‘D-Train’ starting to settle in Motown

By Jon Paul Morosi
Updated: May 25, 2009

DETROIT – The All-Star Game visited Detroit four years ago, and Major League Baseball seized the opportunity to roll out its promotional campaign for the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Officials organized a news conference at a fancy hotel in nearby Dearborn, with a video, colorful banners and prototype jerseys.

Baseball officials wanted to showcase the game and lend legitimacy to the new event. Some of the participating nations had one player — wearing the country’s jersey — on the dais for the announcements.

Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira were in town for the Midsummer Classic. Roger Clemens and Jake Peavy were, too. But someone else represented Team USA before the baseball world that day. It was a person who, at that moment, might have been as much the face of baseball in the United States as anyone else.

Dontrelle Willis.

Willis, on his way to a 22-win season, was at the peak of his charisma-driven popularity with the Florida Marlins. There was no sign then of the many trials to come: the injuries, a trip to the minor leagues, a lost season. In response to one question about the WBC, Willis flashed a smile and replied, “I just hope I make the team.” The ballroom erupted in laughter.

Of course, he was going to make the team. This was Dontrelle Willis, for crying out loud. He had the big smile, the big leg kick, the big statistics. He was a black star from inner-city Oakland, someone who could reach a demographic that was playing the game in decreasing numbers. Even better, he genuinely wantedto help kids get involved with baseball.

Well, he pitched in that All-Star Game and gave up two earned runs in one inning. He pitched in the WBC and didn’t fare too well, either. He went 12-12 for the Marlins in 2006 and 10-15 the year after that. Rick Kranitz, the former Florida pitching coach, said in an interview last week that Willis “wasn’t the same” after Grady Sizemore stepped on his pitching hand during a game on June 14, 2007.

Willis’ walk rate and ERA were climbing. His salary was, too. So, the budget-conscious Marlins traded him to Detroit with Miguel Cabrera at the ’07 winter meetings.

Somewhere in that chain of events, he began losing his way.

Willis signed a three-year, $29 million contract extension before throwing his first pitch for the Tigers. Perhaps that was not such a great idea — for either side — because he seemed to place undue pressure on himself from the moment he arrived in Lakeland, Fla., for spring training in 2008. He had severe control problems. He spent some time on the disabled list with a sprained right knee — and several weeks on the roster of the Single-A Lakeland Flying Tigers.

He appeared in eight big league games last year, including seven starts, but didn’t earn a victory. He worked determinedly during the offseason, only to have the control issues return in the spring. On March 29, he was placed on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder — a startling but not unprecedented move for a big league baseball player.

Willis declared that morning that he would return to the big leagues. (“I know I will,” he said then.) But it was not easy to believe him. After all, he had been diagnosed with a potentially serious mental illness. What type of treatment would he undergo? Would he be able to pitch again?

He began a rehabilitation program in the minors, and the initial reports were mixed. As April turned to May, they became more encouraging. And last week, finally, the day arrived: Willis won a game for the first-place Tigers, after pitching 6 1/3 shutout innings against the Texas Rangers.

Kranitz, now the Baltimore pitching coach, followed Willis’ start that night on the out-of-town scoreboard at Yankee Stadium.

“I’m very, very proud of him,” Kranitz said in an interview last week. “I couldn’t be happier. I didn’t see any of the highlights, but I’m just so happy for him.”

Willis was back on the mound Sunday, and what transpired against the Colorado Rockies might have been more meaningful than his victory five days before. Willis lost, but he put forth another effort that was worthy of a win. He held the Rockies to one run over six innings before allowing back-to-back run-scoring hits in the seventh.

The final line: 6 2/3 innings, three earned runs, four walks, four strikeouts. Most major league pitchers can put together one decent start, if given the opportunity. But two in a row? Maybe this is becoming a genuine comeback story.

“Some people might’ve folded, might’ve made excuses,” Willis said. “I didn’t do any of that. I just continued to work hard, and I’m continuing to work hard right now.

“I’m proud of what I’ve done in this game thus far. I work hard. I think the effort shows out there. I care about this. When it’s all said and done, I’ll be able to hold my head up. At the same token, I’m not content. I still have good stuff, to compete at the highest level. I think it’s been showing.”

Willis seemed unsure about his diagnosis at the time he was placed on the disabled list. When asked after Sunday’s game if he’s confident that he was, in fact, suffering from an anxiety disorder, he said, “Not really. I just played bad. … It was a blessing, going on the DL, to find myself and get myself in the routine. … I appreciate the Tigers giving me the leeway to work hard and (get) comfortable.”

The Tigers submitted documentation of their diagnosis to the commissioner’s office, which certified Willis’ assignment to the disabled list. Anxiety disorders are typically treated with counseling and/or medication. Willis said he didn’t need either treatment.

“I just told them, ‘Let me play,’” he said. “That’s the counseling for me. Let me do what I know how to do.”

Regardless of the specifics, it’s quite safe to say that Willis was in a gloomy place not long ago and is now pitching capably in the major leagues: 1-1 with a 3.57 ERA after three starts.

Manager Jim Leyland said Willis did a “great job” on Sunday, adding, “He’s changing speeds. He’s using his pitches. He pitched very, very well. He competes. I’ve been impressed. Twice in a row now. Rather than make a big deal about it, just let him keep going out there.”

“Each start, I’m going out there and earning his respect,” Willis said of Leyland. “I appreciate Skip giving me those chances.”

Willis, 27, is no longer a power lefty. He touched 90 mph on Sunday only a small percentage of times. The Rockies swung and missed at only four of his 105 pitches. But improved command has enabled him to generate easy outs with his two- and four-seam fastballs. His curveball and changeup look formidable. The movement on his sinker is vastly improved, Tigers catcher Dane Sardinha said.

All of a sudden, pitching doesn’t look so hard anymore.

When asked if he thinks often of how far he’s come, Willis said, “No. I’m here now. I don’t dwell on stuff like that. I’m not a vindictive guy, as far as making people feel like, ‘I told you so.’ I don’t get anything out of that. I just want to play baseball at the highest level. I’m here now, and I’m having fun. Hopefully everybody sees the sincerity in that.”

“He’s back,” fellow starter Edwin Jackson said. “That’s all that really matters. He’s back in the league, back where he’s supposed to be. He’s pitching. He’s having fun. That’s what it’s all about.”

When Willis’ odyssey began on that March morning, it seemed very possible that he wouldn’t be in the organization — much less the rotation — by the end of May. But Kranitz remembered something about Willis’ outings in Florida, a trait that now applies to his career at large.

“Second and third, nobody out, you always saw the best in Dontrelle,” Kranitz said. “Always.”

Willis wasn’t necessarily at his best on Sunday. But he was better. For that, the Tigers ought to be grateful. And Willis should be proud.