North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
Like many aspiring baseball players during the mid-1970s, Carl Willis was a fan of the Cincinnati Reds. He used to pretend he was a member of the Big Red Machine during the countless hours he spent throwing the ball in his backyard in Yanceyville. So when he was traded to the Reds by the Detroit Tigers late in his rookie season of 1984, he was much more familiar with teammates like Hall of Famers Pete Rose and Tony Perez than they were with him.
“I played with you guys in my backyard,” he told them upon his arrival. “You just didn’t know it.”
As happy as Willis was to join his boyhood heroes, the deal that sent him to Cincinnati that August cost him a chance to pitch in a World Series — the Tigers went on to beat the San Diego Padres in the Fall Classic. Five years later, though, the 6-foot-4 right-hander got another chance, and this time he made the most of it by pitching in four games for the Minnesota Twins in their dramatic seven-game victory against the Atlanta Braves.
In all, Willis played parts of nine major league seasons for four teams, compiling 22 wins and 13 saves in 267 appearances, mostly out of the bullpen. When he was done playing in 1995, he transitioned into one of the game’s most respected pitching coaches. Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia credits Willis for “molding me into what I am now” during their early days together in the Cleveland Indians’ minor league system. Willis is currently in his second tenure with the Indians’ major league club.
Prior to his professional career, Williams starred at UNC Wilmington, where he won 20 career games with the Seahawks, leading the team in both wins and saves in 1982 and ’83, and earning a place in the school’s athletic hall of fame.