Pitcher Dontrelle Willis, who hasn't appeared in a major league game since 2011, has reached agreement on a minor league contract with the Milwaukee Brewers, his agent Matt Sosnick confirmed for TSL. The deal includes an invitation to Milwaukee's Spring Training big league camp.
Willis' last appearance on an MLB hill came four years ago, when he went 1-6 with a 5.00 ERA in 13 starts with Cincinnati.
The 33-year-old’s career win totals read like the record sales of an outhouse-to-Whitehouse-to-no house pop star, whose rise to fame was exorbitant, impactful and grand, but lasted half as long as the years of futility, struggle and imperfection that followed.
Willis racked up 68 wins in his first five MLB seasons with the Florida Marlins (2003-2007). He came out the gate with 14 victories, an All-Star appearance and a NL Rookie of the Year award for the World Series-winning Florida Marlins.
When the rocket-launching Willis went 22-10 for the Marlins in 2005, it was the baseball equivalent of a backpack rapper going diamond.
On the front end of his magical ride, Willis was the funky technician, operating on the mound with an unorthodox, throwback, almost Negro League-esque windup with the flair of a Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd. At a time when baseball lacked black heroes at the pitcher position, Willis was the one consistent dark knight infiltrating stadiums and lying down batters of all colors.
His uniform was barnstorm-baggy and he graced the mound with his hat respectfully but poignantly cocked to the side, representing the artistically-rebellious, edgy and culturally-defining subtleties of his Oakland roots.
To a young baseball fan he was the perfect combination of comedy, classy, cocky and cool. He rubbed elbows with baseball royalty and was everybody’s “friend.”
Then just as quickly, the Bay Area baller with the Hollywood-scripted come up spit out a dismal 6-18 record over his next four seasons and by 2011 he was a casualty of MLB’s unpredictable and improbable carousel of fate.
Since 2010, he has pitched for the Diamondbacks, Giants (twice), Reds, Phillies, Orioles, Cubs and Angels organizations and made several stops in independent ball.
It’s an increasingly common theme in the fast-paced, high stakes world of sports for certain rare athletes, to storm into our lives and get us addicted to their swagger and flavor and electric performances, only to rob us from experiencing that glory like a surprise trip to rehab for a happily- hooked crack fiend.
If George Could Do The Impossible …
Willis’ biological clock isn’t ticking as fast as Foreman’s was and baseball is a bit less taxing than the blood sport of boxing, so that’s one positive when considering the monumental task that lies ahead for Willis as he attempts to make a MLB squad. An ending like Foreman enjoyed would be like striking out the sides for Willis.
After a troubled childhood, Foreman took up boxing and quickly rose to prominence as an Olympic gold medalist in 1968.
He was a shooting star in the boxing world and a King crusher during a golden era of boxing that boasted legends such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. Foreman won the World Heavyweight title with a second-round knockout of then-undefeated Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1973. He made two successful title defenses before losing to Ali in " The Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974. He never got another title shot and retired following a loss to Jimmy Young in 1977.
As fast as you can say “Don King,” Foreman went from the most feared prizefighter in the game to obscurity.
Following what he referred to as a religious epiphany, Foreman became an ordained Christian minister. He returned to the ring a decade later in November 1994, at age 45 and miraculously regained the Heavyweight Championship by knocking out 27-year-old Michael Moorer. He retired in 1997 at the age of 48, with a final record of 76–5, including 68 knockouts.
In With the VIP & Forever MLB Royalty
Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia (21-win season in 2010) and the Detroit Tigers golden-armed David Price (20-win Cy Young campaign with Tampa in ‘12) are the only two other African-American pitchers to win 20 games in a season since Willis did it a decade ago.
These guys’ pitching excellence earned them a spot in “The Black Aces,” a group of American-born black pitchers who have won at least 20 games in a single season. The term comes from the title of a book written by former MLB pitcher Mudcat Grant, who became the first AL pitcher to accomplish the feat, winning a league-leading 21 games for The Minnesota Twins in 1965.
Vida Blue (1971, '73, '75), Al Downing ('71), Bob Gibson ('65, '66, '68-70), Dwight Gooden ('85), Grant, Canadian Ferguson Jenkins ('67-72, '74), Sam Jones ('59), Don Newcombe ('51, '55, '56), Mike Norris ('80), J.R. Richard ('76), Dave Stewart ('87-90), Earl Wilson ('67), Willis, Sabathia and Price are the lone dub runners.
Like many of the baseball bosses in this exclusive club, Willis’ appeal extended beyond his mound-marauding. His quirky mannerisms, illuminating smile, infectious personality and exuberance quickly made Willis a MLB fan favorite and very marketable African-American face.
He earned the nickname “The D-Train” because it seemed as if he was a locomotive pitching prince on the rails to superstardom.
Instant Stardom to Insignificance
What turned this super official, hurling-hero into a baseball zero?
Control problems started plaguing Willis in 2006 when he pegged a league-leading 19 batters after hitting the same total over the previous three seasons. We all know how that goes; a pitcher, who can’t find the plate, can’t find the rotation either.
He was shipped to Detroit as part of the Miguel Cabrera trade after his ERA ballooned to 5.17 in 2007. Instead of getting the boost a young pitching stud’s career can often gain with a change of scenery, his shining star fizzled completely once he left Florida.
The pressures of being a big-time star and the criticisms, expectations and burdens of living up to the responsibilities and performance grade for a CY Young award winner, got the best of Willis and his career spiraled into nothingness.
His mentals were shot and so was his platinum-plated wing. He couldn't live up to his plush contract with Detroit and eventually went on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder. In the blink of an eye, he was no longer one of the future faces of baseball.
He became stuck in a matrix of bewilderment and lost confidence. Willis became a psyche study for MLB Nation as they struggled to figure out how a seemingly healthy baseball beast became just another pitcher trying to fight the mysteries of lost dominance and control.
Baseball gave Willis its greatest blessing (stardom) and most treacherous curse (lack of longevity).
However, when a player like Willis bum-rushes your franchise, he is a hard guy to forget.
After laying in the cut for almost a half-decade, surveying the baseball landscape, and getting his head right, Willis told ESPN in a phone conversation Wednesday that he has never contemplated quitting.
OK…but what made him come back? Did friends, family and former teammates pressure him into giving baseball another shot?
"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. I'll get a fungo bat, and I'll be even louder than I am now.''
Who knows? Nobody gave Foreman a chance to win pro boxing’s Heavyweight Championship and homie was damn-near 50. Willis is at a prime age for most MLB players and he is an asset to any NL team because he can mash as well.
The Love of The Game Will Prevail
Willis scanned the rosters of all 30 MLB clubs in hopes that he would attract interest from Arizona or Milwaukee, two teams that train near his home in Phoenix and appear to have an opening for left-handed relief help.
The Brewers bit.
"I feel like a rookie,'' Willis said.”This is very humbling. It's going to seem surreal until I see my name on a uniform in spring training. I just can't believe it.''
Willis credited one of his agents, Jon Pridie, with arranging a workout for big league clubs in Phoenix. He auditioned for teams at the EXOS sportstraining facility, where he works out with Jacoby Ellsbury,Edwin Jackson, Casper Wells and several other big leaguers.
Willis’ comeback attempt is a long shot at best. Not too many players get two shots at fame, but for a guy who really exhibited a soulful and refreshing flavor that some say is missing in today’s baseball culture, talks of having Willis back on the field in any capacity is a “true dat” for baseball. Especially during Black History month.