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Willis echoing Doc and Bird

The Marlins pitcher is reminding some of past rookie sensations such as Gooden and Fidrych.

By TOM JONES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 21, 2003

MIAMI - The hottest thing going in baseball could have been pitching for the Devil Rays tonight. Instead, he's pitching against them.

In 2000, the Rays had eight cracks at drafting a left-handed high school flamethrower named Dontrelle Willis. And seven after taking a centerfielder named Rocco Baldelli in the first round.

They passed. Seven times. But don't be too hard on the Rays. Every other team in baseball passed on Willis at least seven times, too.

And every other team is kicking itself this morning, including the Cubs, who had him and let him get away.

Bringing back memories of rookie sensations such as Doc Gooden, Fernando Valenzuela and Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, Willis has turned baseball upside down in his first season.

Just 21 and a season removed from lower-level organized ball (Class A Greensboro of the Southern Atlantic League), Willis goes into tonight's game against the Rays 6-1 with a 2.61 ERA. He's fresh off a one-hitter against the Mets and has a 0.96 ERA in his past five starts, all victories.

And he is savoring every second of it.

"I never thought I'd be here," Willis told the Miami Herald. "I'm just trying to soak all this in. Every day is a blessing to be here. You never want to take that for granted. Because once you do, something bad can happen and it's done."

Willis has come out of nowhere. He grew up a two-sport (baseball, basketball) standout near Oakland, Calif., in a single-parent home. His mother, Joyce, was a welder and went to work every morning at 4 so she could attend his high school games. His father? Willis never met him and doesn't even know who he is.

With Joyce's support, Willis excelled at Alameda's Encinal High and thought he would be a first- or second-round pick. He lasted until the Cubs took him in the eighth. A year later, he was part of a trade that sent pitcher Matt Clement from Florida to the Cubs. The way Willis is pitching, the trade reminds some of the deal that sent veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander from Atlanta to Detroit for an unknown youngster named Tom Glavine.

With high socks and a funky windup that looks like he is trying to touch the stadium lights with his cleats, Willis has baffled hitters and could go from no-name to All-Star. Either way, Willis' feet remain planted, at least away from the mound.

"There are a lot of situations where a lot of people work hard and they still don't get the opportunities that they deserve," Willis said. "That's how life is and you have to accept that. When you work hard and you start to get rewarded, then you know it's a blessing."

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Today's lineup
  • Trio sent packing, and Rays are, too
  • Doctor: Ordonez is out for the season
  • Willis echoing Doc and Bird


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