talent for bringing the game to life for our fans and was a vital part of the Rays family. We will miss him dearly, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones during this difficult time.”
Wills made the radio calls for several iconic moments in franchise history, most notably the final out of the 2008 American League Championship Series, screaming, “This improbable season has another chapter to it! The Rays are going to the World Series!”
News of Wills’ passing drew reaction from throughout the baseball and media world. Kevin Kiermaier was among former Rays to tweet his condolences: “RIP Dave Wills. What a guy. Treated everyone great and always brought the energy every single day. Will be missed tremendously. Much love Dave.”
Said Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, a former Rays player and coach, “It’s a sad day to a lot of people. He’s a wonderful, wonderful human being. … He’ll never be forgotten by the people that were around him. A wonderful human.”
Echoed longtime Rays third baseman Evan Longoria via text: “He was the best.”
Before going to the Rays, Wills spent 11 years on the White Sox’s radio team in his native Chicago after starting his play-by-play career with the minor league Kane County Cougars from 1991-95. He also did radio play-by-play for the University of Illinois-Chicago men’s basketball team and assorted other broadcast work.
“Dave was the classic Chicago South Sider: friendly, welcoming, big voice, big character, caring and die-hard when it came to his sports,” White Sox communications vice president Scott Reifert said. “The Chicago genes never completely left him, and he was celebrated each time the Rays visited. Dave loved baseball, and his voice and presence will be missed in ballparks and by fans across the major leagues. A sad day.”
Darin Jackson, a veteran member of the Sox broadcast team, always looked forward to catching up with Wills when the teams met.
“Man, he was as big as life. Dave was always a legend in the city of Chicago,” Jackson said. “And he was a good man for the game of baseball. If you had Dave as part of any organization, you’ve got yourself a true warrior going to war with you guys and for you guys.
“That’s what I remember most about Dave when he was doing his job. He was there to let the people know the truth. He was there to be honest about the organization. And he wasn’t afraid to go ahead and hold people to task. I loved that about him. He’s going to be missed.”
Wills missed the final two weeks of the 2022 regular season as the result of “a little bit of a heart situation” after being hospitalized in Toronto. He said at the time he was diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia, which, according to mayoclinic.org, is an irregularly fast or erratic heartbeat (arrhythmia) that affects the heart’s upper chambers.
But he rejoined the team for the playoff series in Cleveland and had no further incidents. He looked to be in good health and spirits while working games this spring, most recently Saturday in Tampa. During lunch before that game, he was discussing a planned 30th-anniversary trip with Liz to Iceland in November to see the northern lights.
The Rays held a moment of silence for Wills prior to Sunday’s game and canceled their scheduled radio broadcasts for Sunday and Monday. The team plans to honor Wills with a special pregame tribute during the season, with details to be released later.
Survivors include his wife, Liz; son, Alex; and daughter, Michelle. The family asked for privacy at this time and said service arrangements will be announced when available.
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