Baseball Anxious To Learn the Truth About Dontrelle Willis

Duane WinnCorrespondent IApril 1, 2009

DUNEDIN, FL - FEBRUARY 27 :  Pitcher Dontrelle Willis of the Detroit Tigers pitches in relief against the Toronto Blue Jays February 27, 2009 at Dunedin Stadium in Dunedin, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

High kickin'.

Free wheelin'.

Charismatic. No, strike that. Magnetic, in a Vida Blue, Mark Fidrych, Fernando Valenzuela sort of way.

An arm seemingly elastic as a rubber band.

A present armed with rich possibilities.

A future that knew no limits.

Once upon a time, Dontrelle Willis possessed all these things.

Now he's in a symbolic straight-jacket, a prisoner of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Bundle it all together and you have an  anxiety disorder.

The Detroit Tigers consigned Willis to the disabled list on Sunday in the hope that he will regain his health and perspective. And his talent.

Willis burst on the scene in 2003 with the Florida Marlins, winning National League Rookie of the Year honors by compiling a 14-6 record with a 3.30 ERA, as a 21-year-old. Willis took a step back the following year (10-11, 4.02), but in 2005 Willis reasserted his brilliance.

He finished the season at 22-10 and a 2.63 ERA that earned him runner-up honors for the Cy Young.

Following a so-season season in 2006 (12-12, 3.87), Willis' career spiraled even steeper downward in 2007 (10-15, 4.30). In 2008, his first season with the Tigers, Willis was plagued by injuries and control issues.

In just 24 innings, Willis walked 35 batters and finished winless in two decisions with a 9.38 ERA.

Willis is just the latest Major Leaguer to taste fame early in his career and then see it slip through his fingers due to injury or who knows what else.

The Cleveland Indians called up Walt Bond from the minors in both 1960 and 1961 to show what he could do. He disappointed both times.

When they called him up in September 1962, however, Bond staged a hitting show for the ages. In 12 games, he whacked six HR and had 17 RBI in 50 at-bats. He also batted .380.

As a reward, Bond spent all of 1963 in Triple A before being sold to Houston in the National League. In 1964, Bond struggled at the plate (.254 BA) but he still managed to post respectable production numbers for the Colt .45's with 20 HR and 85 RBI.

Bond played 122 games for Houston and Minnesota over the next three seasons, never fulfilling his promise. He died of leukemia on Sept. 14, 1967. He was 29. 

Billy Grabarkewitz batted just .092 in 65 plate appearances for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1969. He blossomed into an All-Star the following season, belting 17 home runs and driving in 84 runs with a .299 batting average.

Following a shoulder injury, he was never the same. In the following two season, Grabarkewitz hit just four homers and drove in 22 runs. By age 29, he was washed up

Perhaps No Major League player had a more meteoric rise to fame—and a more precipitous fall to anonymity—than Joe Charboneau. In his rookie season for the Cleveland Indians in 1980, Charboneau batted .289 with 23 HR and 87 RBI. He missed the final six weeks of the season, due to a pelvis injury.

It was a sign of things to come. A back injury in spring training the following season effectively ended his career. The Indians released him in 1983.

Bob Hamelin of the Kansas City Royals made it to the American League at the rather advanced age of 26. He made up for lost time by hitting .282 on his way to Rookie of the Year honors in 1994. In only 312 at-bats, Hamelin struck 24 homers and drove in 65 runs.

Victimized by injuries, Hamelin resurfaced to have a decent season (.270, 18 HR, 52 RBI) for the Detroit Tigers in 1997. His final Major League game was Sept. 27, 1998. He only played in 497 Major League games.

Was there ever a bigger splash created by a rookie in a shorter time than Shane Spencer? In just 67 at-bats for the New York Yankees in 1998, he batted .373 with 10 HR and 27 RBI. His on-base percentage was .411 and his slugging percentage was .910. He also had three grand slams.

Spencer would become a solid role player for the Yankees over the next few seasons but he never recaptured his rookie form. He played his last Major League game on July 22, 2004.

Several players, like Willis, are trying at this moment to pick up the pieces of once-promising careers. The roll call includes 2003 American League Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa (.287 BA, 17 HR, 73 RBI), Reggie Willits (.293), Brian Bannister (12-9, 3.87 ERA) and Francisco Liriano (12-3, 2.16).

Willis' case is different. It's an abnormal mental condition, we're told, not physical.

Hitters can make adjustments to their swings. Pitchers can change their release point or develop a new pitch. Subpar fielders can take more ground balls.

Willis may very well need to work on his pitching mechanics, First, he must reconfigure his psyche.

Willis may have given us a glimpse into his problem in  2003 postseason play. As dominant as he was during the regular season, he was equally ineffective in the NL Division Series, the NL Championship Series and the World Series. In 12.6 postseason innings, his ERA ballooned to 8.53.

He surrendered 15 hits and 10 walks.

Willis was arrested in December 2006 on suspicion of drunken driving. (The charge was later reduced to reckless driving.) Perhaps this was a sign that he was using alcohol to alleviate his symptoms of anxiety.

We don't know.

Perhaps Kansas City Royals pitcher Zack Greinke knows. He interrupted his baseball career to seek clinical help for depression and social anxiety disorder. In 2008, Greinke rebounded with a 13-10 record with a sparkling 3.47 ERA.

Jim Eisenreich probably knows what Willis is going through, too. Eisenreich was out of baseball for three seasons battling Tourette's Syndrome. He went on to have a productive career, batting .290 in more than 1,400 Major League game.

Willis' story is a hard sell. Organized baseball isn't adept at wrapping its mind, much less its arms, around "exotic" mental conditions, especially one like anxiety disorder which many people don't even believe exists.

It's even harder to believe in the steroid age when players stoutly denied using performance-enhancers only to recant lager on.

Besides, organized baseball has always had a name for people like Willis. They're called flakes.

Yet, Willis doesn't open beer bottles with his eye socket or drink beer with a straw through his nose like Charboneau. The only outward manifestation at this point is an inexplicable loss of control, an inability to throw strikes.

The condition forced Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Steve Blass into retirement at age 31. Rich Ankiel, faced with a sudden loss of gifts, moved to the outfield to resurrect his career.

The pictured is muddied even further since Willis doesn't believe he's suffering from an anxiety disorder.

"I have no idea...but (doctors) didn't like what they saw in the blood," Willis told reporters.

It sounds fishy.

Some baseball insiders are suggesting  that it's an elaborate ruse being concocted by the Tigers' organization that will allow it to escape paying Willis $22 million on his contract.

Until we learn more, we must applaud the Tigers for facing the problem head-on and arranging to get help for Willis. If he recovers sufficiently to pitch effectively, so much the better.

Willis' calling once appeared to be baffling enemy hitters. Perhaps his true calling will be to give greater visibility to a much misunderstood condition.


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