MLB Misses Out On Featuring Marlins’ Willis
The Florida Marlins’ Dontrelle Willis, with his black cap askew, kicks his right leg toward the heavens and tilts his body back toward center field momentarily. Then, it all goes by in a flash – black stirrups, elbows, arms, 95-mph fastball.
Back to the bench for you. You’ve just been fanned by the hottest pitching prospect baseball has produced in years.
Unfortunately, baseball has also been struck out with regard to Willis – no American League player will have the opportunity to face the 21-year-old sensation at next week’s All-Star Game in Chicago, a stunning omission by Cubs manager Dusty Baker that has left thousands scratching their heads.
No Dontrelle at Comiskey Park (sorry, U.S. Cellular Field)? Whatchu talkin’ about, Willis?
Watching Willis throw 5-2/3 innings of shutout ball against Baker’s Cubs on Tuesday, you can’t help but wonder what Baker was thinking when he selected his own Kerry Wood over Willis, who lowered his ERA to 1.98 in the rain-shortened effort. Of course, that’s hardly the stupidest thing Baker has done this week.
Wood’s ERA is 3.36, but hey, he does get a tidy $75,000 bonus for making the National League squad. We like Wood and all – he’s as fun to watch as anyone on a summer day at Wrigley – but Willis?
He’s just happy to be in The Show, enjoying that big-league meal money ($75 a day). Two months ago, he was pitching in Zebulon, N.C., riding buses, staying in cheap hotels and living the Bull Durham life.
Willis would ante up one of the delicacies from the Burger King dollar menu he was forced to eat on his minor-league pay if anyone’s able to identify the city of Zebulon on a map.
Let’s make it clear – Willis is more than just a curiosity, the flavor of the week. The kid’s got some serious talent.
Just ask the Mets, whom Willis threw a one-hitter against in June. The Mets aren’t the most dominant offensive team in big league history, but even they’re able to manage more than one hit on most nights.
"He’s got a little pizzazz to him, a little flair," said Mets manager Art Howe. "Not in a showboating way. He’s good for baseball."
Especially for a sport that is experiencing a serious decline in both black players and black fan interest.
It doesn’t take a scientific study to figure out that baseball ranks right above hockey in terms of street credibility – hoops rule the inner cities, and football’s hard-hitting style beats the lazy summer pace of baseball any day.
Last week, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci released a feature outlining the decline of the African-American in baseball – blacks currently represent just 10% of major-league rosters, down from 19% in 1995. The current mark is a 63% dropoff from 1975, when 29% of teams consisted of black players.
That’s why Willis would have been the ideal choice, not just to make the All-Star Game, but to start it. History tells us that every time baseball is able to produce a phenomenal pitching prospect, they’re placed on baseball’s center stage – Vida Blue in 1971, Mark Fidrych in 1976, Fernando Valenzuela in 1981, Hideo Nomo in 1995.
Instead, the glaring oversight by Baker and MLB will leave Willis on a three-day vacation in South Florida, keeping him out of the public eye that so hungers and longs for him. Is anyone thrilled about seeing relievers Lance Carter (Devil Rays) and Mike Williams (Pirates) pitch in the All-Star Game?
"I think to promote the game, you’ve got to turn the page instead of just seeing the same guys," says Braves outfielder Gary Sheffield. "When you see a guy with a windup like his and the results that he’s getting, that brings people to the game. It brings excitement to the game.
"People want to see that high leg kick, especially with a lefty, just raring back and striking people out. That’s something you hardly see anymore, unless it’s Randy Johnson or Curt Schilling, the same names you always see."
Unfortunately for baseball, that’s what they’ll get: the same old, same old. Atlanta’s Russ Ortiz will throw the first pitch next Tuesday for the National League, and while Ortiz (11-4) is having a fine season, FOX shouldn’t expect droves of viewers – especially the neglected black fan base – to tune in.
Bryan Hoch appears regularly in The Wave. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.