Even as a young boy growing up in Oak Lawn, Dave Wills ’88 could be found in the front yard playing wiffle ball with his buddies and doing the game’s play by play. Who would have imagined it would be a springboard for a high-profile job—play-by-play announcer for Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.
Wills credits his years as a student at Elmhurst College, where he majored in speech communication and urban studies and pitched for the baseball team. The grounding in liberal arts gave him versatility as he climbed the career ladder, working at a phone-in sports information service, coaching baseball at the University of Chicago and working in sales and public relations before landing behind the microphone for the Kane County Cougars, a Class A minor league baseball team.
Wills grew up listening to the legendary Harry Caray broadcast Chicago White Sox games in the 1970s. “Harry was a larger-than-life figure,” Wills recalls. He wanted nothing more than to follow in his footsteps.
Eventually, the fantasy became reality. Wills’ radio work for the Cougars caught the attention of the White Sox, who brought him on board in 1996 to fill in for John Rooney in the broadcast booth. He also broadcast pre-game and post-game shows for ESPN Radio 1000.
“The day I got the phone call, I probably jumped as high as Michael Jordan,” Wills recalls. “It really was a dream come true. As a kid growing up in the south suburbs, I wanted to play for the White Sox, but this was the next best thing.”
When Wills got a call in early 2005 that the Rays were looking for a full-time play-by-play radio announcer, he wasn’t sure about a move to the Sun Belt. He’d carved out a niche working for the Sox from April to October, calling games for the University of Illinois at Chicago men’s basketball team, and hosting pre- and post-game shows for Notre Dame’s football and basketball teams. He and his wife had just finished remodeling their dream home.
“I hemmed and hawed around about it for about a week,” before sending off a CD of his work in the Sox broadcast booth.
Little did he know the CD would land in the hands of Rick Vaughn, the Rays’ vice president of communications, just after the organization wrapped up tryouts, cutting the number of applicants down from more than 100 to 10.
Fortunately, Vaughn popped the CD in the player he still had set up, and suddenly, Wills says, he became “the 11th person of the final 10.”
Vaughn says he and the others on the selection committee were drawn to Wills because of “the richness in his voice, his enthusiasm. He just sounded like someone you could trust to give you an authoritative description of what was happening on the field.”
On air Wills is paired with Andy Freed, and Vaughn says their broadcasts aren’t “just stats. They bring in stories [about baseball personalities] and blend them together. That’s what makes a great broadcast.”
Wills left Chicago just months before the Sox won the World Series, and he acknowledges it was odd to miss out on the team’s first championship in 88 years. “I had spent my entire life rooting for the White Sox.”
He says he’ll never forget the moment the Sox clinched it in just four games—he was holding his daughter’s purse and watching her cheerlead for a Florida Pop Warner football team—while watching the Sox on TV. “It was a long time coming,” Wills says, adding with a laugh, “I’m glad it was them and not the Cubs.”
Despite missing out on the World Series win, Wills is delighted to be a full-time play-by-play announcer: “There are only 40 or 50 of these jobs in the world, and now I have one.” It doesn’t hurt that the Rays have turned things around. “We were bottom feeders for a long time,” Wills recalls. “People around here wanted to like the Rays, but we were about as cuddly as a cactus.”
But the team turned heads in 2008, becoming American League champions before losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games in the World Series. Going into that season, the team changed its name from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to the Tampa Bay Rays, which Wills favored as a rebranding of the franchise.
Still, Florida baseball teams struggle to attract fans—in contrast to the Chicago teams that have been around for more than a century. “There have been generations and generations and generations of White Sox and Cubs fans,” Wills says. “People moving here from Boston are Red Sox fans. But now their kids are starting to adopt the Rays because that’s the team they know.”
Wills’ adopted team also provided him with his most memorable sports moment after the Rays beat the Red Sox to advance to the World Series. “They [Boston] were the big boys along with the Yankees, and we’re just this little team from Tampa Bay that surprised everyone that year.”
With his enthusiasm for the game, “Dave is a great ambassador for us,” Vaughn says. He’s also a great ambassador for Elmhurst College, as he reels off memories of professors, coaches and his days as a member of the Bluejays baseball team.
Recently, as the Rays hosted the Toronto Blue Jays, Wills mentioned on air that he’d worn the Jays’ colors during his college days.
The lefty pitched for Elmhurst’s Bluejays from his sophomore through senior years, and one of his favorite memories is retiring Northwestern University’s Joe Girardi on a line drive. Girardi is now manager of the New York Yankees. It was Wills’ Elmhurst former pitching coach, Mike Young, who helped link him up with the Kane County Cougars for his first broadcast job.
With all that Elmhurst has given him, Wills now looks for ways to give back.
Before she even started at Elmhurst, Wills took aspiring sportscaster Samantha (Sam) Burmeister ’10 under his wing. Burmeister, a native of Winter Park, Florida, had visited Elmhurst on her college search and met Larry Carroll, executive director of the Center for Professional Excellence, who put her in touch with Wills. Wills invited her to shadow him on the job, so she spent the summer before her freshman year driving between Orlando and St. Petersburg, and helping out in the Rays’ broadcast booth. Getting an insider’s look at the business “is the best way to learn,” she says. Burmeister spent the summer after graduation coaching high school softball and hopes to go on to graduate school.
Meanwhile, Wills returned to the campus last fall as an alumnus in residence, speaking to classes in communications and statistics. “I tried to pass along to students that I was not an honor roll person. I was Mr. Man in the Middle,” he says. Carroll says Wills impresses people because “he’s just a down-to-earth kind of guy,” and he hopes to bring Wills back again this fall.
Elmhurst alumni don’t have to have Wills’ high profile to get involved on campus. “The amount of life experience they bring is critical,” says Samantha Kiley ’07, director of alumni relations. “We can never have too many people who want to come back and mentor students.”
Wills encourages others to get involved. “Maybe in these tough economic times you can’t reach into your pocket and give $100, but you can give five or six hours in a day once a year,” he says. “You can give the students real-life experience, and real-life experience is a heck of a lot better than opening a book or watching a video.”