The Comeback: Dontrelle Willis goes full circle with Cubs

The Comeback: Dontrelle Willis goes full circle with Cubs
February 20, 2013, 9:30 pm
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MESA, Ariz. – It had to be surreal for Dontrelle Willis, walking back into the Fitch Park clubhouse all these years later.

The room had been abandoned after a storm cut short the workout on a cold, gray, rainy Wednesday that felt more like Chicago than Arizona. The Cubs had packed their stuff into garbage bags and boxes for the move up the street to HoHoKam Stadium.

Willis sat on a stool in front of his corner locker, getting his things in order, pulling apart a pack of blue stirrups. The emptiness there only amplified his voice. He talked loud and fast, laughing at the punch lines to his stories.

Listening to the stream of consciousness was like watching the funky left-handed delivery that once made Willis one of the most exciting players in baseball, the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2003 and a World Series champion with the Marlins.

After a stunning rise and a mysterious fall, Willis is back in minor-league camp with the Cubs. The kid out of Encinal High School in Alameda, Calif., an eighth-round pick in the 2000 draft, thought of his wife and three daughters and snapped his fingers.

“It’s gone like that,” Willis said. “We laugh about it now, like I’m actually in the same locker room as I was when I was 18, 19 years old. That’s a really cool feeling. Everything comes full circle.

“Me being the quote-unquote ‘31-year-old salty veteran’ is kind of cool.”

The weight room still looks the same to Willis, and so do the fields, which is exactly why the Cubs will be keeping up with the Joneses in their brand-new facility on the Mesa/Scottsdale border next spring.

Who knows whether it was trying to live up to the D-Train hype, or handling the fame and fortune that came with some $40 million in career earnings, according to the salary database at Baseball-Reference.com.

Willis hadn’t pitched above Class-A Boise when the Cubs packaged him in a trade for Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca in late March 2002. The next year Willis emerged as an All-Star for a Marlins team that would win The Bartman Game and break hearts on the North Side and all across the country.

With a high leg kick, his eyes peering out from a flat-brim hat tilted to the side, Willis won 72 games in the big leagues, but only four since 2007. At that winter meetings, the Marlins made him a throw-in for the Tigers in the Miguel Cabrera mega-trade.

The Tigers placed Willis on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder in 2009. He was traded to – and released by – the Diamondbacks in 2010 before making a cameo appearance in the Giants system. He split the 2011 season between the Reds and their Triple-A affiliate. Last year he went to spring training with the Phillies and was released in the middle of March.

What happened?

“I don’t know, man,” Willis said. “I get asked that all the time. I don’t care enough to really – and no disrespect – I’m not that complex of a guy. I just take it game-by-game. What I can do here? What I could have done there? I don’t really (think that way). Maybe in Detroit, I was trying too hard. But after that, I had fun playing baseball again.”

There were conflicting reports last year about a clash with the Baltimore front office. Willis’ agent prepared to file a grievance against the club – which was ultimately dropped – after the Orioles put him on the restricted list.

Willis left their Triple-A affiliate last April and the two sides disputed whether he had received permission from the organization. The Baltimore Sun mentioned a preference to start rather than be a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen.

By July, Orioles manager Buck Showalter had acknowledged Willis’ retirement. Willis declined to go into details, other than say there was an illness in the family.

“Baseball is important, but not as important as my family, so I had to go home,” Willis said. “Once everything got better with the situation, everybody wanted me to get out (of the house).”

Willis said that with a laugh, but didn’t know how his body would react when he began training again at Athletes’ Performance, a facility in Phoenix not too far from his Scottsdale-area home. His arm felt good enough to try another comeback.

Willis knew farm director Brandon Hyde, who had spent almost a decade working in the Marlins system, and there were still familiar faces in the Cubs organization, coaches like Lester Strode and Carmelo Martinez, so he signed a minor-league deal last month.

Willis saw a younger version of himself on “Catching Hell.” He said his wife “could care less about baseball,” but together they watched the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary.

In Game 4, Clement beat Willis, who didn’t make it through the third inning at Pro Player Stadium, but returned to throw an inning out of the bullpen in Game 6. Willis still gets “hammered” with questions about the 2003 NLCS.

“It’s the reason why we love sports. It’s the reason why we attend games,” Willis said. “I don’t want to make it a ‘Saturday School Special.’ But it’s the reason why we love what we do, because there’s always a sense that you might be part of something great or see something.

“When that happened, I’ll never forget Mike Redmond, (the Marlins catcher and future manager). He yelled in the dugout: ‘Let’s make that guy famous.’”

Mission accomplished. The Cubs were five outs away from their first trip to the World Series since 1945 when Luis Castillo lifted a ball down the left-field line and Moises Alou reached toward the stands.

“To this day, Moises knows he has that ball. The more you slow it down, it’s like: Man, he had a good bead on that ball,” Willis said. “If you tried to play it out again, it probably wouldn’t happen. You probably wouldn’t get those many hits. (Alex) Gonzalez – (a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop) – he probably doesn’t boot that ball. The stars were aligned right – you know what I mean? – and it just fell our way.”

While Cubs fans tried to make sense of that meltdown, the Marlins took out a Yankees team drained by another epic seven-game series with the Red Sox.

“Going into Yankee Stadium was actually, believe it or not, easier than going into Wrigley,” Willis said. “You could smell it, going in there (down) 3-1. (Almost) a hundred years (waiting), fans were amped up for it. But I promise I won’t bring my ring around too much.”

At his locker, Willis wore shiny earrings, blue jeans and a white V-neck Lacoste T-shirt that showed off the tattoos running up and down his arms. The guy who was once so marketable that Nike created his own line of basketball shoes wore black sneakers.

Willis talked about “baby steps” and spoke in full paragraphs while making a prediction: “I know I can do it.”

Willis has been working out at HoHoKam Stadium. He said he was told he’s been hitting 91-92 mph during his bullpen sessions, though he doesn’t put much stock in the JUGS gun or believe he needs to pitch with maximum velocity. He said it doesn’t matter whether he’s used as a starter or a reliever.

“Baseball’s like life,” Willis said. “You have to trust what you have. You are who you are and be happy. And if they don’t like it, f---‘em, you know what I mean? That’s what it boils down to. You have to be honest with yourself.

“I know right now I’m in great shape to keep up with these young guys and I know my arm’s good. Today. I’m just going from day-to-day, but I do teach through failure. I’m not one of those ‘Back when I played…’ guys. That was five years ago. I’m not that old.”

Willis is part of a group of players expected to be called over from Fitch Park and added to the Cactus League roster at different points this spring. He’s a long shot again.

But imagine the D-Train pulling into Wrigley Field again and hearing the roar of 40,000 fans. As he said: This is why we watch.

“I hope everybody here wants to be in the big leagues,” Willis said with another laugh. “I’m no different than anybody else in camp.”

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