He’s really just a regular guy.
Seriously ... Dave Wills is no different from you or me. Dave is a Sox fan, has a long memory of the team and wants them to win — and win something important before he retires.
About the only difference is that while you and I talk about the White Sox with friends or on the message boards, when Dave talks about them a whole lot more fans get to listen.
If you don’t know, Dave is the host and voice of the White Sox pre- and postgame shows on ESPN Radio 1000. He’s also filled in every so often on play-by-play for the Sox, fulfilling a longtime dream.
Wills is a native Chicagoan, who played baseball while attending Elmhurst College. He rode that experience to a stint as head baseball coach at the University of Chicago. But baseball coaching, while enjoyable, wasn’t where Dave wanted to go. So he used his experience from working at Sports Phone and parlayed it into the announcer’s job for the Kane County Cougars minor league baseball team. From there, he caught a break: The White Sox organization knew who he was, and when an opening presented itself, Wills was foremost in their minds.
A lucky set of circumstances, sure, but luck can only take you so far, either on the field or in broadcasting. If Wills couldn’t do the job, he wouldn’t have kept it. As with most things, talent wins out in the end.
Dave spoke with me on an off-day after the South Siders’ first series with the Cubs and less than 24 hours after the Freddy García deal was announced. We talked about his background, how exactly he got the White Sox gig, thoughts on the Chicago media, Bill Melton, the 2004 team and how things have gone right and wrong and why over the past 20 years or so.
Just like on the radio, Wills presented himself as a regular guy, a fan first. Oh by the way, if you’re in the neighborhood of Jimbo’s (33rd and Princeton) any night the Sox are playing, stop in after the postgame show and ask for Dave. He’s usually there every night, talking with White Sox fans.
Mark Liptak Dave, how about a little of your background. You’re a South Side guy, aren’t you?
Dave Wills I am. I was born in Chicago and moved to Oak Lawn in 1966.
Have you always been a baseball/Sox fan?
I’ve always been a Sox fan. I grew up watching guys like Tommy John, Carlos May and Bill Melton. But while I was growing up, baseball really wasn’t one of my favorite sports. My brother and I were on the same Little League team and he played more; as you can imagine, that bothered me [laughing].
Basketball was always my sport. One day, though, when I was in high school gym class my teacher noticed I was left-handed and he asked me if I ever did any pitching. I said yes, but that it had been a few years. I went out for the Oak Lawn team and played a little my sophomore and junior years. I didn’t have a bad junior season. Senior year I concentrated on basketball, but I found that at 6´1´´, it was getting harder and harder to guard guys who were 6´4´´ and could leap out of the gym.
I went to Elmhurst College and wasn’t planning on playing anything, but I found out that the basketball team only had 10 guys or so. I went out and made the team. The baseball coach there heard I was left-handed, and one day he asked me why I never went out for the baseball team. I told him when I looked in at the tryouts, there must have been about a hundred guys there and I didn’t think I could make it. He told me to come out next year, that I could make the team. So I did, and played my last three years.
Mike Young was the pitching coach, and I basically was the left-handed specialist. I’d start four or five games a year, but really my job was to come in later and get a guy out. There must have been five or six occasions where I’d warm up for 10 minutes, come in, throw one pitch, get the guy to pop up or something, and that was it. I’d be done, headed to the showers.
How did you get into the broadcasting arena?
While I was in college, I got a job at Sports Phone. It was my junior year. I started out part-time, then went to full-time after a month. I was going to class full-time and working 40 hours a week. They were able to arrange my schedule so that I could get my hours, like in three days, starting over the weekend.
And how did the Sox job come along? You’ve been with the organization since 1994.
Mike Young, who I knew from back in my college days, was the manager of the minor league baseball team they had in Wausau, Wis. He knew that team was going to be moving to Kane County the following year, and suggested that I talk to the club owners. I spoke with them, and they told me that they thought I could do a fine job but warned me that they wouldn’t have the final say, that it would be the people who were going to run the club on the day-to-day basis. So with their blessing, I talked to those people and got the job.
I was doing the Kane County stuff and through it I got to know Bill [Melton] and asked him if he’d like to come out and do some of the color for the games. I figured he’d come out once in a while, but he loved doing the games and came out 20-30 times a season. We had a nice team in place and he was really good, he had the “pipes,” so to say.
