KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Oh, hell. Not again.
You thought that, the guy sitting next to you thought that, the dude listening on the radio thought that, the woman watching on TV thought that, the kid streaming on the Internet thought that. When it comes to Dontrelle Willis, the biggest enigma in major league baseball, it takes next to nothing to trigger the panic reflex – and walking the first batter he faced in the 2010 season on four pitches did a mighty fine job of it.
Willis is a tangle of contradictions. He is a former Cy Young contender who turned into the wildest pitcher in the game. He spent much of last season on the disabled list with social anxiety disorder, and he claims to neither have social phobia nor take medicine for it. He said he is as happy now as a 28-year-old fighting for his baseball life with the Detroit Tigers as he was as a 21-year-old capping his rookie year with a World Series ring.
So guess what he did after those four balls to Kansas City's David DeJesus: He forgot them. He shrugged them away. He didn't sit around and psychoanalyze and lather himself into a jittery mess and melt down. He composed himself – as much as someone relearning how to pitch can – slithered out of the inning with minimal damage and resolved to make the next one better.
"I'm not that smart," Willis said. "Just move on, move on, move on. I think everybody around me makes it more than I make it. This is what it is, this is where you need to be, this is where God put you, so have fun and go after it."
This all sounds so healthy, and if Dontrelle Willis really is in the place where he can play ob-la-di, ob-la-da and still succeed, great. People want to see him beat this, and Willis left his six-inning, two-run, two-walk – yes, only two – performance against the Royals on Thursday afternoon with something he hasn't seen in nearly a year: a victory.
It was Willis' second since joining the Tigers – in 2008. In his first two years, he walked 63 hitters in 57 2/3 innings, threw six wild pitches, gave up nearly a run an inning and made the radiation detectors around Comerica Park go haywire. The Dontrelle disaster became an every-five-days event until the Tigers twice pulled the plug, not just for their sakes but his. His whirling-dervish windup, an impossible harmony of pieces and parts that made him such a sensation as a rookie, turned Toyota.
So to see Willis throw 89 pitches in control … well, it mattered little that it came against a Royals team that may finish last in baseball in runs scored this season. He may not be the old D-Train, fast as a bullet, but the Tigers will take his version of the commuter line.
Willis stood on the mound at Kauffman Stadium triumphant before he threw that first ball. The Tigers buried him in the minor leagues last season and didn't bother calling him up in September. He wasn't guaranteed a rotation spot until Detroit traded Nate Robertson to Florida. And the Tigers weren't the only ones questioning Willis. He spent time after the season wondering whether this whole thing was a charade.
"Sometimes you have to take a step back and really realize what makes you good – and is this something you really want to do?" he said. "My answer to those questions was this is what I'm born to do, I'm blessed to do and I'm really going to enjoy it.
"You have to do that. You have to do some soul searching. … You really have to have pride in what you do in your craft and really care about your team and what you're doing out there, and you'll be there in the end."
And yet for the rah-rah speech Willis gave himself, his enthusiasm is dead, the innocence of the charismatic kid who leapt off the mound with a flourish after a strikeout beaten to a pulp and scrubbed away by the jagged edges of failure. Though Willis' realism sounds refreshing, it also is the sort of wisdom espoused by those who sense the end is coming, or are at least content with the idea of it.
"Just because I suck doesn't mean life's over," he said. "If you're a bad baseball player, you get to go home. If you're a bad astronaut or soldier, it's a different ballgame. Not to say you don't care about your craft. …
"Even when I struggle, I'm thankful because it taught me how to lose with class and how to really take a step back and learn how to get yourself better. What's a sunny day if every day's sunny?"
For the past two years, it has rained, sleeted and hailed during Willis' starts. In 2005, during which he finished second in NL Cy Young voting, Willis walked 55 in 236 1/3 innings. In a Tigers uniform, he has walked more in a quarter of the innings. And it's impossible to tell whether he's delusional or optimistic when he compares the seasons and says in 2005 hitters "were just lining out. I’m dead serious. That's the difference. Sorry. I'm just telling you, man."
Hey, if that thinking gets Wills back to '05, so be it. Thursday's start marked his second best with Detroit. Only his last victory on May 19, 2009 – six innings of one-hit, no-run, two-walk, five-strikeout ball – was better. In his next start, Willis walked four. Then two. Then five. And five again. And eight. Banishment followed.
When Willis arrived at spring training this season, Tigers manager Jim Leyland didn't pull him aside or give him a pep talk. He didn't ask about Willis' alleged anxiety or whether he shored up his mechanics. Leyland let Willis be, countering last year's hands-on approach with a decidedly different tack.
"I didn't make any issues about anything," Leyland said. "I came intentionally into spring training this year with that in mind. I was going to put him out there, and it was up to him to sink or swim. I wasn't going to get on him. I wasn't going to pat him on the back. I was going to give him his opportunities and see what he did with them."
Willis was inconsistent, but the Tigers are paying him $12 million this year, and Robertson was a far easier commodity to deal, so Willis stayed.
"And in the end," Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp said, "he's the one who determines whether he makes it or doesn't. What Dontrelle can do with the ball is pretty good. I just hope he does it."
Against the Royals, he got out of jams with three double-play groundballs, and he snuck his fastball up to 93 mph while his cutters and sinkers flirted with the strike zone, and he struck out four, including the last hitter he faced, Rick Ankiel.
He didn't bound off the mound. He ambled toward the Tigers' dugout, the first step hopefully complete.
"I just want to play good baseball," said Dontrelle Willis, and the guy next to you and the dude near the radio and the woman glued to the TV and the kid surfing the Internet also want him to. They hope he remembers what those sunny days look like.
- Dontrelle Willis