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Willis on the field during 2015 Spring Training with the Brewers. - USA Today

by Mike Salisbury

Dontrelle Willis can’t stop playing baseball. He’s played for a third of Major League Baseball’s organizations. Along the way, he won the National League Rookie of the Year award with the Florida Marlins in 2003 and almost won the 2005 National League Cy Young Award. He became a fan favorite with his unconventional pitching style, earning him the nickname “The D-Train.” That’s a lot of baseball, enough to fill a pretty satisfying career. It’s more baseball, and perhaps more chances, than any one person deserves. But none of that matters because Willis doesn’t believe the game of baseball has left him behind.

Willis avoids the typical inspirational-story formula: he wasn’t pumping gas or working at a car dealership, practicing over lunch breaks at a high school field; he wasn’t a high school coach pushed by his team to try out like Jim Morris, the high school chemistry teacher that inspired Disney’s The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid. Dontrelle Willis is just here, still. Grinding out the days like you and me. That’s not the stuff Disney films are made of.

When I think about Dontrelle Willis, I think about Elton John’s song, “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore.” The song’s lyrics detail Elton John getting older, admitting that he’s pulled a fast one on his fans and the music he was giving them was filled with counterfeit emotions. Like Willis, Elton John is past his prime. “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore” is a lot like standing on the pitching mound in a Bridgeport Bluefish jersey waiting for a sign from the catcher.

In the song, Elton John sings, I used to be the main express / All steam and whistles heading west. Those lyrics make me wonder if Willis knows at the end of the day he’s stayed too long. It‘s one thing to hang on too long to a dream and another not to quit. One implies a Brett Farvian lack of self-awareness; the latter is everything sports are built on. What does it mean to keep going after it’s over? What does it mean to cheer for someone you don’t even know, to wish for something that truly means so little, yet means everything to a sports fan? It’s strange to feel like an athlete owes you something: be great or be gone.

Willis says he has never contemplated quitting. He told Jerry Cransick of ESPN that: “I’ve been asked that question before, and it all comes down to the fact that I enjoy being on the field,” Willis said. “I suck at golf. I don’t have an Xbox, and I have four daughters. I just love the camaraderie of baseball. Even when I’m done playing, I’ll be coaching.”

When Willis is done, he will not be done.

I first started to care, if a person can really do that for another person they’ve never met and their only contact is through the fan-to-player interaction of cheering, when Willis was traded to Detroit with Miguel Cabrera in 2007. I even remember where I was when it happened: I was sitting in the parking lot of Noodles in Grand Rapids, MI when news came that we got Cabrera AND Willis.

During Willis’s stint in Detroit, his talent eluded him. Just glimpses. Lost somewhere inside Dontrelle Willis was the Dontrelle Willis who won 22 games in 2005. No matter how much we hoped or prayed he’d find it, Willis never did for the Tigers. His career is like a reverse Disney film: All the glory upfront – the awards, the accolades, winning a World Series. We never got to experience the climb, the joy of overcoming adversity. This is the biggest misfortune of Dontrelle Willis: you were too good too soon.

“I’ve been to the pinnacle, and that feels good,” Willis explained to John Feinstein in Feinstein’s book, Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball. “But when the day comes that I don’t believe I can make it back and pitch in the big leagues, I’ll go home. I know it won’t be easy, but that’s what I’ll do.”

Willis hasn’t gone home yet. He’s at spring training this year with the Milwaukee Brewers.

 

A Michigan native, Mike Salisbury’s fiction has appeared in Avery Anthology, Black Warrior Review, Crab Orchard Review, Bombay Gin, and The Emerson Review. Mike is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Pacific University. He lives and works along the Front Range of the Rockies.