Mike Willis spent three seasons climbing the lower rungs of the Baltimore Orioles minor league system, and then he spent three more seasons stuck at the team’s Triple A affiliate in Rochester. He was a good minor league pitcher. The textual highlights on the back of this 1979 card point out that he notched a no-hitter during his first professional season, in 1972 at Bluefield, and that he led the International League in shutouts in 1974. His best season came the following year, when he went 14-8 with a 2.57 ERA for a Rochester squad that finished nearly 30 games above .500.
The success of that Rochester squad suggests the major reason for Mike Willis’ extended minor league limbo: the Orioles of that era were loaded with talent above, below, and beside him, especially in the pitching department. On the big club from 1974 through 1976, when the team finished second, first, and fourth in the A.L. in team ERA, the Orioles featured 20-game-winners Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Wayne Garland, and Mike Torrez as well as long-time star Dave McNally and 18-game-winner Ross Grimsley. All of those pitchers save for Palmer were on their way out with the Orioles, but unfortunately for Mike Willis the Orioles’ system was stocked with potential replacements. As he continued to win games in front of the Rochester faithful, he was passed over for promotion to the big club by three fellow (and younger) starting pitchers who would, with Palmer, form the core of a rejuvenated Orioles staff in the late 1970s and early 1980s: Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez, and Scott McGregor. Willis’ numbers at Rochester were good enough that you have to think that he began to wonder what those guys had that he didn’t have.
Perhaps doubt began to creep in. In 1976, for the first time in his professional career, his ERA edged above 4, though he still managed to win twice as many games as he lost (12-6). In November of that year, the Orioles left him unprotected for the Blue Jays/Mariners expansion draft. In this draft of guys that other teams could live without, Mike Willis went 55th, right before Puchy Delgado.
He lasted a handful of seasons with the Jays, splitting time between the majors and the minors. On the big club, he racked up three times as many losses as wins, which isn’t surprising given that the Blue Jays’ winning percentages during the Mike Willis Era were .335, 366, .327, .414, and .349. This 1979 card captures him in the midst of these years of constant defeat. His contorted face and body do not give off an aura of power or confidence (unlike, say, a similar moment in a Nolan Ryan card from a year later) but rather of great effort and limitations and a gnarled and irreducible cyst of hope. The world passes you by. The world lambasts your ineffective junk. You wind and twist and try again, your stuff thin smoke and fractured mirrors, magic and luck all but gone. You keep throwing. As long as they put a ball in your hand, you throw.
In 1982, Mike Willis, apparently no longer wanted by the Blue Jays, got work with the Oklahoma City 89ers, a Phillies affiliate. His ERA that season was an even 7.00, and the 89ers, a collection of fading veterans surrounding prospect Julio Franco, went 43-91. Astoundingly—considering the ERA and the help around him, or lack thereof—Mike Willis finished the season with a winning record of 7-6. This last morsel of luck proved to be of little use: It was over. As several of his former Rochester teammates were rolling to the 1983 World Series title in Baltimore, Mike Willis was beginning life out here with the rest of us, empty-handed.