|Thursday, June 26
Updated: June 27, 6:36 PM ET
Willis keeps it herky, perky for Marlins
By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com
Absolutely true story: Two women, pushing a good 80 at least, were talking at a supermarket in Swampscott, Mass., last week when the chat turned to baseball. One asked the other, "You seen that Dontrelle Willis pitch yet? Wow!"
Sure enough, Dontrelle Willis, the Marlins' phenomenal 21-year-old left-hander, has been so spectacular in his first nine major-league starts that he has already crossed over into the New England octogenarian market. It seems as if every baseball fan up and down both coasts, and all points in between, has caught Dontrelle Fever -- a condition marked by occasional slapping of the forehead in amazement and uncontrollable giggling, after watching major-league All-Stars flail at the kid's all-arms-and-legs windup reminiscent of a spastic squid.
Willis has dazzled hitters and audiences alike by going 7-1 with a 2.38 ERA nine starts into his major-league career, but it was his one-hitter over the Mets on June 16 that thrust him into the national spotlight and flooded the Marlins' public-relations department with requests from every major media organization.
Card companies have showered him with $20,000 worth of autograph deals. Heck, even the Jupiter Hammerheads, the Class A outfit for whom Willis was pitching last August, is planning a Dontrelle Willis Bobblehead Night. Now that's fame.
"I don't think he even realizes what he's accomplishing," Marlins catcher Mike Redmond said. "He pitches with excitement and enthusiasm. He's just what this team needed -- a spark."
Baseball doesn't mind, either. Willis is quickly becoming a worthy descendant of Mark Fidrych, Fernando Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden, a baseball species known as phenom electus. His starts are becoming as anticipated as any in the game, because no one can be sure what this kid is going to do next.
South Florida's Fox Sports Net reports that his appearances have received the cable network's highest ratings since August 1998, when some guy named Mark McGwire (remember him?) was chasing the home-run record. Every major national sports outlet has featured him or plans to soon.
"When you get any attention out of south Florida," first baseman Derrek Lee said, "you must be doing something special."
The sudden celebrity hasn't shaken Willis much, in large part because his noggin is on much more firmly than, say, the bobbleheads soon to bear his likeness.
"I just try to stay level," said Willis, who was called up to Florida on May 9, after going 4-0 in six starts at Double-A Carolina. "If you get caught up in all this stuff, it can be a little overwhelming."
In the meantime, he simply delights in all his new experiences, like his first-ever trip to New York, where he starts Thursday against the Mets. He took the No. 7 subway out to Shea to soak it all in, and -- after stepping off the train -- snapped a picture of the stadium with his new cell phone.
If this all feels new to Willis, forgive him. He wasn't even alive in 1981 when Valenzuela spun, looked to the sky and screwballed his way to eight straight wins (with five shutouts) as a rookie and spawned Fernando-mania throughout Los Angeles and beyond. But Willis could be on his way to similar popularity and intrigue. It isn't just his talent -- he's already getting more buzz than Albert Pujols ever has -- but his joint-stretching delivery and the overwhelming impression the gangly kid is having one heck of a time.
The Willis Windup begins by peeking back toward right field (not unlike Fernando). He hoists his right knee almost to the eyeballs and slings the ball toward the plate while, it appears, dislocating neither shoulder nor hip. It makes you wonder if Plastic Man left the Hall of Justice to join the Florida Marlins. (Polar opposite of Mark Prior's compact delivery.)
Many pitchers with similarly goofy deliveries -- Orlando Hernandez, Juan Marichal, Hideo Nomo, Luis Tiant and Valenzuela -- have been from foreign lands, with an exotic air of mystery about them. Willis is from an outpost considerably less known for producing baseball players -- America's inner city.
He grew up in a poor section of Alameda, Calif., with no father to speak of -- Willis has never even known his name -- but playing ball wherever he could. His favorite game was something he and his friends called "strikeout": He spray-painted a strike zone on the side of his house and pitched tennis balls to it from the middle of the street. (This is urban America's update of Bob Feller throwing against his barn door.) The boys started hitting so well that they tried all sorts of deceptive deliveries to save balls.
"They were expensive for us back then -- we had to come up with something," Willis laughs. "I tried submarine once. But my arms are very long, and I scraped the ground and cut my hand up pretty bad. That was the end of that."
Ten years later, Willis uses some of the same improvisational moves to retire major-league hitters. When he does, an immense smile breaks across his fleshy face, and he bounces around the pitcher's mound, adrenaline pumping through his head and heart. After the one-hitter against the Mets, he high-fived his teammates so hard he almost broke their hands.
"He's a blast for guys to play behind," Redmond said.
Though he's probably the biggest star on the team right now, Willis loves showing his teammates that he knows his place. His rookie responsibility is to walk up and down the aisle of the team charter serving soft drinks.
Said utilityman Andy Fox, "Some guys think they're above that stuff, but Dontrelle is such a nice guy. If someone's like, 'Hey Dontrelle, get me a soda,' he'll jump up and go, 'Diet or regular?' " Last Halloween, the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Willis dressed up as a rabbi.
Willis, more than most people know, realizes how quickly this all can end. About a week before spring training he was driving 65 mph on Highway 101 in Palo Alto, Calif., when a rear tire blew out. The car flipped a half-dozen times. Willis, strapped in by his seat belt, can still remember the view from inside, watching the windshield crash in on him and his world spinning about, while he wondered if he'd live to pitch in the majors at all. Miraculously, the car finally came to rest with Willis getting nary a scratch, and he climbed out through the crumpled back windshield.
"I was grounded before that happened," he sighs, "but it kind of put things in perspective."
He takes the same world view to the baseball ride he's on now.
"I'm not a phenom -- I'm just a kid who loves the game and loves to be out there," he said. "Once people get the book out on you, they see you over and over again, we'll see what kind of tags I have on me. I'm not a phenom. I don't think of myself as phenomenal."
Willis might have to reconsider if he keeps pitching like this. He throws 93-94 mph while keeping the ball down. His slider and change dance and drop through the zone. He has won his last six starts with a 0.84 ERA, and at this pace could become too attractive to keep off the NL All-Star team.
In the meantime, Willis will keep soaking up the big-league experience, touring every city he visits with a heartfelt wonder others save for him. But he does have his limits: No top of the Empire State Building.
"I don't like heights," he reports.
Keep pitching like this, kid, and you'd better get used to them.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.