From race car wallpaper to Wrigley, an Illinois family roots for Willis
CHICAGO -- Here in the heart of Cubs country, a person needs a real good reason to root for the Florida Marlins these days.
Stacey Brownewell has one.
"I tell everyone that Dontrelle Willis lived at my house last year with our family, and that we still talk about twice a week," the high school senior said. "People don't believe me, but it's true."
In April 2002, Willis was far from what he is now, an All-Star rookie trying to help lead the Marlins past the Cubs in the NL championship series. Game 2 was Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, and the personable pitcher set up tickets for Stacey and her friends.
Stacey was standing in the front row near the dugout wearing her Marlins shirt when Willis trotted over to give her a big hug. She held his black glove while he signed autographs and right before he ran off, they did their own special secret handshake.
"You remembered!" she shrieked.
Back when Willis met the family, he was merely a 20-year-old prospect with the Class A Kane County Cougars, a Midwest League affiliate based in Geneva, Ill., about 35 miles west of Chicago.
Like a lot of lower-level minor league teams, Kane County tries to place its players with host families for the season. The Adopt-a-Cougar program provides a housing option for young guys who make only $1,000 a month and might be promoted, released or traded at any moment.
Galen and Julie Brownewell had taken in several players in the past -- Detroit pitcher Gary Knotts was their first in 1998 -- but went to a meet-and-greet dinner that spring with no one lined up.
"Dontrelle came right over and introduced himself," Stacey said. "He had a great smile and you could tell he had a great personality."
"He came home with us that night," she said.
And moved right into her brother's old bedroom, the one with the race-car wallpaper, a television and a small closet.
It was a perfect fit, and quickly turned into a friendship filled with fun.
"Oh, those omelets," Willis recalled this week, flashing a huge grin. "They taught me how to make them. We used to have them all the time for breakfast. Those were good times."
The Brownewells, with Stacey as the team's bat girl, watched Willis blossom as he went 10-2 with a 1.83 ERA at Kane County. When he wasn't playing, he spent time with the family at the home in Warrenville, about 15 minutes from the ballpark.
"He treated the house like it was his," Galen said. "He was a very respectful person, we loved having him. And he was a real character."
Stacey got to see Willis' playful side way before baseball fans across the country came to know the lefty with a high leg kick and hat tilted to the side.
"It seemed like we went to the mall every other day. We'd go to the movies or shopping," Stacey said. "Nobody had ever heard of him before."
"He is the most bubbly person ever," she said. "He's like a brother to me. I love him so much."
Willis twice came to see her play center field for the school's softball team. They also tuned into a lot of ballgames on television, though they never made the drive into town to look around Wrigley.
"It is so unbelievable. I mean, I'm sitting on the same couch where we watched major league games last year, and now I'm watching him," she said.
Willis left the family in July 2002, when he was promoted to a higher-caliber Class A team at Jupiter. Since then, he's stayed in touch.
"I call a couple of times a week," he said. "They are kindhearted, generous people."
So the Brownewells don't even mind that Willis is causing them a real dilemma. Galen grew up in Illinois, rooting for the Cubs -- except when they play the Marlins, as in right now. And Stacey is surrounded by kids at school who love the Cubbies.
"Everyone is going around this week, 'Who are you voting for?" she said. "I tell them the Marlins and they're like, 'No way.' But then I tell them I have a really good reason."
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index