From Zebulon and Back: The New Dontrelle Willis

J Ellet LambieCorrespondent IMay 26, 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)

Originally published 5/19/09 at

Dontrelle Willis needed this.

He needed to step onto that mound at Comerica Park and feel the evening sun shine upon him, the clouds in retreat, the swirling winds at bay. He needed to kick his right leg high into the air and bring his left arm across his body in perfect plane as the baseball left his fingertips with a sizzle. He needed this, and so did we.

Once upon a time Dontrelle Wayne Willis was an eighth round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs. He was a lanky, 6′4″ left hander baby-faced and fresh out of Encinal high school in Alameda, California. He had just completed a 12-1 senior season in which he posted an 0.82 ERA and was named the California Player of the Year (medium-sized schools). It was the summer of 2000, and all of 18 years old, Dontrelle left California for Mesa, Arizona and the fall league. This was something new. This was different. This was the beginning.  

In the first inning tonight Dontrelle retired Ian Kinsler on a ground ball to third base and Elvis Andrus on a fly ball to right field. Then the trouble started.

Michael Young blasted a double deep to right field and Andruw Jones drew a walk, putting two men on with two men out.

The Comerica Park faithful bit their lips in anticipation of another outburst at the hands of Mr. Willis. This Dontrelle was no longer the 18-year-old eighth round draft pick, no longer the 20-year-old who was traded to the Marlins after two strong minor league campaigns, no longer the young man with the 1.83 ERA who was named the Marlins 2002 minor league pitcher of the year.

This was a different Dontrelle. The one who had been a Tiger for 18 months and had nary a win to show for it. This was the Dontrelle who had lost his lanky frame, had filled out, fattened up, and fallen flat. This was the Dontrelle who became the butt of jokes, and he was about to again, with two on and two out. And then he got Marlon Byrd to fly out to end the inning. It would be the first of 17 straight Texas Rangers he sent to the bench unhappy.

In the spring of 2003, the 21-year-old Dontrelle was pitching in Zebulon, North Carolina for the Marlins AA affiliate Mudcats. The population at the time was 4,329 people, and each and every one of them was in for a treat. They had never seen anything like the young man with the crooked hat and the big leg kick.

Dontrelle brought the leg kick with him from California, from the days of his youth when he invented it to fool his friends in neighborhood one-on-one pitcher vs. hitter duels, because they had gotten used to the way he used to throw. It worked. It kept working, so nobody messed with it. His coaches left it alone, and he rewarded them by winning his first 4 starts in Zebulon, the town named for the biblical son of Jacob. The Marlins noticed. They rewarded Dontrelle in turn by calling him to Florida. On May 9, he took the mound in a major league game for the first time, at 21 years of age.

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The young man who never knew his father, idolized his mother, an iron worker in the bay area, and loved to throw the baseball by his friends got the chance to throw it by hitters at the highest level of competition in the world.

The world couldn’t match up.

Dontrelle rattled off eight straight victories en route to a 14-6 record and a trip to the playoffs. He beat Tom Glavine. He beat Randy Johnson. He beat everybody, for 6 weeks. He won the National League Rookie of the Year, astonishing fans and foes along the way with the big leg kick and the big fastball that dove away from hitters like it heard a loud noise in the night.

This was the Dontrelle the Tigers wanted. This was the Dontrelle fans wanted. This was the Dontrelle that Dontrelle wanted back.

Willis struck out five Texas Rangers tonight. He walked Andruw Jones twice and allowed a double to Michael Young, in the first inning, the only hit he surrendered.

Through 6 and 1/3 innings he threw 101 pitches, 61 of them for strikes. His fastball touched 93 miles per hour while his change-up hit 72 MPH and assorted breaking pitches fell softly in the strike zone everywhere in between.

For the first time in a very long time Dontrelle Willis looked like the pitcher everyone wanted him to be.

In 2004 Willis fell victim to the sophomore slump. Perhaps he was hungover from the 2003 World Series, where the Marlins became champions for the second time in team history. Perhaps hitters briefly solved the riddle of his mythical delivery. Either way Dontrelle labored through 2004, finishing with a 10-11 record and an ERA over four.

He responded by showing up for 6 AM off-season workouts. He worked to ‘tighten up” his delivery, holding the ball a fraction of a second longer to create more deception. The 23-year-old version of Dontrelle Willis entered the 2005 season with doubters for the first time.

Throughout his youth, his dazzling spell in the minors and his rookie year he was the big kid who could get everybody out, and everybody loved him for it. Now he was the big kid that hitters had figured out and the fans and the media began to express their doubts. The big kid spent 2005 proving people wrong for the first time.

Dontrelle made the All-Star team for the second time in 2005. He lead the NL in wins, complete games and shutouts en route to a 22-10 record with a 2.63 ERA. This Dontrelle was everything little Dontrelle dreamed of being. He finished 2nd in the NL Cy Young voting and became the first African-American 20-game winner in the majors since Dave Stewart in 1990. Dontrelle was on a roll.

