Every so often in Major League Baseball a player bursts onto the scene and makes everyone take notice. We’re seeing it this year with young outfield sensations Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals and Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels. In the early 1980′s Fernandomania swept the nation as Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela captured the National League Cy Young and Rookie of the Year Awards in 1981, was selected to six All-Star games, and tossed a no-hitter.
Some phenoms are able to sustain their early success, others are not.
In 2003 a 21-year old, left-handed pitcher from Oakland, California named Dontrelle Willis broke into the Major Leagues with the Florida Marlins and quickly captured everyone’s attention. It was hard not to notice him in all honesty. The high leg kick and twisting of his body brought back memories for some of pitchers from yesteryear with unique deliveries like Luis Tiant or Juan Marichal.
But there was more to Dontrelle Willis than the style, atleast early on. In 27 games that season he went 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 160.2 innings pitched. He was named to the National League’s All-Star team and captured the Rookie of the Year Award. Baseball’s newest star was born, or so we thought. Willis started the following season 3-0 but would largely suffer through the remainder of it, finishing with a 10-11 record and 4.02 ERA.
Dontrelle Willis rebounded from the mediocre prior season to become one of the best pitchers in the game in 2005. He was the first pitcher that season to win 12 games and cruised into the All-Star break with a 13-4 record. In September he became the first African-American pitcher to win 20 games since Dave Stewart accomplished the feat in 1990. Willis finished the season 22-10, led the majors in wins, tied for the ML lead in complete games (7), recorded the most shutouts (5), and finished second in the National League Cy Young Award voting. Willis’ 22 victories are the most in Marlins history for a single-season and his 5 shutouts are tied for first.
Unfortunately, 2005 was the last we saw of the consistently effective Dontrelle Willis. That was his last season with a record above .500 and the career of the player affectionately known as the “D-Train” was beginning to derail.
Willis would spend two more seasons with the Marlins before being traded to the Detroit Tigers, where he would post a 2-8 record and 6.86 ERA over three years. Willis was traded again in 2010, this time to the Arizona Diamondbacks but the results weren’t much different. He appeared in 6 games, posting an almost identical 6.85 ERA, and was 1-1. Willis’ journey would then take him to a minor league affiliate of the San Francisco Giants later in 2010, the Cincinnati Reds in 2011, and brief stints with the Philadelphia Phillies and Baltimore Orioles whom he would not appear in a Major League game for.
Earlier today Dontrelle Willis announced his retirement, bringing to an end a career that started with a bang and ended with a whisper. He brought us in with the high black socks, equally high leg kick, and infectious smile. We stayed for the Rookie of the Year Award and two All-Star game appearances from 2003-2005. Like the general managers who continued to give him opportunities after that memorable 2005 season Dontrelle Willis probably had a hard time grasping how quickly it all ended. I’m sure many fans did as well. Today Willis realized that every athlete’s time in the spotlight eventually comes to an end. Everyone has their run. It lasts longer for some than it does for others. Unfortunately for Dontrelle Willis his didn’t last as long as he would have liked. Today, the D-Train pulled into its final stop.