Dontrelle Willis Biography
Drew Fans to Ballpark, Won Games (20 )
Even as Major League Baseball's 2003 National League Rookie of the Year, left-handed pitcher Dontrelle Willis seemed to be a classic baseball hero. He had a trademark style, with an ultra-high kick reminiscent of 1960s great Juan Marichal, and an unusual, deceptive windup. He wrote his mother's name inside his distinctive flat-billed cap. And best of all, he electrified a moribund Florida Marlins team and its suffering fans with his game, nearly shutting opposing players down completely during sensational hot streaks. The first African American to win 20 games in a season since Dave Stewart in 1990, Willis began to revive interest in baseball in America's inner cities, where it had fared poorly in competition with basketball for many years.
Dontrelle Willis was born on January 12, 1982, in Alameda, California, an island city off Oakland's San Francisco Bay shoreline. He never knew his father, Harold Willis, but he still got parental guidance on the diamond. He was raised by his mother, Joyce Harris, an ironworker who might scale the Golden Gate Bridge or the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in the course of a day. After work she was active at the top levels of Bay Area amateur softball. She taught Dontrelle to play baseball, and by the time he was in the fourth grade he could surprise a school umpire with a curveball—something most young players don't master until their teenage years.
Developed Kick to Fool Friends
Willis and his neighborhood friends Ross and Reid Muskar enjoyed a game called strikeout, a simple pitcher-vs.-hitter contest played with a tennis ball and a broom handle. Seeing each other day after day, the three became familiar with one another's moves and could usually guess what was coming. In response, Willis developed his high-kick delivery, which featured a small twist that made it look as though the ball was emerging from Willis's sleeve. An Oakland A's fan, Willis pitched on the freshman team at Encinal High School in Alameda and accompanied the team to a sectional championship game played at the Oakland Coliseum ballpark. Money was tight, and the talented Willis never had a private pitching coach, so his unusual style was left alone.
By his junior year, playing for a traveling summer squad called the Area Code, Willis was attracting the attention of radar gun-toting major-league scouts—and disarming them with his confidence. "There was no fear whatsoever," Area Code coach Doug McMillan told Ron Kroichick of the San Francisco Chronicle. "He was like, 'Wow, I have all these guys here. I'm going to show them how good I am.'" Willis's senior year at Encinal was amazing. He notched a 12-1 record with an earned-run average (ERA) of 0.82. Named state player of the year for medium-size high schools, he was drafted in the eighth round by the Chicago Cubs in June of 2000.
Willis's career in organized baseball began with a Cubs farm team in Mesa, Arizona, that fall, and after doing well as a relief pitcher he moved up to the Boise Hawks of the Northwest League the next fall. After winning eight games with a 2.98 ERA, Willis was traded in the spring of 2002 to the Marlins in a multi-player deal. Assigned to the Kane County (Illinois) Cougars of the Midwest League, Willis began to broaden his pitching repertoire with a change-up to go with his fastball. A blistering 10-2 record in Illinois was the result, and at the end of the season he advanced to the Marlins' Jupiter Hammerheads farm squad. His ERA for the year was 1.83, and he was named the Marlins' Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Drew Fans to Ballpark
Willis began the 2003 season with the Class AA Carolina Mudcats of Zebulon, North Carolina. After winning four games and losing none, he was elevated to the Marlins. Willis pitched his first major league game on May 9 against the Colorado Rockies. He quickly hit his stride. Beginning with his fourth start, he won eight games in a row with an incredible ERA of 1.05. Word got around quickly about the charismatic rookie with the uncanny sinking fastball. Marlins fans flocked to the park, and television ratings for their games soared. The team, mired below a .500 win percentage when Willis and new manager Jack McKeon came on board, became the winningest team in baseball. Willis won games over two of his boyhood pitching heroes, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson. Excitement over Willis hit its peak when the rookie was named to the 2003 National League All-Star team.
In the second half of the season, Willis tired somewhat. Still, he finished the season with a 14-6 record and a 3.30 ERA. Having helped Florida gain a wild-card spot in the postseason playoffs, he was hit hard as a relief pitcher in the National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs but shone in three relief appearances against the New York Yankees, holding them scoreless as the Marlins went on to win the World Series. The 21-year-old Willis, who now had a World Series ring to go with his All-Star appearance, relied on a close-knit circle of people, including his mother and uncle Frank, to help him deal with the pressure of sudden fame.
In the 2004 season Willis suffered somewhat from the familiar sophomore slump. Hitters caught on to his unusual motion, and the Marlins' bats cooled. Willis struggled through a 10-11 season with a 4.06 ERA. The second-year pitcher was philosophical about his difficulties, telling Jill Lieber of Baseball Digest that "I've been on both sides of the spectrum in my young career. Being able to succeed and fail, so to speak, you learn. You do nothing but learn." In the months prior to the 2005 season, Willis often showed up at a Boca Raton gym at 6 a.m. and worked out for three hours. He worked with Marlins pitching coach Mark Wiley to smooth out his powerful but slightly unstable delivery.
Won Games (20 )
The work showed spectacular results in 2005, propelling Willis into the top ranks of the game. He won 22 games in 34 starts, and he was hard for opposing hitters to handle—his ERA dove to 2.63. And unlike most other pitchers, he was a threat at the plate, batting around .250 and often batting seventh in the Marlins order rather than bringing up the rear. By the end of the season sportswriters were touting him as a strong candidate for the 2005 Cy Young Award, chosen from among the year's top pitchers in each league.
As important as Willis's wins on the field, from the point of view of the Marlins' fans who held up "Dontrelle for President" signs, and of the team's front office, was his winning personality. He sprinted on and off the field. In a game filled with egos he had a disarming modesty, telling Lieber that "I don't do all of this for the recognition. I don't need it. I do it for the 24 other guys who go to battle behind me, and I do it for my family. It's that simple." Marlins attendance spiked an estimated 40 percent on days when Willis pitched. And he was especially inspirational to African-American youngsters, for black players were a distinct minority on the mound. "We definitely are few, but we're a proud few," Willis told Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune. The onetime tennis-ball-thrower had become a new star—something that the game of baseball needed.
Baseball Digest, August 2005, p. 56.
Chicago Tribune, September 10, 2005.
Ebony, August 2004, p. 96.
Jet, December 1, 2003, p. 48.
Miami Herald, September 24, 2005.
People, September 1, 2003, p. 118.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 21, 2003, p. C1.
Sports Illustrated for Kids, November 3, 2003, p. 20.
"Dontrelle Willis," Florida Marlins, http://florida.marlins.mlb.com (October 15, 2005).
"Dontrelle Willis," Jock Bio, www.jockbio.com/Bios/Willis/Willis_bio.html (October 15, 2005).
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