The next year Willis was a .500 pitcher. His walks went up, his strike outs went down and he allowed more than twice as many home runs as the previous season. He was 24 years old, with two incredible seasons and two mediocre ones under his belt.

It seemed he had the ability to be a god, and the mortality to be human after all. He was human, at most, in December of that year outside a night club in Miami Beach.

The police found him drunk, standing next to his double parked Bentley, pissing in the street. The incident rubbed away a few layers of the polish his youthful success had gleaned on his image. He apologized profusely and vowed to be a better man, a better example. He was drinking too much and enjoying the fruit of his celebrity too much and not pitching enough.

The following season was the worst of his career to date. He finished 10-15, leading the league in starts (35) and most earned runs allowed (118). His 5.17 ERA hung around his neck like an albatross. The shine was gone. The trickery was gone. The lanky body was gone. The attention was gone, at least the good kind.

Dontrelle needed a change. Early in January of 2008 he got that change, when he was traded to Detroit along with Miguel Cabrera.

While some fans from afar remembered Willis in his glory the Marlins included him in their haste. He had to go. He was no longer the innocent, smiling young man who brought smiles to Zebulon – he was the drunk has-been who was caught urinating in the street, with the contract the Marlins wanted to shed.

His arrival in Detroit gave Dontrelle the second chance he thought about all of 2007. While we all read about his Rookie of the Year campaign, we never read about the depression he felt those last 2 years in Florida. We remember the ‘05 campaign when he was unhittable, we never knew the Dontrelle after that, the one who was lost, the one who was confused, the one wasn’t Dontrelle anymore.

But he had a new team and a new chance. A chance he blew right out of the gate.

In 7 starts with the Tigers in 2008 Dontrelle Willis was 0-2 with a 9.38 ERA. He walked 35 batters in 24 innings. He was bigger, rigid, looked nervous and didn’t have the fastball to get the bat boy out, let alone the AL Central. So he was jettisoned to the minor leagues. He didn’t have to be.

He had the service time to refuse an assignment. He could have forced the Tigers to play him or buy him out of the three year, 27-million-dollar contract he had just signed. But he accepted the demotion gladly. He wanted the chance to get better, to figure it out, to get back to the Dontrelle he used to be.

From that point until last Wednseday, Dontrelle was a Lakeland Flying Tiger, a Toledo Mudhen, an Erie Sea Wolf. He compiled a 4-6 record over 81 innings and change with a 4.30 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP, in the minor leagues.

He had gone from tiny Zebulon to the World Series Champion Florida Marlins to the doghouse, to Detroit and back to little Lakeland, population 78,452. Coaches and doctors and more coaches and more doctors looked at his knee, his arm, his shoulder, his hips and finally his head, where the problem was all along.

This spring Dontrelle was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. He was given medication and sent back to work. No one expected him to travel back in time to re-unite with with the 21-year-old Dontrelle, or the 23-year-old Dontrelle. That Dontrelle was gone. The body was gone. The memory was gone.

This would have to be a new Dontrelle, the version he wanted to be, the version he needed to be. His arm slot was re-invented. His breaking ball was massaged into a new form. His cut fastball was a few miles per hour slower than it used to be. He did bring one thing with him for old time’s sake though, that big ole leg kick. The smile was gone, but the kick was there.

Last Wednesday he went to the mound in the metrodome, beneath a permanent off-white sky of tarp and lights. He was average, maybe. He allowed 4 earned runs on 8 hits and 2 walks in 4 and 2/3 innings. Average, maybe.

So when Dontrelle left the Comerica Park dugout tonight and walked to the mound with his crooked hat and his big leg kick there were many among us who thought we might be witnessing the beginning of the final end, the coda, the omen of his failures to the amen of his success.

With two on and two out, the world of Dontrelle Willis past, present and future stood there on that mound, shaking off signs, nodding his head, working quickly. With two on and two out, Dontrelle Willis got Marlon Byrd to hit a fly ball to left-center field, softly into the glove of Josh Anderson. The next time a Texas Ranger reached base it was the seventh inning, and the last batter he would face.

The bullpen did its job and nailed down a 4-0 victory, the first for Dontrelle Willis as a Tiger, the first for Dontrelle Willis version number.....I lost count, the first of what we all hope will be many, many more. And for the first time in a long, long time I saw Dontrelle Willis in the Tigers' dugout and he was smiling. That big kid smile.

Is he back?

Don’t ask - he doesn’t know, you don’t know, I don’t know.

But tonight he went 6 and 1/3 and dominated every damn minute of it. Like the son of Jacob back from Israel. That’s a good new start, let’s just leave it there for now.

Let’s enjoy a big kid finding his way back from a long way gone. Let’s imagine what could be, what might be. Let’s watch him smile and return the favor.

We can worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. I don’t think Dontrelle will be worrying though, he’ll be too busy getting to know himself all over again.


Big thanks to Kurt from Mack Avenue Tigers and Lee from Tiger Talesfor linking over to this post. Both gentlemen run excellent Tigers Blogs worthy of a visit.

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