In the early 90’s John Rooney was still doing the national game of the week and also leaving during the spring to help call the NCAA Tournament games, so the Sox needed a guy who could fill in. They also wanted someone who could host the pregame show at least on weekends. The Sox knew about me from the Kane County games, and asked if I’d like the position. I didn’t really have to interview as such.
They already heard how I did play-by-play, basically they just wanted me to come in so they could see what I looked like, they didn’t want anybody who was going to scare kids! [laughing]. I was able to fulfill a dream by doing some play-by-play at the big league level, but it wouldn’t have happened without the help and support from the Kane County people. They understood the opportunity I had, and made arrangements to have another crew do all their weekend games so that I could go work for the Sox. To this day, I appreciate that courtesy.
What is your day like: How much preparation do you do, do you outline themes for that day’s shows?
I usually get up around 8:30 or so. The first thing I do is read the three newspapers: the Daily Southtown, Tribune and Sun-Times. Then about 9:30 or so, I hit the internet and check out the web sites, places like ESPN.com, CBS Sportsline and of course White Sox Interactive. During the lunch/early afternoon time, I usually spend it with my daughter. She’s eight years old. About two or so I start writing my opening for the show and take notes on what to look for that night.
I usually leave for the park about four. I’ll get to the park and go over the pregame notes and check to see if anything else is happening. The postgame show usually ends about 11 p.m. That’s pretty standard now. Afterwards, I may take a few minutes to go over that night’s broadcast with the folks I work with, but I don’t want to keep them very long. Then I head home. Usually every night I’ll stop by Jimbo’s to have a cold one and talk with the fans. To me that’s part of my job, to help sell White Sox baseball, and I have no problem doing that. I like to hear what the fans have to say. I like to talk with them. No matter how the game that night went, I’ll do this because the first time I say no or put somebody off, they’ll say I was a jerk. Then that person will tell another fan and that fan will tell two more fans and I don’t want that happening to me or the Sox.
When you are following the Sox game, do you and whoever’s working with you that night, (say, Bill Melton) ever get, shall we say, emotional when something good or bad happens and let out a yell?
All the time. I’m a fan first. Bill’s the same way. Give you an example, when we played the Cubs at home that Sunday, the Sox grabbed that 2-0 lead. Immediately Sammy Sosa hit that home run. I looked at Bill and said, “One of these days, our starters are going to have to stop the other teams right after we score.” Bill nodded his head in agreement. We’re into the game; we’re not just sitting there having beers.
Bill seems to be a very good analyst; in fact, some fans say Bill should be on instead of Darrin Jackson or Ed Farmer. Would Bill like to do color for the Sox?
If he were offered the job, he’d take it in a heartbeat. Bill is a great X and O type of guy. He knows the game, and is very good. I’m not putting down Ed, by the way; Ed’s a great storyteller, and he’s funny.
How do you balance the fact that as a broadcaster you are supposed to be truthful and fair, but as a matter of practicality the White Sox do have some say in your employment. How do you walk that fine line?
I’m not naive; I know that part of my job is to sell White Sox baseball. If the team is not going well, I won’t get down on an individual player. That’s not my style. I’m not like Harry [Caray] or Jimmy [Piersall]. I can’t bury an individual, and part of the reason is because I know these guys. I see them every day, and if things aren’t going well I know they take it harder than any fan. A guy like Paul Konerko, if he’s not doing well, believe me it’s bothering him. He wants to win as badly as any fan. When things aren’t going well, I try to be diplomatic. White Sox fans aren’t dumb; they know what’s going on. I won’t lie to them or try to gloss things over; it’s just that I won’t go after a single guy.
There are times on the show where it does seem that you’re controlling your emotion. Sometimes that’s directed at the team performance, sometimes it’s directed at the callers you get. Is it hard to not be able to just unload like the fans in the stands, or for that matter internet message boards?
At times, but the fans don’t really bother me. Well, one fan did. This Cubs fan left a message on my home answering machine saying that he was angry at what I was saying. He also said that he’d be back again, things like that. I contacted the police and had a report filed on the guy. In 2001, I basically felt that I was the fan’s psychiatrist. After the show, they’d call up and vent and that was fine. Before I say anything, I try to find out for sure what went on or why something was done.
