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Former Cubs draftee Dontrelle Willis is back and hoping to return to form

FloridMarlins starting pitcher Dontrelle Willis fires plate against Montreal Expos during first inning  Montreal Sunday July 13 2003 (AP

Florida Marlins starting pitcher Dontrelle Willis fires to the plate against the Montreal Expos during the first inning in Montreal Sunday, July 13, 2003 (AP Photo/Andre Pichette)

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Updated: March 22, 2013 10:45AM



MESA, Ariz. – Dontrelle Willis can dream.

But he’s in no place to do that – mentally or literally – as he unpacks his belongings and moves into a locker in the Cubs’ minor-league clubhouse Wednesday afternoon.

A few hours earlier the same room was bustling with big-league ballplayers, including seven-time All-Star Alfonso Soriano, who occupied the stall that now belongs to Willis.

Now the room is quiet and strewn with box parts and tape, after the big leaguers cleared out to move up the street for the start of spring training games, Willis having come in a back door after everyone else was gone to claim his place and get to work.

``You just never know. Crazier things have happened,’’ says the left-hander with a World Series ring, a 22-win season, two All-Star appearances and more baffling setbacks in his career than victories since then.

``But you have to be straight with yourself,’’ he adds. ``Let’s take baby steps here. I was out of baseball four months ago, so to be in the big leagues – let’s just be humble and work hard and go from there.’’

It’s hard to get more humble than Fitch Park on a cold, rainy day in February.

``I was telling my family, we laugh about it, that I’m actually in the same locker room as I was when I was 18, 19 years old,’’ he says. ``That’s a really cool feeling that everything comes full circle.’’

He can hope. At some point maybe dream.

For now, the man once known as the D-Train – a guy who at one time joined Ken Griffey Jr. as one of only two major leaguers who had a Nike shoe named after him – returns to his original organization at 31 the way he left at 20 in that ill-fated trade to the Florida Marlins: as a minor-leaguer far from the big leagues with a lot to prove.

The Cubs plan to use him at least early in the Cactus League schedule as a backup in games for the scheduled pitchers.

And Willis, who wound up here in large part through relationships he has with several people in the organization, said he’s preparing for any role, including possible relief, despite the fact he’s started in all but three of his 205 big-league games and that media reports said a disagreement over his role was behind his sudden exit and “retirement” from the Baltimore Orioles’ AAA affiliate last summer.

Of that official retirement, he said Wednesday it was all about ``an illness in the family’’ that forced him to return home to Scottsdale, Ariz.

``Once everything got better with the situation, now everybody wanted me to get out,’’ he said, laughing.

The confusion over the split with the Orioles is just part of that lengthy, improbable, and surreal path he took to wind up back where he started.

It’s a path that took him to the top of the game barely a year after the trade – winning 14 games and the Rookie of the Year award in 2003 for the Marlins team that broke Cub fans’ hearts, the following that up two years later with a 22-10 season that put him second to Chris Carpenter in Cy Young voting.

He never had a winning season again, his ERA and walk rates rising as he went first to Detroit in the Miguel Cabrera trade, then to five more organizations in three years – winning just four big-league games the last five years combined.

What happened?

``I don’t know, man,’’ says Willis, who more than once was put on the disabled list by the Tigers for anxiety disorder after repeated bouts of the “yips,” though the clinical depth of the diagnoses isn’t clear, and he wasn’t prescribed medication.

``I get asked that all the time, and I don’t really care enough to really – I’m not that complex of a guy. … Maybe in Detroit I was trying too hard. … When you’re trying hard and stuff like that, then it gets complex.

``But then after that I had fun playing baseball again.’’

Whether he ever wears a Cubs uniform on the mound at Wrigley Field, Willis will always have a place etched painfully into the heart of Cubs lore as a member of the 2003 Marlins – coincidentally the starting pitcher who was shelled by the Cubs in a loss that put the Marlins down three games to one and set the stage for infamy.

Three days later, he pitched an inning of relief of the fateful Game 6 and was in the dugout when Moises Alou and Steve Bartman converged.

``When that happened, I’ll never forget [catcher] Mike Redmond,’’ Willis says, ``who yells in the dugout, `Let’s make that guy famous!’

``If you tried to play it out again, it probably wouldn’t happen. You probably wouldn’t get those hits; [Alex] Gonzalez, a Gold Glover, he probably doesn’t boot that ball. It’s just the stars were aligned right, and it just fell our way.

``To be able to beat a team that was probably one of the better Cubs teams of all time, it’s probably one of the monumental victories for us. Going into Yankee Stadium was actually easier, if you believe it or not, than going into Wrigley.

``I mean, you could smell it, going in there. It’s 3-1, it’s 100 years. … It’s the reason we love sports, because there’s always a sense you might be part of something great, or see something great.’’

Maybe that helps explain why he’s here on this day, unpacking boxes, claiming a spot in another minor-league clubhouse.

``It goes fast,’’ he says when reminded that Bartman game was nearly 10 years ago. ``Some of the coaches have been telling stories about how they kicked my butt. It’s fun in that aspect.

``But,’’ he adds, snapping his fingers, ``it’s gone like that.’’



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