De La Salle High School/Tulane University/MLB
De La Salle and Chalmette were tied at five in the bottom of the seventh inning of the 1977 LHSAA Class 4A Baseball Championship. De La Salle had runners on first and third and had its star, Frank Wills, at the plate. Wills calmly smacked a looping liner to right centerfield to drive in the championship-winning run.
Legend has it that Wills celebrated with his teammates by yelling his tongue-in-cheek catch phrase, “Where there’s a Wills, there’s a way!”
“Frank knew he was a great player,” said his high school coach Jerry Burrage. “But he didn’t have an ego or braggadocio, he just liked to have fun with his teammates.”
“Frank had a happy-go-lucky spirit about him,” said teammate Dave Moreau, now the athletic director at Jesuit High School. “We always had fun. After we had big wins, we would celebrate and he’d always say something like that. We would all just roll our eyes, shake our heads, and laugh with him. At every level he played, everybody knew him as a great teammate.”
While that walk-off base hit would be a career highlight for most athletes, for Wills, it was just an early chapter in a legendary career.
He was all-city, all-district and all-state in baseball; an all-district quarterback; and a member of the Cavaliers’ basketball program. Off the field, he excelled in the classroom and was a member of the National Honor Society.
The 1977 state championship season has one wild stat. Burrage knew he needed to ride his stars, Wills and Bruce O’Krepki. That duo alternated pitching and playing first base. And for the final 20 games of the year (14 district games, two district playoff games and four state tournament games), nobody else saw the mound. Wills and O’Krepki either tossed complete games or relieved each other. Burrage said he timed everything to make sure he could rely on his two aces while meeting the requirement for rest for the two pitchers.
Wills signed with Tulane University to pitch for the baseball team and to play quarterback for the football team. While he never took over as quarterback due to the great Roch Hontas being under center for the Greenies, he did serve as a standout punter and he also played on the Wave’s kickoff coverage teams. However, it was his work on the mound that continued his accolades.
When Wills was a freshman in 1978, legendary USC baseball coach Rod Dedeaux saw him in action and called him the “best freshman pitcher I’ve ever seen.” The following year, Wills helped key the Green Wave’s run to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
In 1980, he posted a 5-3 record with 75 strikeouts in 64 innings of work that season for the Green Wave and was selected as a First-Team All-American by the American Baseball Coaches Association and The Sporting News, as well as being First Team All-Metro Conference. His career earned-run average of 3.29 ranks 11th on the Tulane charts while his three shutouts are tied for fourth.
“I’ll never forget a big win against Florida State,” said Tulane teammate Bill Babin. “Their All-American second baseman Craig Patterson was at the plate. Frank enjoyed some back-and-forth with opponents – he told Patterson he was just going to throw it right past him. First eight or nine pitches, all fast balls. Patterson fouled a bunch off and it was a 3-2 count. They were both glaring at each other and Frank reeled back and threw him a change-up. Patterson was waiting on another fast ball and screwed himself into the ground swinging at it. Frank ran off the field ecstatic. He had out-foxed him.”
After his impressive development at Tulane, he was selected with the 16th overall pick in the 1980 Major League Baseball Draft by the Kansas City Royals. He progressed through the minor leagues, climbing from Single-A to Double-A to Triple-A in his first three seasons. He also added a no-hitter while pitching for the Triple-A Calgary Cannons.
On July 31, 1983, Wills made his Major League debut with the Royals, striking out six Detroit Tiger batters in four innings of relief work. In his second appearance, he struck out future Hall-of-Famer Carl Yastrzemski in a game vs. the Red Sox.
That began a nine-year career in Major League Baseball for the New Orleanian, who played for the Royals (1983-84), Seattle Mariners (1985), Cleveland Indians (1986-87) and Toronto Blue Jays (1988-91).
“I remember one appearance, he struck out the side against the Yankees,” Burrage said. “And Joe Garagiola said on TV, ‘Where there’s a Wills, there’s a way!”
In nine seasons at the big-league level, Wills played for three division championship teams, winning the American League West crown while in Kansas City in 1984 and then American League East Division titles in Toronto (1989, 1991). He was the winning pitcher with four shutout innings of relief as Toronto won the divisional title over the Baltimore Orioles to go to the playoffs in 1989 – it was the last game of the long-running NBC Game of the Week series.
“Frank never took things too seriously,” Babin remembered. “And he didn’t feel pressure, he just loved getting out there and throwing the ball and playing the game. I went to a game at Fenway Park when Frank was with the Royals. I was in the stands and talking to him in the bullpen. Then they start him warming up and he keeps talking to me! Then he says, ‘Sorry, I gotta go.’ He goes into the game to face Dwight Evans.”
His finest season on the field came in 1990 when he made 44 appearances and compiled a 6-4 record and a 4.73 ERA in 99 innings of work. In his Major League career, Wills appeared in 154 games, finishing with a 22-26 record and a 5.06 ERA and 281 strikeouts in over 400 innings of work.
“He was definitely a New Orleanian,” Babin said. “He was friendly and would talk to anybody. He was proud of this city and a great ambassador for New Orleans everywhere he went.”
Sadly, Wills passed away on May 11, 2012 at the age of 53.
MORE READING: “Franks Wills’ Baseball Journey”, CrescentCitySports.com, July 21, 2021