Give That Ball To D-Train

By Ethan J. Skolnick
Updated: July 5, 2005

Dontrelle Willis

Dontrelle Willis

MIAMI GARDENS — Dontrelle Willis, while no mall rat, does like to sample the shopping in South Florida. So Monday, a day after shutting out the Mets at Shea, he strolled through Aventura Mall.

His experience was, to use Willis’ word, “weird.”

Shoppers shouted at him. They wanted him to know he should start the All-Star Game next Tuesday in Detroit.

“I say, `Thank you, man, I appreciate it,’” said Willis, somewhat embarrassed by the attention.

They should keep shouting, though, loud enough for St. Louis and National League manager Tony La Russa to hear them.

Major League Baseball, too.

This, after all, should not be a question. Forget that Willis keeps insisting La Russa’s own pitcher, Chris Carpenter, should start. Willis is gracious, but wrong.

“He obviously put the team in the position it’s in now, so he should get the ball,” Willis said. Carpenter is 12-4 with a 2.60 ERA for the first-place Cardinals.

Willis has more wins (13), fewer losses (2), a lower ERA (1.89) and more shutouts (4 to 3). But this isn’t even about numbers. The numbers are comparable for Willis, Carpenter, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens.

The tie goes to the sensation. To Willis.

“You guys are making it seem like he’s 7-7,” said Willis, continuing his spirited advocacy of Carpenter. “Y’all keep putting pressure on the man, [La Russa] might just throw the ball at me.”

That’s the idea. Then Willis can throw it by the American League leadoff man, whether Brian Roberts or Johnny Damon.

No, Carpenter isn’t 7-7. His 12-4 is his second strong season running. The right-hander is a nice comeback story, but let’s be honest — he’s just another guy, a good pitcher on a staff of them. He’s Jack Armstrong, Esteban Loaiza, Terry Mulholland. He’s forgettable.

Plus the Cardinals will be sufficiently represented, with four starters if Albert Pujols serves as the designated hitter, including the undeserving Scott Rolen.

Martinez and Clemens? They’ve had their time. Martinez has started an All-Star Game. Clemens started for the third time in 2004, after allegedly retiring.

Willis? He’s fresh. He’s fun. He’s funky. He’s 23. He’s the future.

And he gets it. He gets the team concept, his responsibility as a role model, the relationship with the media. He keeps getting better at his craft, from mound to batter’s box to base paths.

He should get the ball.

This is about Major League Baseball — its sluggers under suspicion and one of its All-Star pitchers slugging cameramen — finally recognizing it has a personality worth promoting. What would the NBA do with a Dontrelle Willis? Exactly what it’s already doing with Dwyane Wade.

This is about riding the D-Train to positive press for a change. Fans complain about spoiled millionaires? Willis isn’t even a millionaire. He earns $378,000 from the Marlins. He doesn’t complain.

(This is also about giving the African-American community, which is playing the game in decreasing numbers, a role model; Willis would be the first African-American starting pitcher since Dwight Gooden in 1988.) Willis was an All-Star in 2003 but didn’t pitch. Just as well. The Willis who will appear at Comerica Park is a much superior pitcher, as all around him acknowledge. He has hit his rough patch (most of 2004) and emerged stronger, as great ones do.

He changes speeds now. He works lineups, works efficiently, even works with umpires. Sunday he wiggled out of a first-inning jam created by Jim Wolf’s squeezing of the strike zone, then respectfully sought an explanation after the work was done.

“He can make adjustments on the mound when things are not going well for him,” manager Jack McKeon said.

“You learn, you learn,” Willis said, applying his experience to rhythm on the mound, to arrival time at the ballpark, even to the way he wears his uniform.

He’s a veteran now, a pro, even if he still plays like a kid. Monday he was joking about the sweet suit rookie Scott Olsen had rocked on the New York road trip. Willis didn’t have a suit upon his 2003 call-up, so Tommy Phelps took him to the Men’s Wearhouse in Fort Lauderdale.

“It wasn’t a real nice one,” recalled Phelps, now a Brewers reliever. “Black with gray lines.”

Willis wore it until rings circled the collar. “I still have it. “I got to let it rest, though.”

Eventually, then-teammate Derrek Lee took Willis out for new threads, so Willis looked the part of a major-leaguer. Today, he looks like the league’s best pitcher, and easily the most entertaining.

It’s time for America to get a good look. Lee will start the All-Star Game. Willis should too.