Last year, for example, when manager Jerry Manuel pulled Bartolo Colón and the Cubs came back to win, the fans went crazy. I didn’t say anything until after Jerry’s press conference. Then we found out that the reason Bartolo was pulled was because when Jerry asked him, “Are you O.K.?” he said, “I think I can go ...” So there was some doubt, and Jerry acted accordingly. That’s one of the nice things about home games — we can get Ozzie Guillén’s press conferences. On the road, sometimes we have to scramble to find out what actually went on.”
What about your future with the White Sox? Reports in the newspapers clearly show friction between station management and owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti’s hiring clearly has exacerbated the situation. Can you tell us anything about that situation and how it could affect you?
Remember that Bob Snyder, our station’s GM, was replaced by Jim Pastor last month. I know that he is a big Sox fan. I know that Jay does not like Jerry Reinsdorf, and I know that a lot of Sox fans don’t like Jay. I haven’t heard Jay’s show, so I really can’t comment on anything he says. I’ve met Jay, but I don’t listen to him and that’s because when he’s on-air, I’m usually on the internet preparing for that night’s game or I’m doing something with my daughter. I hope that the station can hold on to the contract, I know many folks at the station who think the same way.
As for me, as long as ESPN Radio has the Sox, I think I’d be part of the show. But if the station would lose them to say, WSCR, and as long as ESPN Radio had UIC basketball and Notre Dame football, it wouldn’t be possible for me to work for both stations. [Dave has done UIC Flames basketball for seven seasons and hosts Notre Dame football both on ESPN Radio.] I also would like to someday be a play-by-play man for a Major League Baseball team, too. That could have a say in what happens in the future. A few years ago I interviewed for the Kansas City Royals job, and another chance may come up.”
What’s your feeling on how the media treats the White Sox in Chicago?
I never really believed much of the talk about how the media mistreats the Sox, but I’ve got to tell you: Maybe two or three years ago, the Cubs had their fan convention and the Tribune had maybe eight pages of stuff. The next week the Sox had theirs, and in the Saturday paper there was nothing on it. I mean not even an agate line, “The Sox start fan convention.” I said, this is ridiculous, this is disgusting. I agree with the comment made recently that the reporters who cover the Sox are impartial, but the people who cover the Cubs are actual fans and some of them are pretty blatant about it. Not only in the print media, but on TV as well. They go on and on about “Cubbie Love.”
Look, last year the Cubs drew more than three million fans, but the Sox drew about two million. That’s not as big a difference as some in the media makes it out to be, and some people seem to forget that in the early 90’s it was the Sox setting attendance records.
What are your thoughts on, as I call it, “Hawk’s War,” Ken Harrelson’s verbal snipes with certain media members? Some folks say that as the face of the club he shouldn’t be embarrassing the organization that way; others think it’s great he’s calling out the media.
I think that a lot of people give the media far too much credit. I’m staying out of this one because it’s not my fight, I’ll leave that to Hawk and Jay.
Let’s talk about the Sox. We’ll start with this season. Ozzie Guillén has obviously made a big difference in the attitude of the club, but attitude can only take you so far. Eventually talent usually wins out. Where do the Sox need help, even after getting Freddy García?
I firmly believe that you can win or lose games in the sixth or seventh innings, as well as in the ninth inning. The Sox need another quality arm out of the bullpen. They also need some balance in the lineup, and by that I don’t automatically mean a left-handed hitter. They need a different type of player for the lineup. Like Kenny Williams said, a “grinder,” a Chuck Knoblach-type. Someone who can get on base, run, steal, hit the ball the other way, drive pitchers crazy.
Ken Williams, and to a certain extent Ozzie Guillén, have that “football player’s mentality.” They want to win yesterday, win today and win tomorrow. Given the fact that this club hasn’t been to a World Series in 44 years, can that attitude backfire? You can want to win so much today that you make a bad deal and hurt the organization for years.
The Sox haven’t been to the World Series since 1959, so there is a sense of urgency. I don’t think Kenny, having that attitude, will cause him to make reckless deals that will backfire. And remember, all GMs have made bad deals. I’ll go on record as saying I was for the Todd Ritchie trade. You just can’t be afraid to make deals. Williams wants a World Series title.
