Carl Willis is a man who wore a lots of hats in his career as a pitcher and a coach. And by the looks of it, he wore multiple hats in this Topps Card from 1987.
Willis was drafted out of UNC Wilmington by the Tigers in 1983 and by 1984, he was on the big league club. That was a good year to be a Tiger as the team shot into first place with a dizzying start and never let go. He made his debut throwing 2 1/3 shutout innings out of the pen on June 9th. After a few good relief appearances, he was given a start on June 19th against the Yankees. He did not fare well, allowing 4 runs in 4 1/3 innings.
He was shuttled between Triple A and Detroit when he got another start on August 6th. He retired one batter, allowing 5 hits and 4 runs against the Red Sox. His start was so short that he actually pitched the next day and was sent back down. Any hopes of playing in October that year were dashed when he was dealt to Cincinnati for pitcher Bill Scherrer, who wound up pitching in the World Series.
Willis spent the next few years trying to break into the talented Cincinnati bullpen and not getting many innings. The Angels picked him in the Rule 5 draft before the 1986 season but returned him to the Reds when he didn’t make the team out of Spring Training.
He did not fare well with the Reds that year and between 1987 and 1990 saw a grand total of 6 big league games, pitching for the 1988 White Sox. After bounching around from the Angels to the White Sox and to the Indians farm system, he signed with the Twins before the 1991 season.
There was not much reason for hope for that Twins squad, who finished dead last in 1990. But perhaps Willis thought there would be a chance for a job there.
After a brief stint in Portland, he was called up to the big league squad and became an effective reliever for Minnesota. A workhorse who twice threw 5 innings of relief and 22 times pitched at least 2 innings, Willis finished the season with a respectable 2.63 ERA over 89 innings, winning 8 and saving a pair.
The Twins would win the Division that year and Willis pitched 5 1/3 shutout innings in his 3 relief appearances in the 1991 ALCS. When the Twins advanced the to World Series, Willis found himself playing in one of the most thrilling 7 games sets in baseball history.
He tossed 2 shutout innings in the Game Three 12 inning marathon. In Game 4, however, he allowed a game tying home run to Lonnie Smith and got hit hard in the Twins Game 5 loss, the lone blowout in the Series. In Game 6, he allowed the tying run to score but settled down and finished with 2 2/3 shutout innings.
The Twins would win it all on the back of Jack Morris’ 10 inning shutout and Gene Larkin’s RBI single, making Willis an unlikely World Champion after all the years of toiling in the minors.
He remained a effective middle reliever for the Twins in 1992 and 1993. By 1994, he was running out of gas and only pitched in 3 big league games in 1995, his final season.
Willis would turn to coaching, being the pitching coach for Cleveland between 2003 and 2009, the Mariners between 2010 and 2013 and currently holds that role for the Red Sox. Along the way, he has been the pitching coach for CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez and Rick Porcello for their Cy Young winning seasons.
This card is amazing. The 1987 Topps series has their share of poorly airbrushed hats. (The 1988 series is a bad airbrushing tour de force.) But what is so bewildering about this picture is that the cap is painting for his 1986 Spring Training session where he was temporarily in the Angels camp. So it was painted to reflect the Reds.
But he pitched for the Reds in 1984 and 1985! And the cap was identical in those years! Instead of sending the poor airbrusher to work, why not just dig up a picture from 1984 or 1985 and call it a day?
It seems like extra work to me.