Unless you live under a rock, you no doubt have heard the name Dontrelle Willis by now. Even the non-sports fan has been introduced to the beaming smile, tilted cap, and high leg kick of the "D-Train." The 21-year-old rookie phenom of the Florida Marlins has turned baseball on its ear since breaking into the big leagues with a win in his first start May 9.
In a mere three months, Willis has been named an All Star, the youngest pitcher to be so honored since Dwight Gooden in 1985. He was also named NL Pitcher and Rookie of the Month for June after going 5-0 with a 1.04 ERA, the first Marlins rookie to accomplish that. Oh, and he has already tied the Marlins rookie record for wins in a season, all the while endearing himself to the American sports public and becoming a cover boy for countless publications from here to Bristol.
Before Willis arrived on the scene, the Marlins were a slumping sub-.500 team. He's been the catalyst in the Marlins' resurgence since Jack McKeon was named the new skipper. In fact, the club sports baseball's second-best record since May 23 and has gone from a basement dweller to a Wild Card contender.
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The D-Train has also meant a huge jump in box-office receipts, as his starts have put some 5,000 more fans on average in Pro Player Stadium. Two of this year's D-Train crowds even surpassed the seldom-seen 30,000 mark, including 37,735 who came out to see Willis outduel Arizona ace and future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.
Yet, even though the numbers are hard to ignore, Willis' story has real personality, and it is this part of the young man that helps him transcend the stats and makes him so electric. He strikes you as a shy guy, the one who seems almost apologetic and embarrassed by all the attention. When asked if the newfound fame has helped his social life, he confesses that his life outside of baseball is not real social. "I don't even have a girlfriend," he says. "I'm an in-house person. I stay at home when I'm not [at the ballpark]. I don't have any time for that stuff right now. I basically [pitch], play video games, and watch TV."
Wow, not what one would expect from a guy who has the world at his fingertips. But then again, Willis has been surprising us since he first set foot in Miami. The on-field persona is fiery and energetic, the off-field demeanor mellow and reserved. But one thing remains constant for Willis: This newfound fame will not change the young man. "This is me," he says. "I'm kinda simple. What you see is what you get."
With all the D-Train pandemonium, a bobblehead night had to follow, natch. It's not the Marlins who have struck first but rather Willis' former Minor League team, the Jupiter Hammerheads. The first 2,000 fans through the gates this Saturday receive one of the bobbling baseball novelties. Come early, because these bobbleheads will go as quickly as Dontrelle's fastball. -- Russ Evans