D-Train makes a stop on Long Island, hoping for return to the Show
CENTRAL ISLIP, New York -- Imagine you're a two-time All-Star and former World Series champion, 10 years removed from being the National League Rookie of the Year.
At 31 years old, you're still an Opening Day starter, except now it's for an independent Atlantic League team in Suffolk County, Long Island, in front of just 5,730 fans. While your former big league contemporaries are in the midst of multimillion dollar contracts, your league's guidelines recommend paying players no more than $3,000 a month (there are guys in the majors who get that for throwing a single pitch). Your start lasts 2 2/3 innings. You sustain a cracked, bleeding nail on your pitching hand fielding a comebacker in the first at-bat, and your outing ends with two unearned runs scoring on a passed ball with the bases loaded.
How would you describe that evening?
If you were Dontrelle Willis, you'd sum it up in one word:
As in: "I had fun out there, man. I really enjoyed myself."
And: "I really had a good time. It's been a long time since I've had fun out there pitching."
And: "I was really eager to go out there, have fun and really mix it up."
After his first start for the Ducks on Friday night, Willis' pearly smile and diamond earrings glistened as he spoke glowingly about playing in relative anonymity during what could have been the prime of his career. On the mound, the man once known as D-Train had worn his familiar number 35 with the bill on his cap straight as ever, though his delivery was a somewhat muted variation of the old twisting, high-kicking windup that made him famous.
In his short outing, Willis threw just 52 pitches, 29 for strikes. He allowed three hits, two walks and one unearned run with only two strikeouts in Long Island's 9-5 win at Bethpage Ballpark. Yet even such pedestrian numbers couldn't dampen his enthusiasm. When asked about that fateful passed ball, he laughed and said, "I'm glad my ball is moving."
That settles it. Dontrelle Willis is enjoying himself. The southpaw is saying all the right things one year after a stormy departure from the Orioles organization in which he left the team without permission in April and announced his retirement at age 30 in July. He came out of retirement in January to sign a minor league deal with the Cubs but he made just one spring training appearance that lasted seven pitches before leaving with shoulder tightness. After being released by the Cubs he signed with the Ducks in early April in hopes of returning to the Show.
Willis is just the latest former MLB headliner to try to return to the majors by way of Long Island. Nelson Figueroa and Carlos Baerga are among those who actually made it back to the bigs, and several others, such as Carl Everett, Edgardo Alfonzo and Jose Offerman, have passed through at the end of their professional careers.
This year's Ducks feature not just Willis but catcher Ramon Castro, pitcher Ian Snell and infielder Ben Broussard. Castro, who hit the go-ahead three-run home run on Friday (proving that you never know which 2003 Florida Marlin will steal the spotlight) said, "We're here for a reason: to have scouts watch us play, stay healthy and try to go back to the big leagues."
That's part of why Willis and Castro are still playing. It's also why onetime American League (you know, that other AL) MVP Vladimir Guerrero signed with the Ducks, though he's spent the early part of this season in the Dominican Republic for what the team calls personal reasons.
Ducks manager Kevin Baez, himself a former major leaguer who played for the New York Mets in the early '90s, rejects the idea that part of his job is to make sure the ex-star's stay on Long Island is brief.
"We play to win," he says. "We're not a rehab or anything like that."
No one has seen more former big leaguers pass through the team's clubhouse than Ray Navarette, the Greatest Long Island Duck Ever. Navarette, a second baseman who is in his eighth season with the team, has played affiliated ball up to the AAA level and is the franchise's all-time leader in a host of offensive statistics, including home runs and RBIs.
Guys like Willis are hoping for a Ducks tenure that doesn't allow for any career records at all, but despite that, says Navarette, Willis has done everything he can to fit into his new clubhouse. "He's acted like he's been with us for a long time," says the Ducks veteran. "He hasn't acted like he's been in a better place or has accomplished a lot more. We all know that he has."
On the contrary, Willis' attitude has been key in keeping the team loose during a slow start in which Long Island lost its first six games. "He's loud, he's vibrant, he's always smiling, and all he keeps saying is he's here with us, he's grinding with us, and he's pulling for us," says Navarette. "He's got one of those electric personalities where everyone just feeds off him."
Why is Willis so positive? Because he doesn't see what he's facing as adversity.
"We enjoy where we're at," he says. "When you're blessed to get a chance to go out there and play baseball, you really want to have a good time doing it."
It's hard to dispute that Willis has achieved that goal. But can he get back to the Show?
Willis doesn't know, of course. But he'll certainly have fun trying.