Spring Training in the Cactus League this year seemed to have fewer highs and lows and far more minor injuries affecting the good the great and the never will be. It seemed quieter and less contentious, too, but that may only have been a factor of timing.
Over the many years we have gone, we always vary dates. The show in Arizona only lasts six weeks. Early or late makes a difference, even by one week. If it is early, one will see many young players being “evaluated” in the games for which you are required to pay to attend. Managers and coaches are trying to settle minor league roster too in these long workdays of spring. If you go late you will see more pitchers that will start the season for the Major League team pitch longer into the games. It is known as the “stretching out” period. Typically the starter will throw four to six innings in late March and the regular position players will, if required, stay about the same, although there will be fewer of them since by then they are physically ready. Many of them echo the talented second basemen Ricky Weeks of Milwaukee, who says that spring training is two weeks too long for position players since most are on exercise regimens all year. Pitchers conserve their arms in winter for the grueling task of throwing 200 or more innings in the next six months That leaves “decision” players to be looked at, as in “we need to make a decision on him soon”, which is what managers say when the press asks if a veteran invitee has a chance to make the team.
This group always interests me. They are largely players without a full commitment from the team to play in either the minors or the majors. They are not protected--on a roster for example--and are being paid for the privilege of auditioning for a job. It can be for many reasons. Some may have been hurt last season and their former team released them when they were pronounced well. One of the more humane rules of the game does not allow a team to release a player who is injured. Some may not have played last year at all, spent a year out of the game for any number of personal or health reasons, yet are still young enough or talented enough, or both, for a team that has a specific need to fill to deserve a “look.”
The most interesting member of the group this year was a man named Dontrelle Willis. He is said to be as nice a young man as you would ever want to meet. The players love him, the coaches love him, and the fans, wherever he happens to be, seem to take to him instantly. Unfortunately, Dontrelle has a problem. He is a pitcher and he seems to have lost the ability to throw a baseball for an effective strike.
“D-Train,” as he has been known for as long as I remember him was originally a selection by the Chicago Cubs in 2000, which, in their familiar fashion, found a reason to trade this young talent soon thereafter to the Florida Marlins. There, in 2003, at the age of 21 he pitched in 27 games and won a remarkable 14. He then pitched part of three games in the Division, Championship, and World Series which the team won. He was voted the Rookie of the Year. In 2005 he won 22 games and voted the Cy Young Award given the best pitcher in each league. He was an on the All Star Team twice (2003 and 2005) and at the age of 25 was making seven million dollars. Life, for D-Train, one could say, was good.
By 2009, his wins and complete games had begun to wane for mysterious reasons, yet he began a new life with a two-year, 22 million dollar contract with the Detroit Tigers. There the real trouble began and by the middle of his second year, despite the team’s herculean efforts to find out what was wrong with their high priced possession, they gave up and released him. Late in the season, The Arizona Diamondbacks decided to give him a try since the Tigers were still paying him. He pitched two games. He won one and lost the other. He again was released. The San Francisco Giants signed him for two weeks and then he was released again. He has pitched in only 30 Major league games in three years, and well in only a few.
There have been good pitchers before him who could not find home plate after seasons of greatness. More than two decades ago, when the Pittsburgh Pirates still were a team that won more than it lost, there was a young man who burst on the scene much as Dontrelle, named Steve Blass. He had some wonderful seasons and then just as suddenly had no idea where home plate was located. He went to the minors, to therapists, to sensory deprivation therapy, and tried all manner of quackery to find out why but never saw a major league stadium again without a ticket. Rick Ankiel, also very young when he was a “phenom” pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals some years ago, suddenly began throwing balls over the catcher’s head. At first it was once in awhile, but soon it was with enough regularity that his manager removed him to avoid further embarrassment. For two years he tried to fix it. Finally, he went back to the minors, learned how to play a position, and came back to St. Louis triumphant. He remains active now near the end of a solid career as a very useful outfielder playing now with the Atlanta Braves as reserve outfielder and extra bat on the bench.
So what of Dontrelle? Because he throws the ball with his left hand--and there are very few that can do that well--everyone has been interested in trying to figure out what happened to him and make him “well.” He has consulted all the master pitching coaches and gurus in the game, likely more than we will ever know. He is only 29 years old, an age when a most pitchers enter their prime years. Yet he finds himself this spring in the Cincinnati Reds camp after signing a minor league contract trying to salvage his pride and his career. He is not sick, in pain, or injured. All he wants to do again is what he did so well when he was 25.
He has been his manager says “inconsistent” spring. By that he means he hasn’t cured the problem. By now, nearly everyone has a theory as to what that problem is. The baseball jargon about what makes him “unwell” flies around so furiously that even the most dedicated fan wonders what it means. What is odd about his case is that it is not a pronounced loss of pitch control. He comes close, just not close enough. The statisticians ask about his “numbers” and his “arm speed,” the coaches about his arm “slot” and “release” which are merely ways of asking if he follows through and lets go of the ball in the same place ever time. Others are of the opinion that his unorthodox delivery of the ball leads to a different motion each time and speak of a mysterious need for “motion repetition.” All Dontrelle knows now, after being pawed over, reviewed, filmed, and analyzed by some of the best minds in baseball is that he cannot, as he did a mere six years ago, throw a baseball for a strike with consistency and effectiveness. This two time All Star, Cy Young Award winner, and Rookie of the Year is about to become a “has been” before his thirtieth birthday.
I saw him pitch twice this spring. To my untrained eye, he seems less a thrower now and more a pitcher. Where once there was a jerky motion always, there now seems a “calmness” in his delivery that wasn’t there when he was the D-Train in Florida. Yet each ball he throws is not even close to a strike or so much a strike that he watches it leave the ballpark. When it does, he doesn’t hang his head or kick dirt, he takes a new ball and tries again and will keep trying I am sure until they make him stop.
One thing Dontrelle still knows how to do is hit a baseball. It is something pitchers in the National League are still required to do. He was allowed to bat in the first game I saw and hit a ball down the first base line toward the foul pole. He left the batter’s box with his head down, and with good speed. Between first and second there was no doubt he would consider stopping. He slid safely into third base head first to a standing ovation from the Red’s fans and his teammates on the bench. He scored one out later, crossed home plate, picked up the unattended bat from the hitter, handed it to the batboy, patted him on the head, and returned to the dugout with a toothy grin. He was exultant. Dontrelle knows how the game is played and still loves to play it.
In years past I have often found it painful to watch a “comeback’ player try to prove he still had the stuff to do the job. This year, as I watched Dontrelle, I found it sad, yet uplifting that he refuses to quit. There was a rumor in the Red’s team report that when the final cuts came, this happy, seemingly well-adjusted young man would hang on to a job with the team.
He didn’t. On Sunday, March 27, 2011, he accepted assignment to the minor league camp where he hopes more work will bring him back. He is expected to report to the AAA minor league affiliate. His 11 walks and no wins didn’t help. The fact that he seemed to walk more batters and give up more runs in the past two weeks didn’t help either.
Sadly, he has exhausted the patience of most, the wallets of two teams, and frustrated a legion of fans. Yet somewhere in his head he believes—he must believe-- that he can do what he did before. His life under the bright lights has been too short, too frustrating, and too sad. For him it is no longer a game. Yet he will continue smiling as he tries to learn all over again how to throw an effective strike for as long as they let him.