Personally, having no real memories of the 1959 series, I’d sell my soul for a pennant. Does Sox ownership have that same ultimate desire above any other considerations?
I think that Jerry Reinsdorf does what he says, and that any amount of extra money they have will go back to improving the team. This year if Kenny goes to ownership and says we can get these guys for $5-10 million for the rest of the year, Jerry will say yes. Now if you think the Sox will take on $40 million to try to win the title, that’s just not going to happen.
In the six full seasons since the “White Flag Trade,” the trade made in part to restock the minor league system and point the way to a better tomorrow, the Sox average seasonal record has been 83-79 ... mediocre at best. What has gone wrong on the field, where things didn’t turn out the way management expected them to?
When you look at 2000, that was a magical season and everyone was disappointed the way it turned out. In 2001, the team had nothing but injuries, David Wells’ back injury really set them back. The 2002 season, I think, was trying to restock the minor league system. The 2003 season is the one that most disappointed me.
Mike Caruso just didn’t come through, Bobby Howry was good until he got hurt, and Keith Foulke obviously pitched very well until he broke down mentally.
What are the chances of the Sox signing Freddy García to a longer deal?
Ozzie is best friends with Freddy, and they are close family-wise, but I’ve learned in this business that it almost always comes down to who makes the best deal. Freddy will have other suitors, and the chances of the Sox getting him [extended] are better sooner rather than later.
Here’s a little thing that shows how close those two guys are: When the Sox went to Seattle in early June, Ozzie’s kids stayed at Freddy’s house.
There’s an old adage, “pitching wins pennants.” Any thoughts on why the minor league system hasn’t produced better results from the pitching standpoint? You’re an old pitching coach yourself.
I don’t know. I do remember that when I was doing the games for Kane County and they’d play the Sox’s South Bend team I’d see those guys and think, “This is a No. 1 guy?” The Sox have had some success with guys like Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland, who was very young when he came from the Cubs organization. I think the whole situation comes down to the fact that the Sox haven’t had a Top 10 draft pick in 14 years, the longest of any major league club. It’s hard to get quality pitchers in later rounds.
I have seen and heard glowing reports on the current group of pitchers throughout the minors. I think the Sox are focusing on pitching ... developing it and having patience with it. Kris Honel is a great example. They are being patient with him, and I think that’s why they didn’t bring up Joe Borchard to help fill in for Magglio Ordoñez. They wanted Joe playing every day, not coming up here and maybe getting a dozen at-bats in a month.
Was Jerry Manuel kept on as manager last season for financial reasons, at the risk of losing an opportunity to make the post eason?
Well, the Sox are paying him this year for not managing, aren’t they? Jerry did start losing the clubhouse early last year. But I’ve never been the type of guy to make a change just for the sake of making a change. I don’t think the Sox felt that there was anybody better out there who could have come in for the second half of the season. If there was someone like that, they would have made the change.
Jerry Reinsdorf has been CEO of the White Sox since January 1981. In that time period the Sox have never made a World Series appearance, one of a handful of teams in baseball that haven’t over that time. You’ve seen this organization from a number of different standpoints — fan, reporter, and broadcaster. When you look at the stewardship of the team, what has Jerry done correct, and what has he done wrong?
I thought 1983 was going to be the start of big things for the franchise. They were moving in the right direction in 1993-94 when the work stoppage happened. That’s been the No. 1 failure, that the Sox haven’t won a title, and that’s how many people judge ownership.
The makeup of the organization is changing, and changing for the better with guys like Ozzie and Brooks Boyer, the new marketing director. You see more friendly faces around the Sox today. I know that players, even a guy like Frank Thomas who supposedly has a bad reputation, will stand and sign autographs and talk to kids and fans. The Sox are doing a lot to make a trip to the park more entertaining for everybody, from mom, dad, Wally and the Beaver!
I do think that the Sox have to start shifting their attention and focus to the South and Southwest suburbs. The fans that used to live in places like 63rd and Western have moved out. I think the Sox have got to go out and get them. That’s not to say that great fans still don’t live in Chicago itself, just that a lot of them are outside that area ... overall, the organization is headed in the right direction.
Originally published at White Sox Interactive in 2004.